Looking for Peace Within the Realms of the Possible

David Trimble

Nobel Peace Prize Lecture 1998

Your Majesties, Members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen.

The Nobel Prize for peace normally goes to named persons. This year the persons named are John Hume and myself, two politicians from Northern Ireland. And I am honoured, as John Hume is honoured, that my name should be so singled out.

If you want to hear of a possible Northern Ireland, not a Utopia, but a normal and decent society, flawed as human beings are flawed, but fair as human beings are fair, then I hope not to disappoint you.

Some suggest that I might explicate at some little length, like peace scientists so to speak, on any lessons learnt in the little laboratory of Northern Ireland.

I have, in fact, some fairly serious reservations about the merits of using any conflict, not least Northern Ireland as a model for the study, never mind the solution, of other conflicts.

In fact if anything, the opposite is true.

Let me spell this out.

I believe that a sense of the unique, specific and concrete circumstances of any situation is the first indispensable step to solving the problems posed by that situation.

Now, I wish I could say that that insight was my own. But that insight into the central role of concrete and specific circumstance is the bedrock of the political thought of a man who is universally recognised as one of the most eminent philosophers of practical politics.

I refer, of course to the eminent eighteenth century Irish political philosopher, and brilliant British Parliamentarian, Edmund Burke.

He was the most powerful and prophetic political intellect of that century. He anticipated and welcomed the American revolution. He anticipated the dark side of the French revolution. He delved deep into the roots of that political violence, based on the false notion of the perfectibility of man, which has plagued us since the French revolution.

Burke is the best model for what might be called politicians of the possible. Politicians who seek to make a working peace, not in some perfect world, that never was, but in this, the flawed world, which is our only workshop.

Because he is the philosopher of practical politics, not of visionary vapours, because his beliefs correspond to empirical experience, he may be a good general guide to the practical politics of peacemaking.

Burke was particularly acute about the problems of dealing with revolutionary violence - that political, religious and racial terrorism that comes from the pursuit of what Burke called abstract virtue, the urge to make men perfect against their will.

Amos Oz has also arrived at the same conclusion. Recently in a radio programme he was asked to define a political fanatic. He did so as follows, "A political fanatic" he said, "is someone who is more interested in you than in himself."

At first that might seem as an altruist, but look closer and you will see the terrorist.

A political fanatic is not someone who wants to perfect himself. No, he wants to perfect you. He wants to perfect you personally, to perfect you politically, to perfect you religiously, or racially, or geographically.

He wants you to change your mind, your government, your borders. He may not be able to change your race, so he will eliminate you from the perfect equation in his mind by eliminating you from the earth.

"The Jacobins," said Burke, "had little time for the imperfect."

We in Northern Ireland are not free from taint.

We have a few fanatics who dream of forcing the Ulster British people into a Utopian Irish state, more ideologically Irish than its own inhabitants actually want. We also have fanatics who dream of permanently suppressing northern nationalists in a state more supposedly British than its inhabitants actually want.

But a few fanatics are not a fundamental problem. No, the problem arises if political fanatics bury themselves within a morally legitimate political movement. Then there is a double danger. The first is that we might dismiss legitimate claims for reform because of the barbarism of terrorist groups bent on revolution.

In that situation experience would suggest that the best way forward is for democrats to carry out what the Irish writer, Eoghan Harris calls ‘acts of good authority’ – that is acts addressed to their own side.

Thus each reformist group has a moral obligation to deal with its own fanatics. The Serbian democrats must take on the Serbian fascists. The PLO must take on Hammas. In Northern Ireland, constitutional nationalists must take on republican dissident terrorists and constitutional Unionists must confront protestant terrorists.

There is a second danger. Sometimes in our search for a solution, we go into denial about the darker side of the fanatic, the darker side of human nature. Not all may agree, but we cannot ignore the existence of evil. Particularly that form of political evil that wants to perfect a person, a border at any cost.

It has many faces. Some look suspiciously like the leaders of the Serbian forces wanted for massacres such as that at Srebenice, some like those wielding absolute power in Baghdad, some like those wanted for the Omagh bombing.

Here we come again to Burke’s belief that politics proceeds not by some abstract notions or by simple appeal to the past, but by close attention to the concrete detail and circumstance of the current specific situation.

"Circumstances," says Burke, "Circumstances give in reality to every political principle, its distinguishing colour, and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind."

That is the nub of the matter. True I am sure of other conflicts. Previous precedents must not blind negotiators to the current circumstances. This first step away from abstraction and towards reality, should be followed by giving space for the possibilities for progress to develop.

What I have looked for is a peace within the realms of the possible. We could only have started from where we actually were, not from where we would have liked to be.

And we have started. And we will go on. And we will go on all the better if we walk, rather than run. If we put aside fantasy and accept the flawed nature of human enterprises. Sometimes we will stumble, maybe even go back a bit. But this need not matter if in the spirit of an old Irish proverb we say to ourselves, "Tomorrow is another day".

What we democratic politicians want in Northern Ireland is not some utopian society but a normal society. The best way to secure that normalcy is the tried and trusted method of parliamentary democracy. So the Northern Ireland Assembly is the primary institutional instrument for the development of a normal society in Northern Ireland.

Like any parliament it needs to be more than a cockpit for competing victimisations. Burke said it best, "Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and an advocate, against other agents and advocates; but Parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where not local purposes, nor local prejudices ought to guide, but the general good resulting from the general reason of the whole."

Some critics complain that I lack "the vision thing". But vision in its pure meaning is clear sight. That does not mean I have no dreams. I do. But I try to have them at night. By day I am satisfied if I can see the furthest limit of what is possible. Politics can be likened to driving at night over unfamiliar hills and mountains. Close attention must be paid to what the beam can reach and the next bend.

Both communities must leave sectarianism behind, because both created it. Each thought it had good reason to fear the other. As Namier says, the irrational is not necessarily unreasonable. Ulster Unionists, fearful of being isolated on the island, built a solid house, but it was a cold house for Catholics. And northern nationalists, although they had a roof over their heads, seemed to us as if they meant to burn the house down.

None of us are entirely innocent. But thanks to our strong sense of civil society, thanks to our religious recognition that none of us are perfect, thanks to the thousands of people from both sides who made countless acts of good authority, thanks to a tradition of parliamentary democracy which meant that paramilitarism never displaced politics, thanks to all these specific, concrete circumstances we, thank god, stopped short of that abyss that engulfed Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia and Rwanda.

Thank you for this prize for peace. We have a peace of sorts in Northern Ireland. But it is still something of an armed peace. It may seem strange that we receive the reward of a race run while the race is still not quite finished. But the paramilitaries are finished. But politics is not finished. It is the bedrock to which all societies return. Because we are the only agents of change who accept man as he is and not as someone else wants him to be.

There are two traditions in Northern Ireland. There are two main religious denominations. But there is only one true moral denomination. And it wants peace.

I am happy and honoured to accept this prize on my own behalf.

I am happy and honoured to accept this prize on behalf of all the people of Northern Ireland.

I am happy and honoured to accept the prize on behalf of all the peacemakers from throughout the British Isles and farther afield who made the Belfast Agreement that Good Friday at Stormont.

That agreement showed that the people of Northern Ireland are no petty people.

They did good work that day.

And tomorrow is now another day.

Thank you.

Oslo, 10 December 1998