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The Role of Civil Society in Conflict Resolution: The Opsahl Commission in Northern Ireland, 1992-93

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 17, Number 2, Samhreadh/Summer 2013
pp. 86-102 | 10.1353/nhr.2013.0018

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As a historian, I have spent much of my professional life thinking and writing about the various traditions in Ireland and the historical background to the conflict in Northern Ireland. As such it was my privilege to have served as one of the seven commissioners of the 1993 Opsahl Commission. The others were Lady Lucy Faulkner, the widow of Brian Faulkner (the prime minister of Northern Ireland, 1971-72); Rev. Dr. Eric Gallagher, former president of the Methodist Church in Ireland; Eamonn Gallagher, the former European Community Director General for Fisheries; Professor Padraig O'Malley, a prominent political scientist; and Professor Ruth Lister, a leading academic in social policy. This is my personal recollection and analysis of the process.

The Opsahl Commission was an independent public inquiry, entirely separate from government and state authorities. It was headed up by Professor Torkel Opsahl, the highly respected Norwegian human rights lawyer. He had retained an interest in the Northern Ireland conflict since he acted as the European Commission of Human Rights rapporteur on the Irish government's case against Britain for the ill-treatment of internees in 1971. In 1991 and 1992, when such a commission was first envisaged, all-party political talks had collapsed for a second time in two years. There seemed to be a vacuum in constructive thinking in Northern Ireland, in the middle of perhaps the worst period of tit-for-tat sectarian killings since the early 1970s. Nearly everybody that we spoke to wanted their politicians to return to the talks table, but there was considerable frustration at the lack of public "ownership" of the process.

It was the first time I had heard that term "ownership" used in the context of the peace process in Northern Ireland and I was bemused by it then. I am not now. What was being said was that the resolution of conflict must involve society as a whole, for if people do not feel that they have played some part in what emerges, their commitment to making it work will be dramatically reduced. These seemingly self-evident concepts are central to the very notion of a civil society.

The idea of giving a voice to "ordinary people" had come from a brainstorming session between Robin Wilson (then editor of Fortnight Magazine) and Simon Lee (professor of jurisprudence at Queens University Belfast) late in 1991. They then set up a citizens' inquiry to be called "Initiative '92" to prepare the ground for what would become the Opsahl Commission. Wilson and Lee raised the finance, persuaded 220 patrons and a team of dedicated field researchers to prepare the way and gain the trust of those very people who felt disenfranchised and had "turned off" politics: most notably women, working-class Protestants, republicans, and the young.

The idea was to have a totally independent commission, which would seek submissions from any group or person about ways forward in Northern Ireland. Those who felt inhibited by this were to be helped to be heard; confidential focus groups and private sessions were also to be facilitated. Such gathering of information was to be followed up by public sessions all over Northern Ireland (nineteen sessions in eleven different venues), as well as two Schools Assemblies in Derry and Belfast—in addition to a number of confidential sessions with leading figures. The project adapted a logo of a microphone being placed into someone's hand, with the legend, "Your Chance to Speak." By its end, some 3,000 people and groups were involved in submissions. At the outset, the Commission was criticized by a number of politicians, but the northern press welcomed the initiative as something new. In the end every party—including Sinn Féin and the emerging loyalist political parties, the Ulster Democratic Party and Progressive Unionist Party—talked with us. The format of the Opsahl Commission has been followed by every subsequent commission. The principle that the public as well as the elected politicians deserve to be consulted is now generally accepted. I think, too, that giving people responsibility for the future also brings about some measure of acceptance of responsibility for the past.

We started work just before Christmas 1992, sifting through the...



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