Security is probably the one issue which, according to Quintin Oliver who campaigned for a “yes” vote in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, needs to be addressed to allow the people of Cyprus to approve a peace deal, if and when that is clinched.

In an interview with CNA, during his visit to Cyprus, he urged Cypriots to seize this opportunity for a rich debate about their future and stressed the importance of a parallel public engagement process, as the leaders of the island’s two communities engage in negotiations aiming to reunite the country, divided since the 1974 Turkish invasion.

He also said that on day one of an eventual agreement there will be no radical changes, and implementation and reconciliation will take time. Quintin said that it is not the job of the international community or other people to influence an agreement. This is the job of the people of Cyprus, he stressed.

Invited to identify the core issue that needs to be overcome to enable an agreement to be reached, he replied: “Probably security, people have a deep seeded concern for their physical, emotional, political and social security; that is the first job of the government, it has to provide security.”

This, he explained, is more than policing and catching criminals. “Any agreement needs to underpin security concerns so that people feel confident that their differences will be respected, their aspirations encouraged and that there will be a framework of security for them and their future families.”

Asked about his involvement in Cyprus, Quintin said he was on the island three times in the run up to the 2004 referendum on a UN-proposed solution plan to advise some ‘yes’ campaigners on both sides of the divide, and share his experience from Northern Ireland. “But it was too late because the framing of the agreement had already been made and the structural faults in the process of the Annan plan were exposed; the plan was generated by the UN outside the country and it was not part of a multi party negotiation process,” he recalled, so it was easier to reject it.

He believes that public participation in peace making needs to start at an earlier stage. Leaders, he says, negotiate in confidentially but there needs to be a parallel public engagement process so that the people are conscious of the issues which relate to land, the right to return, compensation, the four fundamental freedoms and other matters.

“People need to understand these issues and digest them and I think this is possible this time round as we are not in the campaign,” he noted, adding that people need to feel that any agreement is fair and that is where the concept of tradeoffs comes in. Tradeoffs is a win-win situation, he tells CNA.

On his assessment of the readiness of the Cypriot people for an agreement, he had this to say: “My advice has been to accelerate that process or run the risk to have a complicated legally technical document that is hard to explain in the heat of a campaign. Explanation and preparation work needs to start now so when campaigning starts people are more clear about the choices they have to make.”
Asked what he believes people should do to move forward and get a ‘yes’ vote, he said  “This is a long standing contest, the world is looking at Cyprus and hopes that any agreement that may be reached can satisfy people that the change is progressive and productive.”
Obviously, he stressed, “it is not the job of the international community or other people to influence it, this is a job for the Cypriot people, a debate between people to people needs to be conducted with dignity, clarity and honesty.”

During his recent visit to Cyprus he has met with 25 NGOs, academics, business people, journalists, he said, replying to another question.

“I sensed there is a mood of brewing excitement, people know it is an incredible important process that seems to be nearing a positive conclusion,” he tells CNA about his meetings.

“Seize this opportunity for a rich debate about your future,” was his advice to the people of Cyprus.

On his involvement in the “yes” campaign for the Good Friday Agreement, he was invited to pin point to the one element which he believes led people in Northern Ireland to approve the GFA. “Positive change” he said, and explained that people voting in referenda want to be reassured that the change they are voting for is a risk worth taking and that the status quo from which they are going to move is going to be damaging.

Campaigners, he noted, need to argue what the positive future is going to be in a way that is credible and authentic and they need to motivate people that the change is not too risky and explain to them that the new future is not going to be milk and honey, but it is going to be realistic.

In Northern Ireland, he said, people had to choose between the killings and violence and the future, which was about how people can come to terms with their competing identities.

This was not a religious conflict, it was about land and power and identity, and the question that concerned people was whether they were British or Irish.

“The answer to that – the solution – was we can be both,” he noted, saying that this promise did not diminish the identity of the people. “That was a huge gift from the two governments, London and Dublin,” he pointed out.

The package of the deal involved tradeoffs even though some of the details were potentially explosive, he said, adding that it would be wrong to pick on a clause of an agreement without seeing the whole negotiated settlement package.

In Northern Ireland there were three steps, first the political parties agreed, then the two governments gave their consent and then the people were asked to decide and they endorsed the Agreement.

Asked about the success or not in the implementation process of the agreement, he said that violence, though not eliminated, has been reduced by 95%.

“We have power sharing institutions working, some aspects of the Agreement are slow to implement. It took 10 years for the IRA to decommission, we are still working on the removal of paramilitaries on the Loyalist side, we are still looking for bodies of disappeared, still working on the rights of victims, some things are not completed and that shows that there will not be any radical change on day one, the implementation of any agreement and reconciliation will take longer,” he explained.

On the process of reconciliation, he said people have not entirely moved on but there are some positive examples, for example 32% do not define themselves as Unionists or Nationalist.

“Reconciliation no, integration is more difficult, we worship separately, we go to different schools, there are still structural and emotional barriers to reconciliation, because the pain can be raw,” he said, noting that people remember the awful things but also recognize the need for change so that they do not happen again.

Replying to another question, he said people’s lives have improved since “the troubles” in Northern Ireland, in that 2,000 people are alive, who might have been killed in the conflict. However, the peace dividend has been slower to come, as it was damaged by the economy which has suffered as a result of the financial crisis.

Divisions of the past are so unhelpful and so damaging to future development, he told CNA and added: “I can see it on this island, the opportunity here is enormous if people can find the political structure that will guarantee their safety and protect their interests” so that the  economy can be accelerated and social cohesion too.

Asked to assess the importance of economic concerns during the time leading to the agreement and during its implementation, he acknowledged that economic matters are always important as they define the strength of a country, the likelihood of jobs, of creating wealth.

Nonetheless, in conflict societies such matters are always secondary to the bigger question of identity and for the people of Northern Ireland this question of identity was more important, he stressed.

On the impact of Brexit on the peace process, he said it had an “immediate and damaging impact as we had worked hard to make our joint institutions work and Brexit has reignited the division, it had a shock effect but our political leaders are working hard to minimise the difficulties.”

“Seize this opportunity for a rich debate about your future,” was his final word in the interview with CNA.

Quintin Oliver has a global reputation as a conflict resolution and referenda specialist, playing his part in the Northern Ireland peace process and bringing a reflective approach to his strategic counsel. He was in Cyprus as the key note speaker at a conference on “Referendums in peace processes: psychological, political and legal aspects.”

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