Ann Coffey


Learning lessons from First World War

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This week one hundred years ago saw the start of the First World War – the beginning of four long years of futile suffering and the slaughter of millions of young men across Europe. This “war to end all wars” bred the conditions for the Third Reich and another world war which saw genocide on an unimaginable scale.

It is tragic to realise, when we are commemorating the outbreak of the First World War, that war is happening now, all over the world, for example in Ukraine and in Israel/Palestine.

It seems that humanity hasn’t learned any lessons from history, and we still believe we can solve conflicts by killing one another. It easy to despair when we watch the news – or to turn away and think of something else.

One reason why conflicts continue for years and years is that people cannot draw a line under the past. So each generation comes along and fights the same bitter battles as their parents and grandparents, and the sense of injustice grows.

But there is a better way to resolve conflict, and for a good example we can look at South Africa. After years of injustice and denial of civil and human rights, the apartheid regime bowed to pressure and eventually released Nelson Mandela from prison. Mr Mandela became the country’s first democratically elected President. Many wanted to take revenge for the years of oppression, and Mr Mandela could easily have allowed South Africa to become a blood bath. But instead he chose to be a statesman and to follow the path of peace and reconciliation.

Last year was the 15th anniversary of the historic “Good Friday Agreement” in Northern Ireland. This was signed on 10th April 1998 and was the result of political leaders of all persuasions stretching every sinew to bring people on board with the new power-sharing structure.

I think the best possible commemoration of the First World War would be for political leaders to learn the lessons of the past, put decades of division behind them and look to new beginnings. Reconciliation work is hard, negotiations are tough and require compromise. Of course there are still deep divisions and challenges both in South Africa and Northern Ireland, but in both cases a huge step was taken to change life for the better. I only hope that the peace process in the Middle East can get back on track, with an end to violence and a return to the negotiating table.