How HK can avoid the tragic mistakes of Northern Ireland

October 17, 2019 08:00
Dialogue and the willingness to listen to the other side are essential to reaching a compromise and an agreement to end the Hong Kong unrest, the author says, recalling a conflict he covered in Northern Ireland in the past. Photo: Reuters

Kevin Boyle was a Northern Ireland-born human rights activist, barrister and educator. As a law lecturer in January 1969, in defiance of an appeal from the government of the day for a temporary end to protest, he and other activists led a peoples’ democracy march from Derry to Belfast. On January 4, they were attacked by 300 people armed with stones and iron bars who opposed their demands. The police standing nearby did little to intervene; this irreparably damaged their credibility among the nationalist community.

This clash, known as the Burntollet Bridge ambush, was the start of the so-called Troubles in Northern Ireland. They lasted for 29 years and killed 3,500, half of them civilians, and left more than 47,500 injured. Of the dead, 186 were children aged 16 and below. The Troubles were ended by the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which was signed by the British and Irish governments.

“It was not worth a single life,” Boyle said in an interview in 2006. “I am tormented by the fact that, as a young activist, I was involved in something which, without ever intending it to be the outcome, had helped trigger the Troubles. I struggled with it for the rest of my life.” Boyle passed away in December 2010, aged 67.

The Troubles devastated Northern Ireland’s economy. It led to large-scale emigration of qualified people, the closing down of the tourism industry and a sharp fall in investment -- domestic and foreign. Only substantial subsidies from the British government maintained the living standards of its residents.

In 1955, Northern Ireland accounted for 38 percent of the output of the whole of Ireland and was the economic powerhouse of the island. Today this has flipped; in terms of the disparity of GDP per person, the comparison between Northern Ireland and the Republic would be similar to the disparity between the United States and Mexico or Iran.

Does the story of Northern Ireland, and Kevin Boyle, have lessons for Hong Kong, now in its fourth month of anti-government protests and mass demonstrations?

The historical and economic background is completely different. Hong Kong is one of the wealthiest cities in the world, with negligible unemployment, and a population 92 percent Han Chinese. Northern Ireland is divided between two groups, Protestant and Catholic. During the Troubles, unemployment in Catholic areas exceeded 20 percent, providing easy recruitment for paramilitary groups.

The greatest difference is that the unrest here is only a few months old, No one has been killed. All the stakeholders have an interest in restoring peace and prosperity. In contrast to Northern Ireland, Hong Kong is blessed.

The reason it took so long to broker an agreement there was that so much blood had been shed and bitterness created. Neither side wanted to compromise. The pain runs so deep that Ireland still struggles to deal with the legacy of the past, even though it is 50 years since the outbreak of the Troubles and 21 years since the Good Friday Agreement.

The main architect of the Agreement was George Mitchell, a former US Democratic Senator from Maine.

“I did not have much exposure to the issue before and had never been to Northern Ireland before," Maine said in an interview published on April 10, 2018. "By the time the talks began, I had been there for a year and a half, and so I had gained a sense of how difficult it would be and how violent it would be, and the talks themselves were extremely difficult.

“Before the day of success, we had about 700 days of failure. It was a long, tough grind. I chaired three separate sets of negotiations over a span of five years … The people are great, they're energetic, productive ... somewhat prone to dispute, and argumentative, but nobody's perfect. Leaders at that time of Northern Ireland demonstrated tremendous courage and vision in reaching that agreement in a very difficult and dangerous circumstance, and so far, the peace has held," he said.

It required years of effort by Mitchell, the British and Irish governments and the political parties of Northern Ireland to reach the agreement. In the end, one of the major parties, the Democratic Unionists, rejected the deal. This is the same party that does not accept the Irish backstop as part of a proposed Brexit deal.

Reaching the agreement needed months of patient diplomacy, much of it secret. The parties had to give concessions they did not wish to make and which they knew some of their supporters would oppose.

Those involved in the negotiations said violence was part of the problem, not the solution. Violence aims to polarize opinion, while negotiations aim to bring them together. Those who took part in the talks-process had to affirm their commitment to democratic and exclusively peaceful means.

The lesson for Hong Kong is that the mass protests are young and still controllable. Dialogue and the willingness to listen to the other side are essential to reach compromises and an agreement. This window of opportunity is open – but it may not be for a long time.

If violence escalates and people are killed, this window may close and the situation may spiral, as it did in Northern Ireland after the Burntollet Bridge ambush, out of control. Let us hope and pray that the stakeholders here remember the words of Kevin Boyle, reflect on what has happened and avoid the tragic mistakes of Northern Ireland.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.