Ukraine, the world, negotiation and compromise
The art and skill of compromise
What can we compromise, how do we compromise, and do we end up ‘compromised’? These are important questions for anyone (which equals everyone) ever involved in conflict. And conflict is part of life so knowing when to compromise is one of the most essential skills that we can learn. Negotiation is pointless without the possibility of compromise.
The first thing to say is that being able to compromise, without reneging on our core values, is part of being strong. Compromise is often portrayed simply as weakness (which is where the term ‘compromised’ comes from) whereas you have to be strong to make a principled compromise through recognising the other party’s arguments and position, and being willing to move on. Of course a ‘giving in’ compromise can come from weakness, that you simply cave in to another’s demands, but that is not what we are talking about here.
Intransigence is when one or more parties to a conflict refuse to consider negotiation and compromise, or have extreme or unrealistic demands and expectations. This can come from perceived strength but it can also come from weakness – before the Falklands/Calvinism war of 1982 neither Britain nor Argentine were willing to submit their claim to international arbitration because they were both so unsure of their claim to the islands.. You need to feel strong in yourself to engage in negotiation which can lead to compromise. And in such circumstances ‘weakness’ can turn into ‘false strength’ (in the case of the Falklands/Malvinas war).
To be able to negotiate and compromise properly you need a realistic assessment of the situation in general and the interests and positions of the other party or parties. You also need to be acting ‘in good faith’ and be persuaded that others are dong the same. That is why, in the EU-UK negotiations on the Northern Ireland Protocol, having the NI Protocol Bill in the UK Parliament is so ludicrous. It is a prime example of British exceptionalism because it is effectively saying “We’ll negotiate a deal with you but if we subsequently decide there is something we don’t like we will unilaterally change it”. That is absolute nonsense, and bad faith; an agreement involves at least two sides, not one side deciding by itself.. Some in the British Conservative Party think that something like the NI Protocol Bill makes them look strong when in fact it only serves to make them look really stupid. It is one way to lose friends and win enemies.
As with any mediation, a negotiated settlement should be in accord with human rights and justice. These may be open to very different interpretations but it should still be clear. And if there are competing human rights (as with many marching disputes in Northern Ireland) both sides rights need to be taken into account.
In Northern Ireland, for example, it is also necessary to distinguish between identity, and the freedom to express that identity (again subject to the human rights of others) and the position of the state. Few people in the world are lucky enough to belong to a state where they always agree with the positions and policies held by that state. The identity of someone as a nationalist or a unionist in the North should be respected but that does not mean that the state can or should mirror their own political viewpoint. Nationalists have had to live with that fact for years; it does not seem that unionists are yet willing to consider this despite ‘unionism’ no longer being in a majority position. However you should never have to compromise on your identity as opposed to the possibility of compromising on your position..This is also relevant to Ukraine, another divided society.
Being aware of the difference between interests and positions is also important, and not making red lines which will interfere with negotiations later on. Of course you will want to consider what your red lines are but publicising them and saying publicly “Less than this we will no accept” is unwise (as with a very public seven red lines which the DUP publicised in relation to the NI Protocol). Such red lines are unwise because if the other side makes you an offer which is in your interests but you have publicised lines you will not cross, it either makes you look weak if you cross those lines, or it means no successful negotiation is possible. This is a case where trying to look hard, by publicising your red lines, makes meaningful negotiation harder.
It is rare for any side to get all it wants in a negotiation but aiming for a win-win result is desirable. What is the minimum that my opponent needs to settle? Can it be given to them? And are there things which are in their longer term interests which could be part of a settlement and help to move things on? Are they willing to give me some of what I want and maybe need?
Negotiation skills can be taught but it is also an area where both experience and tactical common sense are needed. In the middle of negotiation, everything can seem in a mess and confusion can reign. Holding your nerve and trusting in the process to take you there are important. And, when it comes to the crunch, you need to decide whether you can stand over the prospective deal or whether the fall back, non-negotiated situation is better (and if there is not a negotiated settlement whether there is anything you can do to make the situation more acceptable for yourself).
In the last editorial we spelled out some leeway for possible negotiations with Russia to end the war and their onslaught on Ukraine – and questioned why Ireland should not be actively exploring such possibilities. Part of successful negotiation – and making it stick – is allowing everyone to save face. This may seem unpalatable but it is definitely essential. If Vladimir Putin is not overthrown in Russia, how are you going to get Russia to cut a deal? And even if the unlikely happened and he was overthrown, would his successor be any better? It may seem unjust to allow Putin to save face in any deal, but can there be a deal without this (barring Russian victory in Ukraine)? No.
There are many ways negotiation can take place – formally, informally, simply between the two or more parties, involving a mediator, shuttle diplomacy, or quite possibly a mixture of different models. Imagination and creativity are key. ‘Megaphone diplomacy’, where two sides shout at each other, is not negotiation but self-justification. Unfortunately in regard to the Russian war on Ukraine things are stuck at megaphone diplomacy and it takes courage and imagination to move beyond that.
It is not often that we quote Winston Churchill but in 1954 (in a saying often misquoted and a bit uncertain) he said “Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war”. If an arch-militarist can say that it seems strange that the west is intent in showing its support to Ukraine through the supply of weapons, which kill and cause killing in response, and not at all in exploring how the war could be brought to an end by meeting some of Russia’s interests which are reasonable (e.g. no Ukrainian membership of NATO) and imaginative face saving.
Even more ironic than the above is the fact it would seem that Winston Churchill’s successor as British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was instrumental in scuttling early negotiations which looked like they could be fruitful. https://jacobin.com/2023/02/ukraine-russia-war-naftali-bennett-negotiations-peace According to former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, there was a good chance of a breakthrough in negotiations early on but this was blocked by ‘the west’ – and Johnson said the west wouldn’t recognise any peace deal Zelensky signed with Putin. If this is true then Boris Johnson has a lake of blood on his hands.
‘The west’ has thus acted irresponsibly in a variety of ways; preventing a possible agreement early on in the war, pushing NATO eastwards when in 1989 they had promised not to, refusing to consider a neutral Ukraine, and not pushing for the implementation of the Minsk accords. All these facts, and the west’s handling of the 2014 Maidan revolution in which a democratically-elected government was overthrown, even if it was violent and corrupt, were part of what led to Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. There is no excuse for that invasion and resultant bloodbath and Putin bares the primary blame along with his right-wing ‘Greater Russia’ ideology. But it is clear the west had contributed significantly to what has happened,
We can fully understand why Ukraine chose to resist the unjustifiable Russian invasion militarily. That does not mean it was the wisest choice or that other countries should simply back that stance up with weapons which are adding fuel to the fire. The fire needs put out, not stoked. Compromise is possible without anyone being compromised but for that to happen there has to be a belief that things can be made different through negotiation. And negotiation has to be brought about but where there is a will there is likely a way. And carrots are more likely to be successful in this than sticks (i.e. incentives rather than threatened penalties).
We are sad that a supposedly neutral country such as Ireland has had such a lack of imagination as to what is possible and has been unquestioning of the EU and NATO military responses..The Irish constitution commits the state to the pacific settlement of international disputes; the Irish government has shown no inclination or effort in that direction, a shameful dereliction of its duty.
Calling it on the Protocol:
Brake even point?
What is fair to all sides in the North in relation to the Northern Ireland Protocol? This is a big question which raises many other big questions, not least as to whether this deal could not have been arrived at a year or two ago if the UK had engaged properly with the EU; the claim by unionists and the DUP that they have caused the changes made is somewhat spurious or at best less than half true.
On the other hand we have previously stated that unionists deserve to have their views on the Protocol properly considered and this has now happened. But despite their prominence in Northern Ireland and in relation to the issue, the DUP is a small fish in the UK pond. For them there has been a perceived loss of British sovereignty in Northern Ireland, as well as issues to do with the economic effect, particularly in terms of imports from Britain to the North..However it would seem the EU has been fairly generous – and both the EU and UK possibly clever (e.g. with the ‘Stormont brake’) – in the changes made. The UK government has, in its opinion, more important matters to settle than doing precisely what NI unionists want.
How can we put this into context? With difficulty, given the complexity and history. Brexit, which was enthusiastically supported by the DUP and most unionists, has had, as with many such moves, unintended consequences, one of which was the NI Protocol; the adage to “Be careful what you wish for” comes to mind.
It is true that Northern Ireland continuing in the EU single market does represent a slight diminution of British sovereignty in Northern Ireland in relation to the economic sphere – but it is also true that business, despite wanting certain issues ironed out (some of which will be dealt with under the new agreement), have generally welcomed the advantage for Northern Ireland in easier trade with the EU. It is also appropriate that there there should be Northern Irish input regarding the regulation of such matters; it is regulation, not taxation, without representation. Whether the ‘Stormont brake’ in being able to reject EU legislation could prove a hostage to fortune, it was an astute move since it can only be implemented with the Northern Ireland Assembly functioning – though the final say is with the UK government, not Stormont. How meaningful this is and whether this overcomes any democratic deficit on the issue is questionable – but then Northern Ireland is not a sovereign state, its top level government is in London.
There are wider issues however. An arithmetic majority in Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU. A majority in the North have wanted issues in relation to the NI Protocol ironed out but not the Protocol to be abandoned. Most people want Stormont back to decide on the critical issues facing the North (and issues to do with the health service are literally critical) – getting more effective decision making in the Assembly is another issue and another day’s work. Unionists are no longer in a majority in Northern Ireland – but then neither are nationalists and there are questions here about the rights of ‘equals’ or ‘minorities’.
What ‘sovereignty’ means in today’s world is also a moot point. At one stage when the cattle trade was threatened by disease in Britain, Rev Ian Paisley declared that the people in Northern Ireland were British but the cattle were Irish! That is flexibility in relation to economic interests – and if the North prospered through easier access to the EU that could make people less likely to vote for a united Ireland. Voters list health and the economy as their primary concerns with only 22% in a recent poll putting the NI Protocol top. Referring to the Act of Union (between Britain and Ireland) being broken two hundred and twenty years later is important to some unionists but is not going to impress others, particularly when said Act only came about through massive bribery and corruption, ’buying out’ the Irish parliamntarians of the time.
There are points which can be made on both sides but the sovereign government of the UK entered into a binding agreement with the EU and, eventually, has renegotiated details of the Northern Ireland Protocol which nevertheless remains in place.. The fact that Boris Johnson had no intention of implementing whatever he didn’t like is irrelevant. The EU was slow to attempt to address problems but is well disposed towards Northern Ireland and it would seem has been as generous as it can be in the so-called Windsor Framework (the name seemingly an attempt to dress up the altered Protocol agreement in fancy clothes).
The British government has been torn between pragmatists who wanted to get the matter settled and Brexit irredentists who wanted to push the English nationalist boat out. Presuming Sunak gets it through the House of Commons in London with few Tory rebels opposing then he will have pulled off a considerable feat.
The DUP and Jeffrey Donaldson are in no rush to judgement on the new agreement – although at this stage it is not looking very like they will give approval. They will have a tight call but given they only changed their stance on the Protocol to outright opposition when it was clear they were losing support to Jim Allister and the TUV, it is fair to assume that the bottom line for them is whether they risk doing the same if they back the new proposals. However some DUP figures have already protested, e.g. Ian Paisley stating that the British government should not have ditched their ‘bargaining chip’ of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill which would have given the British government the ‘right’ to ditch whatever they didn’t like in the agreement – which, particularly as it was a binding international agreement between the EU and UK, shows how little he knows about negotiation. Ian Paisley has also clearly stated that the new deal does not meet the DUP’s ‘Seven tests’ (which, as stated in the other editorial, they DUP were unwise to publicise).
If the DUP continues to boycott the Assembly at Stormont that is their prerogative but a wiser course of action would be to go back in but continue opposition to what is unwelcome to them from within. They could at least then start to deal with the urgent issues piling up – and Northern Ireland remains part of the UK, just with some differences. It has always been a place apart, the only part of the UK with ‘home rule’ for a century, and the only part of the UK having a land border with another jurisdiction. And DUP support for a hard Brexit, and rejection of Theresa May’s proposals keeping all of the UK in the single market, was a substantial reason for the whole issue being such a mess – and Northern Ireland being treated differently to Britain to begin with.
And if the DUP decide to continue their Stormont boycott then direct rule over Northern Ireland from Britain could be the order of the day for a decade or more. That is not a great birthday present for the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement (which has always been shaky anyway) and it would represent not just a failure of politics but an encouragement to those who think militarily rather than in terms of democratic politics. It is hard to see what more the EU could give without the EU and UK going back to the drawing board on their relationship – and especially after the debacle of the last number of years that is not going to happen.
The longer this debacle goes on, and the DUP stays out, the weaker unionism will be since there there are far more young cultural Catholics than cultural Protestants with an ongoing decline in the number of the latter. The largest unionist party throwing its rattle out of the pram does no one, not even themselves, any favours. Seeing Michelle O’Neill donning the mantle of First Minister would also be a bitter ill for unionists but if they are democrats then it is one they should swallow – and get on with the job, including representing their constituency.
If ‘Stormont’ does return then this is highly unlikely to be the last major crisis or cessation. The “other day’s work” referred to above is to sort out a more effective decision making system for the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive. The people of Northern Ireland deserve better but getting agreement on reform will be difficult – and much more than “a day’s work”.