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Brian Rowan on the Middle East Where have all the leaders gone?

The former BBC correspondent looks at the peace process in the North and asks if Israel and Palestine can ever find a similar route.

WHEN YOU THINK back into this time 30 years ago, there was no certainty about peace in the North.

On the calendar of 1993, as October turned into November, the headlines from here were about the rubble and the graves of war; about the trauma and the convulsions of conflict.

It was a crisis year. No hope, or so it seemed.

We had just experienced another of those weeks when we counted the dead from the IRA bomb on the Shankill Road in Belfast through to the pub killings at Greysteel, where loyalists took their revenge.

file-photo-dated-290807-of-northern-ireland-secretary-mo-mowlam-in-belfast-issue-date-wednesday-december-29-2021 Alamy Stock Photo The late Mo Mowlam. Alamy Stock Photo

We remember those headlines, but not so the forgotten dead of that week – the other lives lost in between one Saturday and then the next: Martin Moran, Sean Fox, James Cameron, Mark Rodgers, Gerard and Rory Cairns.

The days that are more easily recalled are those on which there were multiple deaths when we were shocked into thinking.

In my book ‘Living With Ghosts’ (a personal reflection on reporting the conflict), I wrote: “When it lasts so long, you get used to war. You can become almost indifferent, detached. Not uncaring, but, at times, not caring enough.”

Secret contacts

Back in 1993, the then SDLP leader John Hume was vilified for talking with Sinn Féin and with Gerry Adams and for daring to think that there was another way that could be shaped in dialogue and negotiations; that guns could be silenced. That peace was possible.

We learned at that time that conflict happens on two stages – one that you see. And on another that is hidden.

file-picture-dated-19598-of-ulster-unionist-leader-david-trimble-left-u2-singer-bono-and-sdlp-leader-john-hume-on-stage-for-the-yes-concert-at-the-waterfront-hall-in-belfast-the-buzz-generate Alamy Stock Photo File picture dated 19/5/98 of Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble (left), U2 singer Bono, and SDLP leader John Hume on stage for the 'YES' concert at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast. Alamy Stock Photo

In November 1993, the story emerged of secret contacts between the British Government and the IRA leadership; that quietly, through a backchannel, they too had begun some exploration of another way.

file-photo-dated-100408-of-left-to-right-albert-reynolds-then-taoiseach-bertie-ahern-and-john-hume-in-bbc-studios-belfast-where-politicians-who-negotiated-the-good-friday-agreement-gathered-to Alamy Stock Photo Albert Reynolds, Bertie Ahern and John Hume. Alamy Stock Photo

It caused an earthquake in the unionist/loyalist community. They sensed a sell-out.

Just days earlier, a huge arms shipment was caught before it arrived in Northern Ireland.

This place was still at war.


Yet, within a year, the IRA and the Combined Loyalist Military Command, had announced ceasefires that were a long beginning towards ending the long wars.

Hume and Adams were right. There was another way; and, in those developments, our learning was that before you can have peace, the trenches are dug even deeper.

Part of our journey was the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

file-archive-longroom-stormont-belfast-28th-june-2010-martin-mcguinness-ian-paisley-and-peter-robinson-at-the-portrait-unveiling-of-dr-paisley Alamy Stock Photo File Archive: longroom, Stormont Belfast, 28th June 2010. Martin McGuinness, Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson at the portrait unveiling of Dr Paisley. Alamy Stock Photo

Hume and the then Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

They are no longer with us. Part of a much longer list including Mo Mowlam, Albert Reynolds, Martin McGuinness, David Ervine, and some of the quiet peacemakers of that time, including Fr Alec Reid, the Presbyterian minister Roy Magee and Brendan Duddy (the key link in that backchannel between the British and the IRA).

file-year-2000-taken-inside-stormont-sinn-feins-gerry-adams-l-joins-the-then-us-president-bill-clinton-sinn-feins-pat-doherty-and-sinn-feins-martin-mcguinness-inside-stormont-parliament-bui Alamy Stock Photo Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams (L) joins the then US President Bill Clinton, Sinn Fein's Pat Doherty and Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness inside Stormont Parliament Buildings, Belfast. Alamy Stock Photo

Recently, I asked the question: Where have all the leaders gone?

Asked it at a moment when ceasefire has become a bad word, and when too many leaders of influence are looking the other way as we count the dead in Israel Gaza war.

Thirty years on, with all of the advances in technology, there is nowhere to hide from this conflict.

Since the Hamas attacks on 7 October, in every minute, of every day, we can see the dead – witness the horror and the anguish and listen to a commentary about humanitarian pauses and proportionate responses.

My question is the same. Where have all the leaders gone?

We needed help. From Nelson Mandela and President Clinton. From the former President of Finland Martti Ahtisaari and Cyril Ramaphosa.

belfast-northern-ireland-7th-dec-2013-floral-tributes-left-at-mandela-mural-following-the-death-of-nelson-mandela-on-the-5th-december-credit-stephen-barnesalamy-live-news Alamy Stock Photo A mural of Nelson Mandela in Belfast. Alamy Stock Photo

From Senator George Mitchell and General John de Chastelain.

Peace needs believers. Leaders. People of vision and courage and influence.

People who refuse to accept the militaristic narrative of destruction and who can see through the political blindness of war.

president-joe-biden-is-greeted-by-israeli-prime-minister-benjamin-netanyahu-after-arriving-at-ben-gurion-international-airport-wednesday-oct-18-2023-in-tel-aviv-ap-photoevan-vucci Alamy Stock Photo Netanyahu and Biden. Alamy Stock Photo

Is there such a thing as destroying Hamas without destroying Gaza?

The young and the old – their homes, the hospitals. Is that a proportionate response?

We are long past the point of humanitarian pauses.

families-and-friends-of-about-240-hostages-held-by-hamas-in-gaza-call-for-their-return-as-they-participate-in-a-five-day-march-for-the-hostages-from-tel-aviv-to-the-prime-ministers-office-in-jerusa Alamy Stock Photo Families and friends of about 240 hostages held by Hamas in Gaza call for their return as they participate in a five-day March for the Hostages from Tel Aviv to the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem. Alamy Stock Photo

The trenches in this conflict are the mass graves of the thousands dead in just the past few weeks.

Who decides what is a proportionate response?

Surely not the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu.

It has to be someone who can see beyond the understandable rage that resulted from the murders and evil and the hostage taking of 7 October.

Hard learning

In the North, we are visited by delegations from conflict zones across the world who come in search of our peace formula – as if it is some magical potion in a corked bottle.

palestinians-mourn-their-relatives-killed-in-the-israeli-bombardment-of-the-gaza-strip-in-the-hospital-in-khan-younis-wednesday-nov-15-2023-ap-photofatima-shbair Alamy Stock Photo Palestinians mourn their relatives killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip. Thousands have been killed by Israeli assaults since 7 October. Alamy Stock Photo

There is no such thing.

What we have is some learning. Hard learning, often from mistakes.

What we know is that ceasefires are an essential starting point.

WhatsApp Image 2023-11-17 at 15.58.32 Living With Ghosts by Brian Rowan.

That peace is not surrender, and nor is it victory by one side over another.

That it is not pure. For some, it’s not fair.

You can’t bring back the dead.

For those touched by the worst horrors of conflict, it is not the Past, but always the Present.

people-carry-out-dead-bodies-of-palestinians-who-lost-their-lives-during-the-attacks-of-israel-from-the-shifa-hospital-people-carry-out-dead-bodies-of-palestinians-who-lost-their-lives-during-the-a Alamy Stock Photo Palestinians have had to dig mass graves to handle the number of dead in Gaza. Alamy Stock Photo

And peace is a negotiation. Always a work in progress.

Here, politics – Stormont – has been the biggest failure of the 25-year process since Good Friday 1998.

In some places, so-called ‘peace walls’ still divide our communities.

There is a legacy war – a continuing narrative battle over the Past.

But we are in a better place, because Hume and others believed.

Where have all the leaders gone?

Brian Rowan is a journalist and author. He is a former BBC correspondent in Belfast. Brian is the author of several books on Northern Ireland’s peace process. His new book, “Living With Ghosts” is out now at Merrion Press.