by Frank Schnittger
Sat Mar 22nd, 2008 at 09:26:16 AM EST
Urban myth has it that the first item on the agenda of any Irish organisation is THE SPLIT. In other words, no sooner have people come together for a common purpose than they disagree, often quite bitterly, about what should be done, how it should be done, and who should do what. Irish history is redolent with tales of the splits, betrayals and informers who have derailed the noble cause which the Irish "Nation" was supposed to be pursuing at that time.
No one can have lived in Ireland over the past 40 years without having been involved, in an almost personal and tangible way, in the many twists and turns taken by the Northern Irish (or British Irish) conflict, or not been thrilled that at last, some concrete progress is being made towards its resolution.
On a more personal level, I have been involved, in various ways, in trying to resolve significant conflicts or issues in no less than six different voluntary organisations - very much by force of circumstance rather than design. And this is quite apart from a career in management in a major Global commercial organisation where conflict is endemic, and contrary to popular myth, very much more endemic within management itself rather than just within the more classic management versus trade union model.
So I have come to be fascinated by the processes by which conflicts are contained, managed, channelled, diffused, distorted, perverted, exacerbated and calmed - and sometimes, very rarely, transformed and resolved into very positive outcomes for all concerned.
So as they say in all the best self-help manuals, if you have conflicts you wish to resolve, read on...
There are of course many distinct methodologies by which conflicts can be managed and/or resolved. The most important of which is the creation and enforcement of the rule of law and various judicial processes for "ruling" on specific issues.
There are the adversarial British "Common Law" and French Napoleonic codes for determining the outcome of disputes. There is an evolving body of International Law as contained in the Charter of the UN, various international organisations, The Lisbon Reform Treaty of the EU, and a plethora of international treaties, conventions and protocols such as the nuclear non-proliferation treaties and the Kyoto Treaty. (Let us leave aside issues of enforcement for the moment!)
There is also an emerging body of semi-judicial processes collectively known as "Restorative Justice" which challenges the largely adversarial, deterrent and punitive models of justice contained in most criminal justice systems with a more collaborative process which places the victim and their needs/choices at the centre of the process, and which is focused more on trying to do as much as possible to repair the harm done rather than on punishing the perpetrator. I hope to write a separate diary on this topic at some time in the future.
Then there are the various models of arbitration, mediation, facilitation, third party intervention, representation and advocacy which are used more often in the civil, political and international dispute resolution processes. I hope to do separate Diaries on how these structures and processes have been used in the context of the Northern Irish Peace Process and in the Irish National Social Partnership process in due course.
However the topic I wish to discuss in this diary is a much more limited one: the negotiation process itself. Let me hasten to add that I do not wish to claim any special expertise in this area. This diary is more by way of seeking to tap into the collective expertise, knowledge and experience of the ET community to see if we can all, collectively, come to a better understanding of how the negotiation process works, and how it can be used (and sometimes abused) to resolve disputes and conflicts both in our personal lives - in the organisations in which we act and work - and at the more macro level of national and international dispute resolution processes.
Why, for instance, was it possible to produce and sustain a negotiated solution to the Northern Ireland conflict in 1998 in the Good Friday Agreement, and not in the 1973 Sunningdale agreement? (Seamus Mallon has pointed to the marked similarity between the content of both agreements, and called the latter "Sunningdale for slow learners"). Why is industrial relations conflict seemingly endemic in some countries and organisations, and not in others? Why are some work situations and voluntary organisations great places to be, and others like hell on earth?
These are big questions which I cannot address in one diary, but I want to begin by discussing the role of negotiation in conflict resolution, my understanding of what happens in the negotiation processes itself, and why some negotiations succeed while others always seem to go off the rails. I can speak from experience in both contexts.
There is an international literature on "the negotiating process" which anyone can pick up on simply by Googling it. I must confess to not being widely read on the topic. One of the characteristics of the best and most successful negotiators I have met or worked with is that none had studied the negotiating process in any formal or academic way.
They are characterised by exceptional charisma, social and emotional intelligence, and an ability to form good and trusting relationships with a wide range of very different (and often difficult) people. One had left school at 14 and (when I first worked with him) was barely literate in the written sense. Clearly academic achievement is not a prerequisite for being a successful negotiator!
The international literature does point to a stark difference in approach between professional diplomats and negotiators and the "subject experts" the scientific, legal or financial experts who are an important part of a negotiating team in increasingly complex international, political and business negotiations. The latter often decry the "politics" being played by the other participants to the negotiation and wish to base their solutions on objective scientific or financial facts - whereas for the professional negotiator, it is the politics of the situation which is of the essence.
I don't for a moment wish to decry the important role of (say) science in furthering our understanding of a particular problem, and through an accumulation of evidence helping us to find more effective solutions to those problems. But we do not live in an entirely rational world, where everyone shares the same objective understanding of what the problem is, and how it can be resolved. If that was the case, there would be no need for a negotiation!
1. Recognition of legitimate difference: Negotiation is not about conversion.
The first principle of any effective negotiation (says he without any substantive academic knowledge of the subject) is therefore that you have to recognise that conflicts of interest or of view are inevitable, and that whilst these may change over time, negotiation is about coming to agreement on certain topics whilst recognising that deep divisions on these and other issues might persist. Negotiation is NOT about persuading everyone else that you are RIGHT and they are WRONG!
Yes, certainly, views will change as a negotiation proceeds, and if the atmosphere is good, trust grows, and personal relationships are built up, it is remarkable how much views and attitudes can change in a relatively short period of time. Quite often informal alliances are built up between key negotiators on opposing sides, back channels develop, and those on the outside of the process are astonished that two such opposing viewpoints and personalities can come to a common agreement - and even a warm personal relationship - in such a short period of time.
A good example of this is the warm personal relationship and good rapport which seems to have built up between Ian Paisley, former extreme Protestant demagogue and current (but retiring) First Minister, and his Second Minister Martin McGuinness, (Sinn Fein republican and reputed former IRA commander) who are collectively known as the "Chuckle Brothers" and whose close working relationship has led to considerable disquiet amongst partisans on both sides.
However, let it not be forgotten that the N.I. Peace Process took many years to come to any sort of fruition, and that most negotiations are relatively short lived and do not provide scope for a great deal of personal movement or change amongst the main protagonists.
Thus the key point about a successful negotiating process is that it cannot be dependent on everybody getting on well together, and must be capable of producing agreements on key topics despite continuing deep and enduring differences of interest or view amongst the key protagonists. Effectively some issues are resolved, and there is agreement to "park" other issues and to "agree to differ" pro tem where agreement is not currently possible. Emerging agreement/Treaty texts often contain a lot of details in parentheses  where agreement has not yet been achieved.
If you walk into a negotiation blind there is a good possibility you will be very disappointed in the outcome. Others may not see the obvious superiority of your moral position, the unalienable logic of your arguments, or the amazing eloquence with which you put your case. A good negotiator does a lot of preparatory work. What are my must haves, like to haves, and the bits I can say I want but which I am really prepared to barter away in return or the things I really need.
The foreplay in any negotiation is setting out your stall and guessing what the other parties really need, want, and are just saying for the optics. Many negotiators play their cards very close to their chest on this one, not only from the opposition, but those on their own side as well. Often you have to give ground on an issue which is a do or die issue of principle for someone on your own side. Selling the agreement to your own side may be more difficult than negotiating it in the first place.
One of my first jobs in industrial relations was to do a post audit on a major strike which had badly damaged the company's competitive position. The strike had only lasted 3 weeks but had done permanent and irreparable damage to the company's market share. The main problem was that the Union side was split into many Craft Unions, many with quite small memberships, but with a lot of internal tensions and leadership struggles within each. You could never be certain that a deal thrashed out at the negotiating table would actually "sell" on the ground. Several times management thought they had a deal, only to find that the deal wasn't ratified by one or other Union membership and the strike continued.
The final deal was much less beneficial to both the Company and the Unions because by then it was "backs to the wall" survival time, and the continuance of the business in that location had become at issue. Management much preferred dealing with the general workers union which had a much larger membership, a much tougher and more capable negotiator, but one who could be guaranteed to "deliver" on any deal once it had been negotiated. Management needed certainty of outcome because the costs of any prospective deal they could offer had to be approved in advance by international management.
The key issue here is that you need to know a lot about each of the parties in the dispute, what their aims and objectives are, what constraints they are operating under, and what ability they have to make any agreement stick. My conclusions in that post audit where that management had tried to settle too early, had proposed settlements when the other side weren't yet "solution seeking" and were more interested in resolving their own internal internecine power struggles. At that point in the process, the union leaders still had to demonstrate to their constituents that they were tougher than their rival leaders and therefore had to oppose any proposed solution as a matter of course.
Sometimes a degree of "bloodletting" is required before people can see the "bigger picture" and realise they have more to lose than to gain out of a continuance of the current situation. That takes time, and time is something you often do not have - particularly in violent conflicts where lives are being lost. But a good negotiator can see the signs of not only what might settle a dispute, but when his opponents are ready to settle. A negotiation cannot succeed where one party or the other still believes they have a better chance of fulfilling their objectives by other means, be that continued strike action, legal action or violent action in the real world.
A lot of the preparation for a negotiation is therefore about "climate setting" and "re-framing the conflict" so that all participants come to see that they have a vested interest in resolving the dispute by negotiation, and not by other means. This is not as simple as it may sound. You would think that the participants in any number of violent conflicts around the world would realise they have more to lose than to gain from a continuation of war. Certainly very dominant powers may feel they can achieve all they want by force and have no need for negotiation, but many protagonists are in a militarily hopeless situation, or can at best achieve a violent stalemate with continuing grievous losses all around. So why do they not come to the negotiating table?
Part of the answer to this lies in section 1. above about recognising "legitimate difference". So long as one side is convinced of the absolute rightness of their cause, and the absolute wrongness or even evilness of the other side no negotiation is possible. Sitting around a negotiating table with other parties requires a recognition that they have a right to be there, that they speak for certain legitimate interests different from your own, and whilst agreement may or may not be possible, it is certainly impossible without them being there.
Key to the resolution of the N.I. conflict was a recognition, chiefly by John Hume of the SDLP, that the IRA (aka Sinn Fein) had be brought in from the cold and included in the peace process. Some back channel discussions between the IRA and the British Government had already taken place, but always on the basis of deniability because the British Government could not be seen to be giving "recognition" to "terrorists" or to concede that they had any legitimate role in N.I. politics whatsoever. Understandably the Loyalist/Unionist side was outraged by any suggestion that the IRA/SinnFein (as they always termed it) should be granted any legitimacy whatsoever, given they had killed over a thousand of their countrymen.
So how was the conflict "re-framed" to make Sinn Fein's inclusion in the process possible? First of all, Sinn Fein had to be "decontaminated" from any ongoing involvement in violent activity. For a tradition steeped in the mythology of armed resistance to British rule and "blood sacrifice" this was never going to be easy - not simply at the leadership level, but more crucially at every level in the organisation.
The cell structure of a modern terrorist organisation gives a great deal of autonomy to each cell to frustrate penetration by "enemy" agents and intelligence services. Each cell has its own weapons caches and intelligence operatives, and can, if it chooses, continue to operate without "head office" approval. Any leader who threatens to betray heroic volunteers to the enemy will be given short shrift by the whole movement and will probably come to an unfortunate end. Many "terrorists" are deeply engaged politically and will not simple follow orders from leaders they might suspect of "selling out" on the "armed struggle". After 30 years, many IRA members had known little but violent struggle and had grown to distrust all "politicians" and their tendency to speak out of "both sides of their mouth at once".
Key to re-framing the conflict and setting the climate for negotiations was the declaration, by the British Government, that it had no vested, strategic or selfish interest in remaining in Northern Ireland, that it would remain only so long as the majority of the people there wanted it to, and that it was prepared to extend "parity of esteem" to the nationalist community. In other words, it was perfectly legitimate to advocate a united Ireland provided you did so by peaceful and democratic means.
The IRA's objective of a United Ireland was thus recognised as legitimate, if not their chosen means of pursuing it. The IRA/Sinn Fein could have a place around the negotiating table provided it renounced violence. This, for the first time, open up an avenue of a "peaceful and democratic" struggle for a united Ireland as an alternative to the armed struggle which had been the hallmark of the IRA since the loyalist assault on the largely non-sectarian civil rights movement in the late 1960's.
Many would argue that the option of peaceful agitation for a United Ireland was always open to Nationalists, and indeed that was the option always taken by the SDLP. However constitutional politics in N.I. had always been hamstrung by the reality that Northern Ireland had been specifically created to guarantee a Unionist majority, and that permanent Unionist majority rule had always meant there was no possibility of parity of esteem for the nationalist tradition. All the accoutrements of the state, from flags, and uniforms, institutions and mottos, right down to the colour of the letter boxes was always designed to convey one message: Northern Ireland was an integral part of the United Kingdom - no different from any other part of Her Majesty's Realm - and there was no place for the Nationalist tradition as a legitimate, and honoured part of the community's identity.
This Diary was meant to be about the negotiation process, and not about Northern Ireland, and yet here I am over 3000 words later and still only at the preparation stage of the negotiating process. I'm going to leave it at this point because my intention was only to introduce the topic as a subject for participation and debate. If there is much interest shown I will try to elaborate on the topic in a future diary. I will leave you with two comments from two of the best negotiators I have known.
"The key to a successful negotiator is his ability to tolerate ambiguity. You need black and white thinkers like a hole in the head"
"The essence of a good negotiators tool-kit is a keen sense of timing. There is no point in proposing a solution when the weather is good and the picketers are enjoying their day out in the sun. Wait for a week of cold, wet and windy weather if you want your proposal to fly".