Is the absence of violence the same thing as real peace?

Peace statue in Londonderry, Northern Ireland

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Northern Ireland has shown it can host the G8 Summit, a meeting of the leaders of the world's eight wealthiest nations, something that could never have happened during the Troubles.

But fifteen years on from the landmark Good Friday Agreement, which brought to an end 30 years of bloodshed, just how far has Northern Ireland moved along the road to real peace and reconciliation?

Further afield, what lessons can be learned from how post-conflict societies like South Africa and Guatemala have attempted to translate political settlement into true peace?

Moving on from conflict

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern signing the Good Friday Agreement.

Professor Brandon Hamber, Director of the International Conflict Research Institute (INCORE) at the University of Ulster, believes there are stages any country must go through to build peace, from political and economic reconstruction and assisting victims through to bringing polarised communities together.

He says reconciliation cannot be achieved by one single mechanism but instead requires a range of strategies.

"It is important to answer questions on complex and sensitive issues such as how do you teach the history of a conflict in school, how do you deal with memorials, should there be formal apologies and how do you deal with symbolic gestures such as flags?

"Violent conflict not only takes lives but can destroy infrastructure, livelihoods and community relationships. It is vital to have a long-term strategy for addressing social problems and inequalities."

After Good Friday

How everyday life has changed in Belfast since the Troubles

Something as simple as when and where a flag can be flown can expose underlying tensions, as shown by recent protests in Northern Ireland. Belfast city council's decision to restrict the flying of the Union flag at City Hall to specific days led to rioting. There has also been an upsurge in dissident republican activity.

So how far has Northern Ireland really moved towards reconciliation?

Professor Hamber believes progress has been made.

"The European Union has invested nearly £1.5 billion in cross community work in Northern Ireland. Former combatants and victims groups from all sides meet and work together on projects," he says.

Copy of the Good Friday Agreement

A number of Government-led initiatives have been implemented with a view to addressing the issues of the past, such as a Victims Commissioner and a conflict resolution reconciliation centre at the former Maze prison.

There have also been public inquiries looking at some of the most controversial events of the Troubles.

A wide range of initiatives have been tried in other post-conflict societies seeking to come to terms with their past.

Truth and reconciliation commission

In South Africa the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, conducted hearings into human rights crimes committed by former government and liberation movements during the apartheid era.

The mandate of the commission was to bear witness to, record and in certain cases grant amnesty to the perpetrators of crimes relating to human rights violations.

South Africa: In a place once tormented by violence an extraordinary group came together

The TRC was seen by many as a crucial component of the transition to democracy in South Africa and this model has been used by other post-conflict nations.

One of the difficult issues around truth commissions, which countries such as Argentina and the Ivory Coast have experienced, is the relationship between the commissions and criminal prosecutions.

BBC NI's political correspondent Martina Purdy believes that a South African-style truth and reconciliation commission would be very difficult to implement in Northern Ireland.

"The cynics would argue each side wants the truth about the other's actions but is not necessarily interested in putting their own actions on display. Some say that it is an issue for the future as it could damage the present. Others argue time is not on the side of the victims' families to get the truth," she says.

Learning from post-Franco Spain

Professor Hamber agrees that a truth commission may not be ideal for Northern Ireland, but he cautions against a society failing to deal with its past.

Spain: More than 100,000 people are still missing from the civil war

"In Spain after the Franco regime there was a feeling of let's move on from it, but decades on people were still looking for bodies," he says.

There are still more than 100,000 people who went missing during Spain's civil war in the 1930s, scattered in unmarked graves across the country.

After dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975, Spain attempted to move on with a general amnesty that became known as the 'Pact of Oblivion'. But the pact failed to satisfy those who wanted to know what had happened to their lost relatives, leading to a change in the way Spain dealt with its past.

In 2007, the government passed a new law providing recognition for victims from both sides. It also created the Historical Memory Documentary Centre, which made official records from the civil war available to the public.

Psychological scars

Start Quote

Judicial justice is the best form of compensation for victims, much better than money.”

End Quote Maria Tulia Lopez Perez Psychologist in Guatemala

Long-running conflicts are often measured in terms of the number of people killed and the physical damage to a country.

Maria Tulia Lopez Perez was a guerrilla fighter in Guatemala's 36 year civil-war, which ended in 1996. Now a psychologist, she stresses the importance of dealing with psychological legacy of conflict. In 2012, she told the BBC of the emotional trauma the country's search for justice is still having on its people.

At least 200,000 people died during the war. Maria's clients come to her suffering from depression, alcoholism and post-traumatic stress and physical pain from the torture they suffered.

"Judicial justice is the best form of compensation for victims, much better than money or anything else. We must also liberate the victims from all this weight they are carrying, which stops them from living normal lives," she says.

Dealing with polarisation

Another key aspect of achieving reconciliation is integrating communities divided by deeply entrenched and incompatible views.

Assessing the legacy of the peace walls in Northern Ireland

There are now more peace walls in Northern Ireland than in 1998 when the Good Friday Agreement brought the Troubles to an end. Most public housing is still segregated and only 6% of children attend integrated schools.

Martina Purdy says the issue of peace walls, which were mostly erected during the Troubles to separate clashing Protestant and Catholic communities, goes to the heart of the paradox that exists in Northern Ireland.

"Perception is nine-tenths of reality and it's true the walls are at the interface because the people who live there feel safer with the walls. Good relations are the key. I suppose the wall is a symptom of the conflict and it will take time to treat the cause."

Professor Roger Mac Ginty of the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute at the University of Manchester has worked extensively in the field of conflict resolution. Speaking on a trip to Sarajevo, a city at the heart of the bitter Bosnian War of the 1990s, he said that while top-down initiatives are important, integration and reconciliation must be driven principally by individuals and communities.

"Sarajevo is very different from twenty years ago. Even though Bosnia and many other post-conflict societies have experienced a lot of peace-building schemes the main driver in reconciliation is the need that people have to get on with things," he says.

"New generations come along and they interpret and express politics differently from their parents. They meet people from 'the other side' through work, education or social activity and realise that they are not monsters.

"So peace is a by-product of normalcy. People come together for shared economic and cultural goals. That is reconciliation."

A brighter future?

Having shown the world it can host the G8 summit, what does the future hold for Northern Ireland?

Without doubt, peace has brought about a remarkable political transformation, where sworn enemies are now in government together. Despite ongoing issues of sectarianism and segregation, Northern Ireland has come a very long way from the decades of strife that claimed more than 3,600 lives.

George Mitchell, a former US Senator, chaired the talks in the late Nineties that led to Northern Ireland's historic peace deal, known as the Good Friday Agreement.

Speaking to BBC History, Senator Mitchell reflected on the legacy of the agreement:

"Northern Ireland is indisputably more peaceful, stable, and prosperous than it was in the decades before. As I said on the day the agreement was reached, it did not by itself guarantee peace, stability and reconciliation. But it did make them possible, and thanks to the commitment of Northern Ireland's political leaders and of the vast majority of its people, progress continues toward those objectives."

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