Ireland’s Experience and Hopes for Peace: Q&A with Simon Coveney

Deputy Prime Minister of Ireland, Simon Coveney, addresses the general debate of the General Assembly’s seventy-second session in September 2017. (UN Photo/Cia Pak)

“Sustaining peace is hard work. It’s not simply about a security response or keeping people apart, but it’s about the complex and lengthy process of reconciliation,” said Simon Coveney, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign and Trade Minister of Ireland, when describing what his country has learned about sustaining peace from their years of experience with peace processes.

In an effort to promote deeper conceptual and practical understanding of sustaining peace, a team from the International Peace Institute spoke with Mr. Coveney during his recent visit to New York. The conversation covered many topics, including his country’s hope to work on resolving ever-changing conflicts by being back on the UN Security Council and the current reform efforts of Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. 

“One of the really positive things about the UN right now—and there are plenty of negatives in terms of people and countries challenging the authority and the credibility of the UN—is that we have a leader who is a real reformer, who is not only trying to reform one or two elements of UN responsibility, but actually four or five at the same time, which is very ambitious, but also very worthy. He will have a strong ally in Ireland, who hopefully can have a big impact,” said Mr. Coveney. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Drawing on your country’s experience in the Northern Ireland peace process and its many contributions to peacekeeping, what does sustaining peace mean for you in practice?

It’s always dangerous to make too many parallels between different peace processes because they are distinct and require different solutions. We are reminded in Ireland that it has been 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement, which was the foundation for a successful peace process. But there has been no government in Northern Ireland for 14 months because of differences of opinion, difference linked to identity, to the past, to legacy, and to pain and conflict, so we need to keep working on the politics of reconciliation and looking forward rather than backwards. Even two decades later, that’s still a challenge.

People talk sometimes about a peace process or post-conflict management as if there is an easy start and finish. That’s not the way it works from our experience. It sometimes takes a generation to actually work out new ways of living, building new perspectives and trust as part of a reconciliation process.

To start, the peace process is the absence of violence, but then a long and difficult progression needs to be sustained over time. As a peacekeeping nation it’s actually something that Irish people are very proud of. We have a longer unbroken record of peacekeeping across the world than any other country in the UN, 60 years, and we still have a big presence in some of the most volatile parts of the world—Southern Lebanon, the Golan Heights, Mali, and others. In fact, Ireland’s whole defense and military infrastructure is built around peacekeeping.

We are a country that is having an internal debate around the need to create a more intelligent response in the context of overseas development aid, security, and peacekeeping, and how those three issues can be merged into single policy initiatives, which is also what the UN is trying to do right now. So undoubtedly, peacekeeping, or peace enforcement, or disarmament, or whatever the focus may be is hugely important for peoples or regions that would otherwise be at war.

More importantly, it is the politics of putting new structures in place that can create a permanent absence of conflict and a permanent set of conditions that don’t require soldiers to keep people apart. This is what Ireland wants to be a part of discussing at an international level now.

I think that Ireland’s commitment to peacekeeping is accepted, but we want to go beyond that towards peace management. We are interested in, for example, Colombia, in terms of how that peace process has gotten to where it is today, and the Middle East peace process where politics and not soldiers is the answer, but also in courageous decision-making, a willingness to take risks, and in having the security apparatus to then reinforce that. That is where we need to be. We’re a small country but we have some big ideas when it comes to peacekeeping and making peace processes stick and work.

There aren’t too many peace processes, unfortunately, that have worked. Ireland is one of the few—hopefully Colombia will be another—and we would like to see more peace processes that can sustain and transform over time into normal society, which is ultimately what we’re trying to create.

The leadership of member states is key to the success of the sustaining peace framework or agenda. What role do you see Ireland playing in this regard?

Ireland, and other countries and influential individuals, need to speak up. If that doesn’t happen, institutions responsible for everything from humanitarian assistance to peacekeeping operations can easily switch into default mode, where next year is the same as this year, plus or minus two or three percent in terms of budgets.

There needs to be people who are constantly questioning whether UN structures are still appropriate and effective enough or whether there’s new thinking that if adopted could change outcomes. I hope that Ireland is seen as a country that is not afraid to speak up in that regard.

We need to ensure that, first of all, we are spending money appropriately because it’s a scarce resource even in the UN. A more important question though is: are the UN and international community responding to the desperate calls and appeals of many thousands of people for intervention and help? Is the way we’ve done these things historically good enough in terms of our responsibilities to respond to those calls?

We can never say it’s good enough because this the pursuit is an ideal that requires constantly reassessing the structures, delivery systems, and reporting mechanisms to make sure that we are always improving. This is why the new UN Secretary-General is so refreshing, because he has an ambitious reform agenda, particularly in the area of peacebuilding, and we will support him very strongly in that.

I also hope that we have an opportunity in the not too distant future to be back on the UN Security Council—to have an independent voice that analyzes on the basis of the facts as we see them. This while recognizing that conflict today is very different to the conventional conflicts that we would have seen 20, 30, or 40 years ago, where often a state of war was two or more countries in conflict with each other. Now it’s often regional conflicts that involve the mass movement of people, and huge complexity in terms of broader global politics, and how power shifts and so on.

The UN is the last line of defense for many countries and communities, so we have a responsibility to ask the hard questions in terms of how we spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year. The role of Ireland is to rattle those cages, and to not be afraid to do that, and also, to contribute ourselves as a well-developed, wealthy country, with appropriate amounts of both human resources and financial resources to make sure we are a part of the solutions.

The UN Secretary-General issued his report on peacebuilding and sustaining peace last month. What should the UN system, in your view, do differently to implement some of the recommendations contained in that report?

It’s about a more coordinated effort across multiple different agencies and bodies in the UN that is being demanded here. As members of the UN, we need to help them do that, but we also need to demand that it’s done.

Some UN bodies are huge entities with incredibly large budgets, and of course they’re needed—organizations like the World Food Programme and many others that deal with post-conflict humanitarian crisis. They feed hundreds of thousands of people in refugee camps, try to educate children in very difficult and challenging conditions, or work to keep healthcare structures intact in near impossible circumstances.

The real challenge for the UN is that these interventions must continue to happen, but not in silos. Coordinated interventions can help build medium- to long-term hope that we can actually create the capacity and the resilience within communities and countries to be able to do these things for themselves.

This is where the UN has been less effective, perhaps, than we should be demanding. This is what I mean that sometimes entities respond as they did last year, but simply to a new crisis with the same structures. Some of those structures are really robust and deliver what’s needed in the immediate term, but the challenge is how to create the hybrid models that draw on the expertise that the UN has built over many decades of peacekeeping, humanitarian intervention, and crisis management, and decades of trying to impact positively in terms of political intervention and political institutional building. How do we create regional- or country-specific plans that actually provide the assistance that’s needed today, but over time lead to something that’s more sustainable and won’t involve the same extent of UN intervention in three, four, or five years’ time?

That is what the secretary-general is getting at, that we need to be more sophisticated and intelligent in terms of not simply responding to the immediate crisis, but initiating a process that creates a pathway to a better place, which is not easy by the way.

This sounds good in theory, but actually doing it with sometimes corrupt government structures, with inadequate legal systems, and of course, cultural and religious complications, is difficult. For example, when I was Minister of Defense, I spoke with former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon when he visited Ireland and asked him,“What can Ireland as a small country do that you need in terms of focused, niche, and complex demands in peacekeeping?” And he said, “We need female peacekeepers for post-conflict management, particularly in Muslim countries where you simply cannot have male soldiers interacting with female populations that may have been sexually and physically abused as part of a conflict or a war.”

We’ve tried to respond to that in terms of looking at ways we could create female-only peacekeeping units for specific types of intervention. What the UN is trying to do now is to respond to the complexity of situations across politics, security, humanitarian assistance, education, and trust-building—which will not be easy.

It will not happen overnight and what often sounds straightforward in theory is much more complex on the ground. But if we don’t try then we don’t make progress. One of the really positive things about the UN right now—and there are plenty of negatives in terms of people and countries challenging the authority and the credibility of the UN—is that we have a leader who is a real reformer, who is not only trying to reform one or two elements of UN responsibility, but actually four or five at the same time, which is very ambitious, but also very worthy. He will have a strong ally in Ireland, who hopefully can have a big impact.