As part of his recent state visit to the UK, President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia made a stopover in Belfast. The visit, which was planned for several months, took on a new significance given the October “No” vote in a referendum to endorse the peace agreement between the Colombian government and Farc.
President Santos has routinely noted that Northern Ireland is a “reminder of what is possible” and various delegations of politicians, civil society, academia and business from Northern Ireland have interacted with the peace process in Colombia over the years. It is clear from the visit that President Santos is seeking an international mandate to continue to garner support for a perhaps revised agreement, as well as to get more funds from the UK government to support aspects of the peace process. Northern Ireland offers the president an opportunity to show that peace and compromise can work in terms of political co-operation even if aspects of the peace process remain unfinished. For example, proposals for dealing with the past have still not been agreed 18 years after formal agreement.
But being in Northern Ireland will also present challenges for President Santos on the home front. Although the international community have been helpful in the peace process, some of those who supported the “No” campaign have criticised the president for being overly focused on the international community and his standing, rather than listening to how many Colombians feel. The peace process has become about presidential politics and not genuine social engagement, some would say. The transformation of some former combatants from guerrillas into formal politicians, a key part of the failed agreement, also remains a contentious point in Colombia and one the “No” campaign exploited.
For those who oppose President Santos’s political perspective and approach to peace in Colombia, the Northern Ireland process might not be seen as a rosy example. There is a sizeable amount of the Colombian population who still see any involvement of former combatants in government as problematic. The president is walking a tightrope between maintaining international standing and support, winning over more people to his position which includes the need for compromise with the Farc, and keeping the Farc on board. The latter remains a growing challenge as proposal from those opposing the agreement seem to be focused on limiting Farc’s rights (eg to participate freely in so-called normal politics). The road ahead will indeed be bumpy.
On the positive side, it seems that most agree that a political agreement is needed to end the 50-year-old war. Colombians however clearly differ in the ways they think this should be achieved. Northern Ireland has balanced this position for years, and in that sense is a comparative case study to be taken seriously. It also highlights that peace is never a done deal, and that building peace, as obvious as it sounds, is always a process that requires constant attention and nurturing. This is as true for Colombia as Northern Ireland where distrust, separation and a legacy of violence continue to impact on how the future might look.
Published by Professor Brandon Hamber, John Hume and Thomas P O’Neill Chair in Peace based at the International Conflict Research Institute at Ulster University, Irish News, 7 November 2016.
The original article is available here, Irish News, 7 November 2016.