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Relationships on these islands: the European Union peacebuilding experience

Giada Lagana, Cardiff University

Anna Tulin-Brett, NUI Galway

Darren Litter, Queen's University Belfast


The post Second World War context required European peacebuilders to respond to a new horizon of possibilities and challenges with a significant capacity for strategic thinking. An increasing number of actors had to be included into new peacebuilding processes, which made it difficult for any single actor - whether a government, an International Governmental Organisation, a democratically elected body of politicians or the then European Community (EC) - to foster a single version of peace and reconciliation in post-conflict societies.


The specific potential of the EC/European Union (EU) to contribute to conflict prevention and peacebuilding was seen as particularly promising, given the unique mix of instruments that the Community could bring to conflicts and politically polarised lines of ethnicity, class, religion, and race. Accordingly, one of the main foci of the EU approach to peacebuilding was the matter of nurturing constructive human relationships among conflicted people. This strategy has been questioned over the years, as EU programs designed to address long-term security threats around the globe are often labelled as exogenous and immutable, and with only a limited capacity to promote democratisation and shape crisis bargaining.


However, this attention on variable outcomes has overshadowed the true essence of EU peacebuilding, which originally developed to assist those working for reconciliation by strengthening a state’s capacity for conflict management, thus producing peaceful political change. The genesis of this process started to take form during the 1980s and 1990s, having at its core the Northern Ireland experience and the initiative of the Nobel Peace Prize winner, John Hume, within the European Parliament (EP).


An online conference taking place on 10 September 2021 has been organised with the objectives of:


  1. Exploring the connections between EU peacebuilding and the work of John Hume within the EU;

  2. Providing a public forum in which to discuss theoretical and practical issues confronting cross-border relationships, Anglo-Irish relationships, and the peace process in the context of Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic;

  3. Highlighting how responses to these challenges are and were framed and influenced by EU membership; and to identify lessons for the EU’s future peace-building capacity.


Two panel-discussions will bring together academic experts and peace practitioners that, through their unique perspective and experiences, will focus theoretically and empirically on the wide range of instruments and resources the EU deployed in promoting a sustainable and strategic peace in the region. One of the most original elements of this event is its format, as it will take a ‘blended’ approach. This format will allow for a more dynamic and creative symposium, where ‘in room’ speakers (adhering to social distancing measures) will be able to engage with other speakers in the studio, but also with online participants, and with the pre-recorded films.


The first panel will be moderated by Ms Dawn Purvis and it is entitled ‘Relationships and EU Peacebuilding on the Island of Ireland’. It will be preceded by a short, pre-recorded film by Mr Stephen Barr (Senior Manager at Start360 with years of experience as a Youth Worker in Belfast) and Dr Avila Kilmurray (who amongst an impressive history of grassroots work was also the Director of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland, overseeing the implementation of PEACE funding to political ex-prisoners) addressing the theme. Academic commentators – Prof. Niall Ó Dochartaigh, Prof. Cathal McCall, Dr Etain Tannam and Dr Giada Lagana - will then respond to the recorded contributions.


The second panel will be moderated by Mr Seamus McKee and it is entitled ‘Relationships and EU peacebuilding on these Islands post-Brexit.’ It will be preceded by a short, pre-recorded film by Mr Christopher Maccabe (deeply involved in the negotiations leading up to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and beyond, and in discussions with the associates of various paramilitary groups. Since 2006 he has given advice to the governments of Sri Lanka, Kosovo, Tanzania, Colombia, Lebanon, Cameroon and elsewhere on peace processes and political development) and Mr Patrick Colgan (an Irish diplomat with a long career in peacebuilding in Northern Ireland and Colombia and former Chief Executive of the Special EU Programmes Body - SEUPB) followed by an academic discussion between Prof. Katy Hayward, Dr Mary C. Murphy, Dr Jonathan Evershed and Dr Peter McLoughlin.


The keynote address will be delivered by Professor Rory Montgomery. He is a former Irish diplomat who served as Permanent Representative to the EU, Ambassador to France and Second Secretary General at the Departments of the Taoiseach and Foreign Affairs and Trade. He was a member of the Irish team which negotiated the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and the establishment of North/South institutions. He has been principal EU adviser to Enda Kenny and Simon Coveney and has worked extensively with Irish, Northern Irish, British and European politicians, and officials.


The conclusion will reflect on how the EU’s peacebuilding framework does not yet represent a coherent intellectual project, as it relies mostly on existing liberal peacebuilding approaches affiliated with restoring security, strengthening the rule of law, supporting democratic processes, delivering humanitarian assistance, and supporting economic recovery. We argue that, nonetheless, the case of Northern Ireland offers an example of how the EU’s peace support operations should not only be studied through the lens of liberal peacebuilding, but instead should be seen as self-mirroring the internal institutional dynamics of the community, in parallel with the hierarchical governance integration and the consolidation of politics within member-states. Significantly, this is also where the impact of Brexit risks to be the most disruptive on the long-term.


This event will take place between 10.00 am and 5.00 pm (GMT) on 10 September 2021. Further information and registration here: https://www.eventbrite.it/e/relationships-on-these-islands-the-european-union-peacebuilding-experience-tickets-166139027303


The event is organised by IACES with the help of Ms Anna Tulin Brett (PhD candidate at the National University of Ireland Galway) and Mr Darren Litter (PhD candidate at the Queen's University of Belfast), in partnership with the John & Pat Hume Foundation, Cardiff University and the Irish Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) ‘Communicating Europe’ Initiative 2021.

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