If, after generations of conflict and oppression, the people of Iraq find their way to living with each peaceably, there is a chance that South Africa’s story as told by three of its central actors, Cyril Ramaphosa, Roelf Meyer and Mac Maharaj, will have been the catalyst.

This magnificent South African trio, along with former enemies from Northern Ireland whom they also inspired to find each other, has been working its quiet magic on senior leaders of all Iraq’s political parties. The results thus far include the Helsinki Agreement, signed in Baghdad on July 8th by 37 Iraqi leaders from across the spectrum, setting out “principles and mechanisms” to guide the daunting journey to a new Iraq.

The herdsman, in Meyer’s phrase, who brought the South Africans and Northern Irish together for this project, is Padraig O’Malley, author of the acclaimed biography of Maharaj,  Shades of Difference. A scholar and mediator, O’Malley spent to better part of a lifetime working to end the conflict in Northern Ireland before chronicling the negotiations that brought down the curtain on apartheid. His exhaustive interviews, available on the Internet, are the fullest available record of that process.

O’Malley believes that the people best placed to help protagonists in divided societies resolve their differences are protagonists who have done it themselves.  He helped arrange a meeting at Arniston in July 1997 between the top negotiators of South Africa’s “miracle” and their equivalents in the Northern Ireland parties who were still groping for answers.

The Northern Irish reached their turning point, the Good Friday Agreement, a year later and continue to pay tribute to the South Africans for opening their hearts and political imaginations to what was possible.

Participants at the Arniston meeting included Martin McGuiness, chief negotiator for Sinn Fein, Jeffrey Donaldson, a hard line Unionist, John, now Lord, Alderdice, of the non-sectarian Alliance party and Billy Hutchinson of the Protestant paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force.  The South Africans were Ramaphosa and Meyer, the ANC and government negotiators, Maharaj, former CODESA co-secretary, and the indispensable Matthews Phosa.

At a conference in January 2007, O’Malley put the question: might Iraqi parties benefit from the South African and Northern Irish experience?  The response was positive. The Arniston group was reunited. Iraqi trust was won.  Meetings were held in Finland and Baghdad, the latest fruit of which is the Helsinki Agreement containing 17 “general principles of joint national action” and 15 “implementation mechanisms”.

An extraordinary piece of informal diplomacy, but does it bind? Not yet, as O’Malley and his team readily testified this week before a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee in Washington.  The achievement is nonetheless substantial: a critical mass of Iraqi leaders have attached their signatures, under no outside pressure, to rules that lay the foundations for democracy, national reconciliation and economic development as the Americans leave, as leave they must.

The facilitation has been non-prescriptive. As Meyer put it, “We could share our experience at an intellectual and emotional level. Mac and I spoke about the way we had to travel to become friends – friends at the family level — after starting as real serious enemies.”   The South Africans also spoke owning of their own process and making it as inclusive as possible. “We succeeded in achieving a peaceful settlement by ourselves,” Meyer said. “In darkness we had to face each other eye to eye. No messengers. No in-betweens.”

A strength of the Helsinki agreement, Maharaj said, was that it was formulated exclusively by the Iraqis. “We did not really have a say.” Indeed, when decisions had to be made, “they asked us to leave the room. That was a good sign” — an encouraging portent “of what the Iraqis can achieve among themselves, by themselves.”

O’Malley fears that as the US troops pulls back and out and local security forces swell in size to compensate, nascent democracy will be choked by what will continue to be the most militarized society on earth.  He is also concerned that hatreds frozen by the occupation will thaw into new bloodletting as it ends.  With luck and a little South African magic, the Helsinki Agreement may perhaps help the centre hold.

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