With good political leaders, peace is possible

In Israel as in Northern Ireland, a better future can be achieved with the right vision


G6NN2R Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern Good Friday Agreement

April 14, 2023 10:45

There is a fundamental truth that politicians, journalists and commentators forget at their peril. Politics is about people: their lives, their hopes, their fears and, most importantly, their aspirations.

When politicians talk at their voters rather than talk to them, they are destined to fail. When the issues that the politicians themselves care about take priority over the issues their voters care about, they quickly lose the right to be heard and their relevance disappears.

The best politicians provide hope and leadership at times of peril and despair. They outline a way forward, a pathway to something better, to something reassuring, to a slightly easier and better life.

And, of course, they find solutions to the daily problems facing the country and our communities.

At a core level, all most people really seek from their politicians is a plan for their country that will ensure that their children have the opportunity for better lives, ones based on peace and hopefully prosperity.

I have thought about political leadership a great deal over the weekend. Pesach usually provides us with an opportunity to consider the world around us and our Seder nights are typically the best place to put the world to rights.

But this year, as our news was filled with heartbreak in Israel and the Palestinian territories, fear in Taiwan and murder in Kentucky, it seemed even more poignant.

At the heart of each news story, we’re reminded of what can happen to real people when politicians fail to deliver, when diplomats fail to find the right words, when ideology and the desire for power trump the needs of families and people lose faith in their governments.

There is never an excuse for violence. There are, however, consequences to all our actions, especially when our leaders fail.

In the middle of this horrendous news cycle, there has been one anniversary that reminded us of the promise of what politicians can deliver, of what can be better, of what we can expect even in the most dire of situations. That is, of course, the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

Twenty-five years ago, at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, after 3,532 deaths and countless injuries, both physical and emotional, the thought of a peace deal seemed a long shot at best and a fool’s errand at worst but the imperative to keep trying was urgent.

The Troubles were real, wherever you lived in the UK. Each one of us born after 1980 will have a memory shaped by the impact of the sectarian battles that raged in Northern Ireland, of the bomb scares and the images of devastation that were a daily feature on the news, as terror attacks both in Northern Ireland and England took a devastating toll.

My first job was in a Debenhams restaurant and during my induction, I was taught how to check the teapots for an incendiary device.

This was as normal as being shown where the teabags were kept. I was a teenager when politicians from across the sectarian divide joined the British and Irish governments in Belfast to find a way for the communities in Northern Ireland to come together and agree on a process that would deliver not just peace but a framework for devolved government and self-determination. I believed that anything was possible and peace achievable because what was the alternative? More death?

More pain? More hate? Those words are easy to type and such a view was easy to hold as an outsider, but we should neither forget nor understate the political intransigence that was at play in 1998. Each side felt genuine hate for the other. Rhetoric and ideology was uppermost, with little focus on people’s lives and their desire for something different and better.

Maintaining the status quo, however painful, is easier than reaching out to enemies.
Change was achieved through compromises that required a level of faith and trust that had no precedent.

Brave politicians really did take a step into the unknown in order to try to secure peace for their communities. It was miraculous on a biblical scale and has created a pathway to peace that can and must form a basis for other intractable conflicts throughout the world.

As much as I may be the eternal optimist, I wouldn’t for a second suggest that the job is done in Northern Ireland.

With President Biden visiting, Stormont is dysfunctional, protesters marked the anniversary of the peace deal by firebombing a police car, the terror threat has been raised from substantial to severe and we don’t yet know whether the post-Brexit settlement for Northern Ireland is sufficient to protect the fragile deal done in 1998.

But whatever happens next, we do know that people have power and politicians can choose a path of peace — or opt for more violence and more hatred. This is as true in Northern Ireland as it is in Israel.

We just have to hope that our politicians don’t do us and the world a disservice by opting for division.

Baroness Ruth Smeeth is a Labour peer.

April 14, 2023 10:45

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive