‘The war is over; we have to move on’: reflecting on the Northern Ireland and Bosnia & Herzegovina conflicts

‘The war is over; we have to move on’: reflecting on the Northern Ireland and Bosnia & Herzegovina conflicts
by Matthew O’HARA
20 March 2023

During the 20th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, former US President Bill Clinton described the peace agreement as a “work of genius”.

“It called for a real democracy, majority rule, minority rights, individual rights, the rule of law, the end of violence, shared political decision-making, shared economic benefits… and then let the future take its course,” he said during a Queen’s University Belfast event in 2018.

Five years later, Northern Ireland finds itself in similar circumstances remembering the peace accord.  Again, we have no government, there is fear that the institutions may never be restored, and conversations about rethinking or renegotiating aspects of the Agreement are again being considered.

As part of the Imagine Festival in association with the John and Pat Hume Foundation, an event entitled “Belfast and the Balkans: Building Common Ground” looked at the characteristics of power sharing in both Northern Ireland and Bosnia & Herzegovina, and what the commonalities and differences were between the respective conflicts and peace agreements.

The event was moderated by Professor Paul Arthur (a Director of the Graduate Program in Peace and Conflict Studies, and INCORE (International Conflict Research Institute)) and Dawn Purvis (a former MLA for the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) and former PUP Spokesperson for Women’s Affairs). A lecture was delivered by Leo Green, a researcher at Ulster University who previously served as a special advisor to the health minister in the first Northern Ireland Executive and was a Sinn Fein party political director.

Green began by highlighting some similarities and “notable differences” between the two conflicts:

“The tension of both societies can be traced back hundreds of years, but the peace agreements in both Northern Ireland and in Bosnia & Herzegovina sought to see a redistribution of power that did not focus on ethnonational lines.” 

He gave a brief history of both conflicts, how they emerged, and how they differed:

“The Troubles was a conflict that lasted three decades that resulted in nearly 4,000 dead. The Bosnian conflict lasted three years, resulting in over 100,000 deaths and 40,000 rapes.” 

With this stark comparison, Green echoed that we should never take peace for granted:

“This year and this period of the year marks the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, and although it is right we remember it, there will be a pat on the back, mostly from America about our success in preserving the peace, rather than actually making it work.”   

Green examined aspects of the type of power-sharing government called “consociationalism” and its outworking in the two places:

“Results often indicate that in a deeply divided society, [with consociationalism] there is diminishing belief of the institutions, exploitation of social identity from politicians, and an increase in regressive attitudes towards each other.

“The operation of politics is filtered through the prism of ethnonational identity, and that is why we currently have no government [in Northern Ireland].”

Turning his focus to the Bosnian conflict, Green explained that after the collapse of Yugoslavia, there was a dispute over territorial control in greater Serbia:

“This resulted in violent atrocities over the next three years, but all sides recognised that if the conflict continued, there would never be a ‘total defeat’ of one group.”

He argued that the three ethnic groups — Serbs, Bosniaks, and Croats — “made the mistake of looking at a map to carve up territory; they didn’t focus on rights, and they didn’t consider that the ethnic cleansing that had occurred in the conflict had left a lot of people displaced.” 

Green added, “They also didn’t consider that there was a large group of people living in Bosnia who did not identify as a Bosniak, Croat, or Serb.” Under the terms of the Dayton Accords, the presidency of Bosnia & Herzegovina was shared among the three ethnicities, something that the European Court of Human Rights ruled was discriminatory to those who did not identify as Bosniak, Serb, or Croat.

Green emphasised this, stating it “reinforced discrimination and did not offer human rights to those who didn’t identify as one of the three.  It also led to corruption, political deadlocks, and parties started to use their veto… Sound familiar?”

He finished with an anecdotal story about his visit to Bosnia & Herzegovina, where he met two master’s degree students.  One was a Bosniak man who lost his father during the conflict, and the other was a Croat woman whose mother gave birth to her as the hospital was being bombed:

“They both spoke about how everyone has a story to tell.  They also told me that the state has a policy of ‘one roof, two schools’, where the history isn’t taught in either school and it is left to the parents to teach their children about the history of the conflict.

“I remember feeling embarrassed with myself because I remember when the proposal of two schools under one roof was being proposed in Armagh, I thought it was a good idea.”

Green asked the two young people how they felt about reconciliation and the importance of remembrance:

“They said, ‘reconciliation is important and history is important, and it is important that we remember what happened.  But the war is over, it’s behind us, and we have to move on.”

Image by abdurahman iseni on Unsplash. 

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