The peace man cometh and brings what?
So Erik Solheim comes tomorrow. But what does he bring good news, bad news or just the mix as before — an exploratory mission as he has been largely out of the picture since he first engaged in the search for peace. Not that Solheim has not wanted to remain on centre stage.

But Norwegian domestic politics altered the complexion of the team that tried to carry the torch that Solheim had originally picked up as a facilitator. Now Oslo's internal politics has again thrust him into being a key player following the country’s election last year.

So whether his critics here like it or not he is going to remain in the forefront of any attempts to revive the stalled talks and possibly longer if he manages to convince those who seem to think that "war war"is indeed an option to "jaw jaw".

One does not know for sure whether it is purely coincidental that Solheim comes at a time when also present here is Martin McGuinness who had also played a crucial role in the conflict in his own country. The Northern Ireland conflict had dragged for three decades or so until prolonged negotiations and an agreement seem to have, on the face of it at least, written finis to a sectarian dispute that has cost the people of Northern Ireland dearly as it has our own people. McGuinness is not just an ordinary supporter of the republican cause. That is what makes his presence here important just now.

The media in Colombo has reported that he was chief negotiator for Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) at the talks that ultimately led to the peace settlement that has come to be known as the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and reached on 10 April 1998.

What is perhaps more important is that he was a senior member of the IRA and he has admitted it. Martin McGuinness has been described in various ways, depending on how extreme your Protestantism.

If, for instance, one was of Ian Paisley's frame of mind then McGuinness would be spoken of in the same terms as the LTTE's Velupillai Prabhakaran.
Even today the ageing but still fiery Rev Paisley would see McGuinness as nothing more than an IRA thug who should never have been let loose on the streets.

To date Paisley refuses to believe that the IRA has indeed given up violence and more importantly put "beyond use" the arsenal of weapons that had allowed it to challenge the British Army and kill and maim their arch enemy, the protestant community. The protestants, faithful to the last want to continue their union with Britain and reject independence and union with the Republic of Ireland.

There are those who believe that McGuinness was a member of the IRA's Army Council, the powerful body that makes policy for the IRA. McGuinness has on occasion been labelled the “IRA’s godfather of godfathers”. Those labels are largely academic now as McGuinness is one of the good guys that spearheaded the talks on the Republican side that led to the Good Friday Agreement, helped along by the skilful manoeuvring of the extremely tricky talks by former US Senator George Mitchell who chaired the negotiations.

Those who fret over delays, slow progress or no progress in such negotiations may not be aware that the first formal talks began on 7 October 1997 with eight major political parties participating. What is little known is that bringing these eight parties together was in itself a major triumph for those who did not give up in the face of acrimonious disagreements and verbal clashes. It took three years of talk and give and take to bring the eight parties to the negotiating table.

When decades of suspicion, fear and perceived discrimination lie at the heart of a nation divided, it is no easy task to wipe that slate clean with a few brush strokes. It takes painstaking and careful negotiation to even bring the warring parties together, let alone sit down and talk sense. This is why Martin McGuinness’ presence here at this crucial juncture when attempts are being made to restart the stalled discussions, is so important. McGuinness presents the public face of a man with the gun who has indeed exchanged it for a different kind of weapon — the right to be elected, sit in an assembly and legislate on behalf of the people of that war-torn part of beautiful Ireland.

He is a man who has seen both sides of the face of Republicanism at close quarters. After all, like one of Prabhakaran's commanders, McGuinness had been a senior commander in Londonderry in the 1970s.

Later, following the power-sharing executive that was established in terms of the Good Friday Agreement, he was Education Minister in Stormont in 1999 until the power-sharing arrangement with David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party as First Minister, collapsed over the IRA’s refusal at the time to surrender its weapons.

But all that is now so much water under the bridge. On 28 July last year the IRA announced that it was entering a new era in its relatively long history of militancy and terrorism. It announced that it would relinquish violence.

It said “all IRA units have been ordered to dump their arms”.
The transition from the bullet to the ballot was in the instruction that went down to all IRA members that were still committed to the pursuit of violence as a means to achieve political goals.

The IRA statement said that all members had been instructed to assist developing of purely political and democratic programmes through exclusively political means.

Here was the critical shift. It conveyed not only the changing complexion of a group that once advocated and indeed carried out terrorist acts but also the acceptance of democratic and therefore pluralistic politics as the means to political ends.

The presence, therefore, of McGuinness and Solheim at the same time surely signifies the two sides of the same coin. The former IRA commander’s task, if that word might be permitted, is to indicate to the government and the political parties in the south that flexibility and compromise are necessary concomitants of a peaceful resolution of the conflict. At the same time he needs to show the LTTE that violence and terrorism cannot be the answer, for he stands as a representative of the path of violence that was tried and failed.

He is a symbol of the face of hope and peace not of terror, not any longer. Solheim, on the other hand, is the man who has to glue the McGuinness lesson into the collective conscience of both the government and the LTTE. The current parliamentary antics of the Tamil National Alliance is certainly not the best lesson to be learnt from democratic politics. Dancing to pulled strings does not represent the triumph of democracy but the debilitation of it.

The transition of the IRA has a great lesson for all of us. Resolution and reconciliation could come with understanding and compromise. Power sharing must result in the renunciation of violence. Have we the collective courage to chart the course that the vast majority of the Irish people wanted and our people hanker after?

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