Ex-PM Blair’s speech at Uniting for the Future

Address by Tony Blair, 2 September 2013

[as transcribed from recording]

Thank you very much Dr., that was an interesting introduction. You covered a lot there. Just for the record, no, I am not being paid; I am here because you invited me. I am here also because I believe in the process of reconciliation.  Many areas of the world that I have worked in, reconciliation is a huge challenge – a difficult challenge. It’s one that’s worth engaging in, and because I know that colors are very politicized here in Thailand. I have got a blue tie on, so I will be safe. In my country by the way, I wouldn’t be.

So, first of all it’s very important to say I am really delighted to be back here in Thailand. I am particularly honoured to be sharing a platform with Priscilla Hayner and also someone whose long track record on issues to do with harmony and reconciliation. And with my good friend, former President of Finland Martti Ahtisaari, who is a Nobel Prize winner but also someone who I know from my time working with in office is someone with deep wisdom and understanding of this issue and has been a huge contribution to world peace over the years.

Something we should just get out of the way at the very beginning: In the end Thailand’s problems will be solved by Thais, not by outsiders. So we are here not to give lectures but to share experience and in the end how these problems are resolved are going to be issues that you are going to have to tackle over here. But it seems to be very sensible as we often did, by the way, particularly in the process of peace in Northern Ireland, to simply learn from the experiences of people from around the world. And I was heavily involved with the Northern Ireland peace process, in the Middle East peace process as well. As the Dr. indicated, I just came from the Middle East this morning and also to a degree in what happened during my time in office in the Balkans, both President Ahtisaari and myself are veterans of European council meetings which are a perpetual process of reconciliation, certainly from my experience.

What I am about to talk to you about today are the lessons I can take from my own experience and what, if you interested in listening then, I would like to summarize for you. I am going to put before you five things, five principles of what I learnt from engaging in peace process reconciliation over the years. And the first is this: reconciliation happened when the sense of shared opportunity is greater than the separate sense of grievance. In other words, your role is you are going to have a situation in which that sense of grievance is there. That’s why there is something that is the subject matter for the debate about reconciliation. But the context in which reconciliation works is a context in which that sense that there is a tremendous opportunity that people want to share. That shared opportunity becomes more important for people to achieve than to dwell on past grievances.

And here for Thailand – if I can offer this view as an outsider – this is a country of extraordinary potential. Its economy is growing in an amazing way in these last few decades. It’s a world leader in many aspects of industry and services, automobiles, hard disks, tourism. In term of population, around 67 million, it is one of the largest countries in the world today. A country that is rich in culture and history. And the challenges are very obvious: — challenges to do with inequality, poverty, particularly rural poverty, challenges that we all have on education systems and healthcare, and of course the challenge of how the country reaches the next stage of development. It has come a long way in these past decades, but I know from the friends I have here that there is a powerful sense that the country has to aspire to a new stage of development. But there is no doubt that if you analyze the situation of Thailand objectively, it is a country that could and should become a regional and even a global power, so I would say that the shared sense of opportunity and potential is extraordinarily large. But of course what it needs is a united determination to overcome the strong feelings about the past in order to develop and exploit that shared sense of opportunity. For example, in Northern Ireland what we found was that one of the ways in which we brought about reconciliation was that people started to understand that the North of Ireland and the South of Ireland, they can actually do an immense amount together economically within the European Union. There is a whole series of potential opportunities that were being squandered as a result of the disagreement, and that created a sense in which people felt, look, there is an enormous amount of opportunity, so let’s find a way of reconciling our differences so that we can grasp that opportunity and move the island of Ireland forward. In Israel-Palestine right now, there should be that sense of shared opportunity, but the question is: will it happen. As a result of the efforts of John Kerry, who has done this with remarkable vigor and determination, now we’ve got the peace process back on track between the Israelis and Palestinians. One thing that will be very important is that the context of that peace negotiation has got to be one in which people feel: look there is a bigger prize here that we can grasp before preparing to reconcile our differences. That is the first thing — there’s got to be a galvanizing sense of shared opportunity that overcomes the separate sense of grievance.

The second principle is – a situation in which you talk about reconciliation necessarily means there is a deep and profound disagreement, a difference which has to be reconciled, and the second principle that I learnt from my experience is that the past can be honestly examined, but it can never be judged in a way that is going to be to the satisfaction of everyone. And so you have to accept there are going to remain two sides with their own narrative about the past. That, in a way, you’re never going to get over. However, you can honestly examine the past in a way that allows you to move forward for the future. So again here I would say that the hardest thing is to be able to accept that that sense of grievance will never be fully healed, but nonetheless to accept that you are going to move forward in any event.

So to give you some very obvious examples from my experience, one of the toughest things in the Northern Ireland context and in the Middle East context is the release of prisoners, because there are two separate narratives about Northern Ireland. One is that the IRA were terrorists who were killing innocent people. And that is the view that the Unionist Community had in Northern Ireland and has today, it has not changed. And the other narrative, from the Republican side, is that these people were freedom fighters, and they were repressed by the British, and by the Unionist Community. And they’re not going to change that view of the past. So in other words, reconciliation is never going to be about people changing their mind about the past. It is really going to be about changing the mind about the future. And this is painful to do, by the way. So [Dr. Thitinan] was talking about when you were there in the UK, when I was Prime Minister, we brought about the Good Friday Agreement, which was the peace deal that allow us then to move forward. One of the items of that agreement was the release of IRA prisoners. And I have to say that when it actually happened – it was one thing to agree it, but when it happened, it very nearly destroyed the deal. Because if you were the victim of an act of terrorism, then you see these people who were responsible for it, especially if you lost a member of your family and you see these people walking free, celebrating, you are going to feel angry about it, and there is no way out of that. And one of the things that was most difficult for us was that actually the worst terrorist act, and unfortunately, the last terrorist act, came after the agreement, after the peace deal. And I remember going in and visiting, actually with President Clinton, the families of the victims of this terrorist attack in which many people lost their lives, and many people were scarred for life, and you felt the intensity, the grief and the anger. Now, some of those families actually said to me, and it was very moving that they did this: “You’ve got to carry on going for peace, because I don’t want this happening to someone else.” You can’t get that enormously altruistic and sensitive response, but it would be crazy not to accept there’s also deep anger there. For the re-launch of the Middle East peace negotiations just a few weeks ago there were prisoners released. Palestinian prisoners, but you know, the families of the Israeli victims – many of them were protesting very strongly that this was the breach of justice to release these people.

So what I am really saying here is that — and you can see this, by the way, in some of the coverage and analysis for the Truth for Conciliation Commission of Thailand here, when you study that report, you can see some of the same types of issues – the point is this: You can honestly try to examine and bring out the sense of grievance of both sides, but you are going to have to accept that that sense of grievance will remain. The task of reconciliation is not to try and abolish it, but to try and overcome it, because trying to get rid of it and excise it from people’s minds is just not going to be possible.

The third thing, however, is that if it is impossible to banish the sense of past injustice, in order for there to be reconciliation, there has to be a future framework that people will accept as just. In other words, whatever argument is carried on about what happened in the past and who was to blame, the essence of reconciliation is at least to be able to establish a framework for future cooperation that people regard as just and objective, and where the root causes of the dispute or the conflict can be addressed, and this is enormously difficult but of fundamental importance. So we would never have achieved peace in Northern Ireland but for the Good Friday Agreement, and the essential thing about the Good Friday Agreement was that it provided a way in which two communities with irreconcilable past grievances were able, nonetheless, to see there was a future way forward that was fair. And in the end, the essence was a kind of compromise, really, where the Nationalists or Republicans accepted that Northern Ireland would remain part of the UK for as long as the majority of the people of Northern Ireland wanted it, which was a big compromise because previously they had always said “No, it is the people of Ireland as a whole that should determine this”. And the Unionist Community also had to make a big compromise because they had always said that the majority should rule in Northern Ireland, but because they were always going to be the majority, that was never going to provide a basis for peace. So we had to develop a framework in which power was shared, so you had the principle from the Republican side conceded that Northern Ireland would remain part of the UK for as long as people wanted it to, and on the other side, but whilst that happened, there was going to be some sharing of power so that the Nationalist Community did not feel shut out or excluded.

In the Middle East right now, we have a framework – if we can get to the details of it – that gives us a chance to move forward on what is a framework of two states. So in a way you are accepting you’re never going to be able to reconcile the differences in the past about the creation of the state of Israel, the refugees that came from the Palestinian side, or what should be the right solution to this. In the end, people have decided that the only way this works is that alongside the state of Israel comes into being the state of Palestine – what we call the two-state solution. What I’m saying is that you can only create peace if people see, whatever the disputes about the past, the future has a framework that is fair, and seen to be fair and just, and one that also is capable of dealing with the root causes. Because usually with any conflict, there are issues around which the conflict revolves. They could be issues to do with the constitution, or issues to do with who took power and how. Those are the issues that are on the surface but usually there’s underneath some root causes, some things that have given rise to these deep differences. And, you know again, the Truth for Reconciliation Commission here discussed some of those causes and what they might be and how they might be dealt with. My point is very simple: that if you want the reconciliation process to work, you’ve got to have a framework going forward that allows those root causes to be dealt with in a way that is fair and which balances the situation in such a way that whatever people say about the past and the future, they think there’s a better chance of doing it in a way that is accepted.

The fourth principle is this: that when the purpose of what is being created as a future framework is that it’s anchored in democracy, then I would say that this principle is extremely important. The fourth principle is a genuine democracy is all that works. And a genuine democracy involves both the substance and the form of democracy together. Now what do I mean by that? Countries – I work probably now in about in twenty different countries in the world in one way or another – are often divided by factions, by class, by religion, by race, by color, so it’s not uncommon for countries to be one territory but within that territory for there to be deep divisions of one sort or another. That’s why these issues to do with reconciliation are so important the world over. So in a sense here in Thailand the divisions, you can analyze why they come about, but it’s not unusual that you will have such divisions. Each situation is unique but there are often common characteristics in those divisions. And right now as was being said earlier, all over the Middle East, for example, you’ve got experiments in democracy that’s taking place. And around the world today, there are examples of very old democracies, very new democracies, and countries that hope to be democracies.

I think there are a couple of things that are very, very clear about genuine democracy. The first is: democracy is not just a way of voting but a way of thinking. In other words, democracy is not just about how the majority takes power. It is crucially about how the majority then relates to the minority. If we look at the Middle East today, and the work I do not just in Israel and the Palestine but elsewhere, you know part of the trouble is when democracy is seen as a kind of winner takes all. Then you get the situation in which the majority comes to power and the minority feels as if they are kind of shut out and excluded. So democracy in my view works only as a concept that is pluralistic in nature. It’s not about domination by one party. It’s about a sense that you have a majority that comes to power in a democratic system but there’s still a shared space in which people cooperate and work together and actually share certain basic values. So that idea of democracy as a way of thinking and not just a way of voting is very important. And that’s what I call the substance, not just the form of democracy. And it is buttressed by a second element, which is the rule of law. The rule of law is something that I think is constantly underestimated in discussion about society, democracy, the economy, and a sense that there is a shared space of values.

And one of the things that I constantly talk about in different parts of the world, where there are countries that maybe have emerged from a period of conflict and got over the conflict and are searching for a way of anchoring their democracy securely, alongside this idea that democracy is a way of thinking and not just a way of voting is the idea that the rule of law is independently and impartially administered. And this is important for society, for citizens to believe that if they go in front of a court, the court will decide objectively. It’s important economically because if people are going to come invest in your country they need to know that there is a rule of law that will be applied in an objective way. It’s also important politically because in any system you’re going to get checks and balances, and one of the important checks and balances is an independent judiciary. And this by the way can be very difficult for political leaders. I remember when I was Prime Minister of the UK and I actually introduced for the first time in the UK a human rights legislation, which meant that fort the first time the Supreme Court in the UK, which we established, were able to overturn decisions of the executive or Parliament on the basis that they’ve offended essential human rights. And this is a very big innovation. We have a common law system – it was more common elsewhere, in America or where they have a written constitution or in Europe.  We have no written constitution in the UK and so there used to be a principle that if parliament said x then the courts couldn’t intervene. But I changed this balance of power. And what happens is, you’re Prime Minister and you pass a piece of legislation that you think is very important and the courts come in and strike it down. It’s a bit irritating when that happens from time to time. And I used to have a debate sometimes when people say to me “look, the judges are acting wrongly, they shouldn’t be doing this”. And I’d say no, we’ve given them that right and we’ve got to accept it. So I mean which they didn’t do it but we accept that they’ve done it and that they have the right to do it. But it only works on the basis, as I believe with our courts in the UK, that justice will be independently and impartially administered. So that doesn’t mean to say I agree with their decisions; I may disagree with their decisions but I believe that there is an objectivity and fairness about the actual system. So the fourth principle, I think, is this: that democracy works and works best as a source of reconciliation when it is clear that it is genuine democracy based on a pluralistic concept of society, a way of voting and thinking together, and based on genuine adherence to the rule of law.

The fifth principle is one that is very practical but is often forgotten in today’s world, that reconciliation is easier to achieve if the politics of a country as a whole is seen to be effective in delivering improvement to the people. In other words, government has a challenge of honesty and a challenge of transparency and these are very important issues. Around the world I often talk to people about obviously the need to push out corruption and systems that are transparent and accountable and so on. But very often the biggest challenge for government is not just the challenge of transparency but the challenge of efficacy; can it get things delivered for the people? One of the things I always say to any new Prime Minister that comes in is that the expectations of people are always very large. There was a famous American politician, Mario Cuomo, who once said that ‘you campaign in poetry and you govern in prose.’ So when you are campaigning, you are raising the expectations; but when you get into the government, it is tough. Then you’ve got to deliver, and that’s a lot harder. And one basic lesson is that you deliver most when you reach out and try and build bridges in a non-partisan way. And so this is where you may have a huge number of differences and disagreements about the past and you may require this process of reconciliation. But reconciliation will be easier to achieve if the government itself is operating effectively to deliver change for the people and so they feel their lives are getting better.

So one of the biggest problems we have in the Middle East right now is that the disparity between living standards in Israel and living standards in the Palestinian territory mean that unless people feel that the peace process is actually gonna bring benefit to them — and Palestinians in particular feel that they are going a rise in their living standard and additional prosperity along with the justice of the state — if they don’t feel that, they are far less inclined to put aside the differences and go for reconciliation.

So this issue to do with how you reach out and become more inclusive is very, very important. And by the way, I think one huge challenge for Western democracy today is how to get out of a paralysis of policymaking where parties engage in issues in such a partisan way that they can’t build any common bridges with each other and therefore the country can’t move forward. And if you think of what’s happened in the US, there is a paralysis in Congress that over time has been hugely debilitating and has kept back the economic recovery of the country.

So these issues to do with delivery for the people change and reform are of huge importance, and sometime they can help when you reach out beyond the partisan divide and you start cooperating in areas of policy, then it’s easier for the people to see that it is sensible to cooperate also on the basic process of the reconciliation.

So those are my five lessons or principles if you like. From the work of reconciliation that I have been engaged in when I was Prime Minister and since leaving office, and this is never easy by the way, and sometimes you go through periods when it just seems that the differences are irreconcilable and the process of reconciliation is hopeless. We reached a situation just the few months back. I was attending a meeting in the Middle East. This was before we relaunched the process. I was attending a meeting in the Middle East and people would just literary say that the situation was hopeless and we never going to be able to resolve it. And yet actually a few months later we are now having a negotiation back on track again.

We had a situation just as I left office in 2007 where in Northern Ireland, the Reverend Ian Paisley, who some of you may remember from the Northern Ireland dispute, and Martin McGuinness from the Republican movement sat down in office together in a power-sharing arrangement. If anyone had said – if I’d said in 1997 when I came into power that Martin McGuinness would sit in the same room as Ian Paisley, they would have considered me mad. And if I’d said that they would be sharing power in government together, I would have been certified. Some of you may have thought that I should have been anyway, but the fact is no one could have foreseen that development. All the smart money would have been on that being hopeless, that it is not going to happen, but it did.

So I guess my concluding thought is really this: the important thing about reconciliation is also never to give up on it. It is important, otherwise you wouldn’t be here. It is vital for the future of the country, otherwise the debate wouldn’t be happening.  And however difficult it seems and however big the gaps are, it’s worth constantly trying to reconcile, and this is where the people themselves have also got to play a role, because political leaders need to be in power. Of course leaders should lead, but it helps when they look over their shoulder to have someone behind them. And one of the things that’s in every experience I have from the Balkans through Northern Ireland and the Middle East and parts of Africa where I work in today, is in order to have reconciliation, the leader has to lead but the people have to be behind them, and you never get a reconciliation without that strong popular support pushing and enabling and empowering the leader to lead. So don’t give up, however difficult it is. Carry on, because there is a huge shared opportunity for Thailand and it would be shame to waste it and I am quite sure in the end, by the way, you won’t. So however difficult or bleak it looks right now, I am certainly here today to say reconciliation can work and where it works, it brings enormous benefit to the people.

Thank you.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s