In early 1985, John Hume, the future co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and the first person to receive NDI’s Democracy Award, visited Washington, D.C., to build bipartisan support for the politics of peace in Northern Ireland. Known as a civil rights leader in the 1960s from the Bogside in Derry, he had become the leader of Northern Ireland’s Social Democratic Labor Party (SDLP) and was by then an elected member of both the British and European parliaments.
Hume was a close ally of Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Congress known as the “Friends of Ireland”, who advocated for peace and a constitutional resolution to the division between mostly Catholic “nationalists” (who seek a united Ireland) and mostly Protestant “unionists” (who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom).
During his visit, Hume was advised by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a founding member of the NDI Board of Directors, to meet with then-NDI President Brian Atwood for assistance in developing the capabilities of SDLP’s young leaders. Following their meeting, Brian informed British and Irish officials about the idea, which was enthusiastically received.
Brian subsequently visited Hume at his home in Derry and went with him to polling places during the May 1985 local elections. Brian saw Hume engage in lively and civil exchanges with rival Sinn Féin supporters at polling stations and noted that Hume and his wife, Pat, kept a kettle of soup going outside their home in the Bogside for anyone in need. It occurred to Brian later that such approaches may have contributed to eventual talks between the two parties and established relationships that later contributed to Northern Ireland’s peace process.
Following Brian’s visit, NDI dispatched a survey mission to Northern Ireland that recommended the broad outlines for political party youth leadership development. Atwood recruited Patricia Keefer, a Democratic Party activist from Ohio and voting rights organizer, to implement the program codesigned by the survey mission and the SDLP’s leaders. To help address challenges presented by Northern Ireland’s divided society, Brian brought on Padraig O’Malley, a peace and reconciliation scholar from the University of Massachusetts-Boston who had written several books on Northern Ireland and organized conferences to foster dialogue across its political divide among disputing parties and militia.
In 1985, a study mission of 15 young SDLP activists spent two weeks in Washington and Boston, engaging with Democratic party officials, elected leaders, and experts in opinion polling to learn about message development, constituent servicing, voter turnout and other matters. Democratic members of Congress provided internships. Participants in NDI’s program later went on to manage SDLP election campaigns and build the foundations of a political party that provided a strong voice for nonviolence to resolve political divisions.
NDI’s Northern Ireland program, in many ways, helped form NDI’s approach to future party building programs around the world and cemented relationships for further engagement in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. That included introducing NDI to a broad spectrum of U.S. Congressional leaders and political activists, as well as developing a long-term connection between John Hume and Brian Atwood. Programming in Northern Ireland in the 1990s focused on developing local governance structures and expanded to include work with Unionist parties.
Those experiences contributed to NDI’s foundational decision that it would work with all parties across the political spectrum that embraced democratic norms and renounced violence as a means of obtaining their goals.
NDI also used the experiences of countries that had successfully struggled with national reconciliation and democratic transition to inform the parties in Northern Ireland. In 1997, Professor O’Malley, with NDI’s support, convinced the new democratic South African government to invite all the political parties in Northern Ireland to South Africa for a strictly private “Indaba” (strategic consultancy) to gain from experiences and mediation tactics in South Africa’s transition. Leaders from Northern Ireland and South Africa sat and talked with each other in a confidential setting at an abandoned air force base for four days.
The South Africa team was headed by the country’s current president Cyril Ramaphosa of the African National Congress, and Roelf Meyer, who led the National Party’s negotiating team in the South Africa transition. President Mandela met with party leaders and encouraged them to work together for the future of their children.
Nine months later, the historic Good Friday Agreement that ended the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland was concluded. As the Agreement was being negotiated, a Northern Ireland participant in both the “Indaba” and the peace talks commented that “not a day goes by in the talks that a reference is not made to the South Africa experience. It was a turning point in our lives.”
NDI presented its 1998 Democracy Award to the leaders of the eight Northern Ireland political parties that signed the Good Friday Agreement. (For his encouragement of the peace talks, President Clinton was the U.S. awardee.) At the Awards Dinner, the honorees expressed appreciation for NDI’s engagement over the years to help find a way forward. The Northern Ireland awardees flew that night to Oslo, where John Hume and David Trimble accepted the Nobel Prize on behalf of those who built the peace.
Northern Ireland provided NDI with an early model for taking political leaders from opposing sides in a conflict environment on study missions to places where others had successfully overcome conflict. NDI has applied that approach numerous times over the years, including in 2023, just weeks before the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, when the Institute brought an 11-member multiparty delegation from Ethiopia to Belfast to learn about Northern Ireland’s peace process. During their visit, Ethiopian politicians met with political leaders, government officials, civil society organizations and community members and witnessed firsthand on-going reconciliation efforts.
Mebratu Alemu, Chairperson of the Ethiopian Political Parties Joint Council, commented that: “One of the key lessons that I learned from the Belfast study mission is the importance of political will and leadership in achieving lasting peace. It was evident that the political leaders in Northern Ireland were committed to finding a peaceful solution and were willing to take bold steps to achieve it.”
Bridges are built among participants on such delegations, and the experiences produce lasting impressions. NDI will continue to share the lessons we learned during our earliest years, working on the deeply divisive politics of Northern Ireland to help others advance their own goals of peace and progress in the wake of conflict.
Authors: Pat Merloe, Strategic Advisor to NDI, and Patricia Keefer, NDI Southern Africa Regional Director, 1986-2001
NDI is a non-profit, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that works in partnership around the world to strengthen and safeguard democratic institutions, processes, norms and values to secure a better quality of life for all. NDI envisions a world where democracy and freedom prevail, with dignity for all.