Peace-building is a project of generations in Northern Ireland

Peace-building is a project of generations in Northern Ireland

Nobel Peace Prize laureate, President Martti Ahtisaari may be the most distinguished Finn in international conflict resolution, but he is not the only one. When it comes to peace building, Finland has a particularly high profile in Northern Ireland where several Finns have contributed to the peace process. One of them is Aaro Suonio, who spent 13 years in Belfast working for the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. “Peace building is always a long process, but my understanding is that there’s no return to the conflict as it was.”

Life in Northern Ireland was for centuries overshadowed by violence between the Protestant majority which supported British governance and the Catholic minority which fought for a united Ireland. More recently, between the late 1960s until the late 1990s, the territory was dogged by restlessness and violence. At the beginning of 1990, British and Irish Governments started cooperating in the search for peaceful solutions to the Northern Ireland conflict, signalling the start of the peace process.

Negotiations were, however, overshadowed by the unsolved issue of decommissioning of paramilitary weapons. The Unionists, in particular, used decommissioning of the Provisional IRA weaponry as a necessary precondition for starting the talks. An earlier international body, referred to as the Mitchell Commission, which had statesman Harri Holkeri as one of its members, had in 1996 recommended that the decommissioning process should take place "to the satisfaction of an independent commission”. The Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) was officially established a year later.

President Martti Ahtisaari served as an arms inspector in Northern Ireland conflict in 2000-2001.President Martti Ahtisaari served as an arms inspector in Northern Ireland conflict in 2000-2001.

From the beginning, Finland took a prominent role in IICD as one of the three members alongside United States and Canada. Finland’s representative in the Commission was brigadier-general Tauno Nieminen, who very quickly called up Aaro Suonio to join him in Belfast. The two men had previously worked together in a crisis management operation in the Balkans.   

Why was Finland selected to take part in the peace building process of Northern Ireland?

“Credible impartiality is one of our most important assets in peace mediation,” says Suonio. Finland’s seat in the IICD had, in a sense, a balancing resonance: as a Commonwealth country Canada could be seen to have close ties to the British government, whereas the US, with its large population of Irish ancestry, had a close relationship with the Irish government.   

”The fact that few people know a lot about Finland can, in this respect, be a good thing. There is very little, if any, prejudice against us.”

A balancing act  

The first few years in Northern Ireland were memorable for the Suonio family. Belfast became a ghost town after 6 pm, after which only the police or the army patrolled the streets. In fear of bomb attacks, handbags or umbrellas were not allowed inside Belfast’s only shopping centre.        

“Everything was so new to us: colourful murals with political slogans as well as the bubbly and curious people with original accents,” Suonio reflects. “The peace negotiations right in the beginning (between UK and Irish governments, the Unionists and the Nationalists) were quite a spectacle. The international attention the process attracted felt overwhelming.”

IICD’s objective to facilitate the decommissioning was four-parted. Its tasks consisted of consulting with the two governments and other participants and relevant groups; presenting proposals to the two governments on how to achieve decommissioning; facilitating the process by observing, monitoring and verifying decommissioning; and reporting periodically on progress.  

Brigadier-general Tauno Nieminen and Aaro Suonio.For the first couple of years, Suonio worked as an aide to Mr Nieminen and as IICD’s Press Officer. From 2002, Suonio acted as Chef de Cabinet for the Commission. This meant regular liaison with the two governments and paramilitary organisations as well as briefing journalists. Due to the controversial and difficult nature of the question of decommissioning, the issue was constantly under fire by both the domestic and international press.      

”As our field was so delicate, it was very important to learn to say as little as possible as wordily as possible. Observing and verifying the decommissioning process, which in many ways was the most important part of my job, is something I will not discuss in public even now the IICD’s mandate has ended.”

When Suonio’s posting in Belfast started in 1997, no one knew when the mission would end. Some of the locals figured Suonio’s small children would be in university by the time IICD’s work would be done – which, in the end, turned out to be true. Many times during the past 13 years it seemed the different parties in question would never agree to the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. Of course there were many top moments in Suonio´s work and private life.  

“Various important political changes, meetings with Prime Ministers, visit to 10 Downing Street and certainly the disposal of weapons have stuck in my mind, as well as organising and publicising a big international press conference in less than one day. The formation of the joint North Irish Government between the two extremes was absolutely the climax,’’ says Suonio. “The support and help of my wife and sons was invaluable. My wife Taina worked for our Commission for the last five years.”  

Everything starts from the will in peace-making

Officially, IICD halted its activities in Spring 2010, and thereafter prepared the final report, which is now ready to be handed to the British and Irish governments. “The possible publication of the document depends on them,” says Suonio. “Of course we still answer the questions, but the duty of the Commission has come to an end.”

There are still fundamental political groups in Northern Ireland which don´t approve of joint governance. For long the peace process was boosted by economic growth that has since come to an end. The growth of unemployment and lack of prospects puts the youngsters in danger in Northern Ireland. “Social problems always partly underlie radicalism,” Suonio admits. “But the great majority of the population supports non-violent solutions. The biggest wounds are not bleeding anymore.”

In 1997, at the time when the Suonio family moved to Belfast, the city centre was deserted. Nowadays Belfast is a vibrant European city and it´s centre is a common area where city dwellers and youngsters of both population groups can live peacefully together.

The threat of violence still exists in Northern Ireland and Suonio tells people, that it´s good to be aware of it. However, the situation has changed since 1990s and there is no longer popular support for violence. “I always say that a peace-building process is a matter of generations. The real work only starts after international facilitation ends,’’ Suonio says. 

”One must never take achievements as a matter of course.”

Text by Tiina Heinilä, Suomen suurlähetystö
Photos by Aaro ja Taina Suonio