Can Northern Ireland act as a template for Colombia?
- 27 March 2013
- From the section Northern Ireland
Fifteen years on from the Good Friday Agreement, there may be scepticism at home about the weaknesses of the Stormont assembly and executive.
But in some other parts of the world Northern Ireland's 1998 peace deal is still being closely studied as a potential model for resolving conflict.
As many as half a million people are thought to have died in the long running war in Colombia between the government in Bogota and the Marxist FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which control areas in the south of the Latin American country.
I was recently invited to speak about the challenges of reporting such peace negotiations to Colombian journalists and media students at Rosario University in Bogota.
Thousands of miles apart, the two conflict zones became briefly linked in 2001 when three Irish republicans were arrested by the Colombian authorities, and later convicted of training the FARC guerrillas.
Around the same time the FARC guerrillas and the Colombian government held a series of peace talks - but the process broke up amidst bitter recriminations.
Now delegates from both sides are once again at the negotiating table - although this time they are keeping the details of their discussions under wraps and staying well away from the Colombian media in seclusion in the Cuban capital of Havana.
Some key issues - like land reform - have no obvious parallel in the Stormont process.
But others - such as disarmament, the treatment of victims, and discussion of how former combatants might participate in politics are more familiar.
Maria Jimenez Dusan is one of very few journalists to have visited the Havana negotiators.
She says the talks delegates are well aware of Northern Ireland's peace process and hope it might provide a route towards a better future.
"Of all the processes in the world," she tells me "Northern Ireland is number one. It's amazing how much of a help it has been."
At Bogota's Rosario University media students have been discussing the coverage of the Northern Ireland talks and the fairly low profile reporting of the Havana discussions.
Chairing the seminar is Alvaro Sierra, editor of Colombia's weekly news magazine Semana.
Mr Sierra says that although the Colombian public may not be au fait with the Northern Ireland process, the politicians have followed it closely.
With elections due next year, Mr Sierra is cautiously optimistic that both sides appear ready to resolve their differences by talking rather than shooting.
Before anyone gets carried away drawing up parallels, it's important to point out that Colombia and Northern Ireland are very different places that have experienced very different conflicts.
Even accounting for Colombia's larger population its casualty levels have been around five times greater than the death toll during the Troubles.
Journalists trying to report politics and violence have often found themselves in the frontline - an estimated 140 Colombian journalists have been killed since the mid 1970s.
Even if the government and the FARC strike a deal, Colombia will face many other challenges from right wing paramilitaries and drugs traffickers.
That said, Northern Ireland, with its dependence on subsidies, would envy the oil, coal, emeralds, gold and coffee that have put Colombia at the forefront of South America's recent economic surge.
Maria Jimenez Dusan knows the human cost of the Colombian conflict - she lost her sister in a paramilitary massacre.
But after returning from the Havana talks she is daring to dream, telling me: "FARC, one of the oldest guerrilla organisations in the world, may be about to become a part of the political establishment here. I just wonder whether the people living in this country are ready for the change. I hope they are."