The road from Derry to Damascus

Foyle MP Mark Durkan.
Foyle MP Mark Durkan.
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In this article, Foyle MP Mark Durkan says the G8 leaders should look to the Northern Ireland model to help Syria today.

As the leaders of eight of the most powerful nations came together for the G8 Summit in Fermanagh this week, they would have done well to remember the difficult history of conflict on this island and found inspiration in what leaders before them were able to achieve in forging a path towards peace here.

Civilians in Syria are also looking for global leadership in finding a solution to their civil war. Tragically, former UN Special Envoy to Syria Kofi Annan’s warning that Syria would not implode but “explode” is proving true. Fighting over the past fortnight has spilled over into Turkey and has threatened the stability of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. More than 1,000 people died in renewed sectarian fighting in Iraq last month, the deadliest since 2008, and one in five people in Lebanon is now a Syrian refugee.

After two years of bloody strife, close to 90,000 Syrians are dead and regional security is under threat. There is an urgent need for a peaceful solution to the conflict built upon effective diplomacy. As the violence continues to escalate, this may sound idealistic, but the same criticism was levelled at those seeking a peace agreement that appeared far out of reach in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s. Our experience here counsels that committed diplomacy can deliver results.

Addressing this conflict should be a matter of global urgency and, therefore, a top priority for G8 leaders who must work together on formulating a unified and clear vision for peace in Syria. The costs of failure are too high to contemplate. To date, there has been a destructive and dangerous inertia between the permanent members of the Security Council. Syria is desperate for a vision of a peaceful solution before the voices demanding military intervention win the day.

The conflict is at another juncture and the G8 leaders can take significant steps to ensure that the world is united in its response both on the political and humanitarian tracks. They can demonstrate that the Russians and the United States are committed to working together. Just as there was for the Good Friday Agreement, there is a vital need for an inclusive political dialogue and a pragmatic approach that prioritises ending the conflict and protecting civilians over supporting one side to win.

Such a process should look to the Northern Ireland model of providing a forum for addressing future political arrangements with the variety of different ethnic, sectarian and political groups in the country. Crucially, it should also include a system of accountability for crimes committed during the conflict, a vital aspect of future reconciliation efforts. The process must bring together all outside actors, including the Iranians and Gulf powers, each of whom must be included if any agreement is to be implemented.

Difficult compromises will have to be made by all sides but this is the nature of effective international leadership. Peace is made between enemies, not friends.

Ending the violence will not happen overnight. But reaching a shared international vision of a peaceful diplomatic solution offers the best chance of ending the suffering of Syrian civilians, and provides an alternative to pouring more fuel on the Syrian fire.

Alongside this process, the G8 leaders must come together to effectively address the staggering humanitarian disaster in Syria and its increasingly beleaguered neighbours. As in Northern Ireland where the European Union provided financial support to the peace and diplomatic process, the G8 must commit itself similarly for the long run. The United Nations have launched the largest appeal in its history, seeking $5bn for humanitarian aid to Syria through the end of 2013 alone.

According to current projections, more than 10 million Syrians - half the population - will need international aid by the end of the year. This is more than the entire population of Ireland, North and South combined. On the same day as this gigantean appeal, the UN Security Council recognised the scale of the suffering showing a rare consensus by issuing a statement calling upon the Syrian Government “to allow immediate, safe and unhindered access” to humanitarian actors.

The G8 leaders should use their diplomatic and financial clout to make this statement meaningful for Syrian civilians in need. Although political solutions are hard an effective humanitarian response shouldn’t be.

I believe that the G8 can provide the global leadership on both the political and humanitarian fronts that could prevent further regional disintegration and save countless lives. The stability of Northern Ireland today is a reminder that even long, deep rooted and seemingly intractable conflicts can come to a peaceful end and with international cooperation born out of international diplomacy and agreement, better futures can be built.