Padraig O’Malley: Bringing peace and dialogue for four decades

Padraig O’Malley: Bringing peace and dialogue for four decades

Emrah Güler - ANKARA
Padraig O’Malley: Bringing peace and dialogue for four decades “This is a guy who has worked across both sides of the divide, in places where there is intense conflict, in South Africa, in Northern Ireland, and in Iraq,” Charles Sennot, the Boston Globe’s former Middle East Bureau Chief, says of Padraig O’Malley, the titular character in James Demo’s documentary “The Peacemaker.” 

O’Malley is the Irish mediator who has relentlessly tried to bring peace talks and dialogue to divided societies, from Northern Ireland to Kosovo and Nigeria, for more than four decades. He has written eight books on politics and divisiveness in Northern Ireland, South Africa, Israel and Palestine, among others.

O’Malley was recently in Ankara as a guest of the veteran film festival, Festival on Wheels, meeting the audience following the screening of “The Peacemaker.” 

“I think, looking at Padraig and the role he has played, we come to an irony in history,” says Mac Maharaj, the South African leader and once an advisor to Nelson Mandela in the film. “Backroom players never get acknowledged, yet they remain an essential part of the solution.” 

‘Everyone thinks their conflict is unique’

Padraig O’Malley brings in outside cultures that have suffered from similar conflict to share their stories. In 1997, he brought all the key parties of the Northern Irish peace process to South Africa to meet with Nelson Mandela at the Arniston Conference, known as the Great Indaba.

“Everyone thinks their conflict is unique. Everyone at first thinks they have little to learn from another divided society, but then they come to understand they have a lot to learn,” O’Malley told the Hürriyet Daily News at the Ankara festival. “Many have a ‘minority’ or ‘majority syndrome,’ which allows both sides to see themselves as the real victim, the real aggrieved minority, and thus each one uses that as the lens of its perspective.”

“In Northern Ireland, Irish nationalists who were mostly Catholic saw themselves as a minority within Northern Ireland, which they were, and used that perspective as its frame of reference,” he added. “The Protestants, pro-union with Britain, saw themselves as a minority in an all-Ireland state, which they would have been, and used that as their frame of reference.”

O’Malley cites certain recurring sentiments among the divided societies he has worked towards reconciliation with. These include the idea, “We all used to live peacefully together before this,” “There has never been a conflict like ours,” and “No one but ourselves can ever understand it.” Another recurring dynamic he says is “Doing the same things over and over again and expecting a different outcome, believing that no matter what happens ‘we are going to win,’ repeating acts of violence and expecting a different result.”

Thinking of the future together

Described as a “negotiating tsar” by one person in the film, another shares her interpretation of why O’Malley is the perfect mediator and peacemaker: “He is able to get people to trust him. He seems to be an ideologically neutral person, so he can get liberation fighters, Islamic terrorists, arch-conservatives all to confide in him. They will tell their story.”

For him, the qualities that make him a good mediator and a conflict resolver are simple: “Patience, patience and more patience. Persistence, persistence and more persistence. And empathy.” In “The Peacemaker,” someone refers to him as Don Quixote. O’Malley finds the resemblance pretty accurate, “in the sense that I set a goal, many people believe it not to be feasible, and then I simply relentlessly work on it.”

However, O’Malley does not see a very hopeful picture for the future of Turkey. He said Turkey’s Middle East politics will “have serious geopolitical consequences,” adding that “saying there is polarization in Turkey is a euphemistic way of saying it’s absolutely authoritarian and getting worse.” For him, “Turkey’s chances of ever getting into the European Union are gone.”

The next stop in the nearly half-century journey of this “tall, bearded, apostle-like immigrant from Dublin,” as Irish Times called him in 1975, is Kigali, Rwanda. His simple motto, “We have to think of the future together, of how we restructure everything,” is set to take him further on the road to peace.