DUBLIN – The Northern Ireland peace process set an example for Colombia’s efforts to end its decades-long internal conflict, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said Thursday in Belfast.
The first Colombian leader to make a state visit to the UK specifically requested the inclusion of Belfast on his itinerary to give him the chance to “thank and congratulate” the people of Northern Ireland.
“I have followed the perseverance and the tenacity with which you solved this very long and terrible conflict here in Northern Ireland and it has been truly an example that I’ve been trying to follow,” he said at a civic reception in the regional capital.
Santos met earlier with First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, the respective leaders of unionists and republicans in Northern Ireland.
The Colombian head of state, who is to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for the pact he negotiated with leftist FARC rebels, said he often cites Northern Ireland to his compatriots as an example of the gains to be had from ending 52 years of war in the Andean nation.
“I tell the Colombian people ‘look what happened in Belfast, look how investment is coming in, pouring in, look at the transformation Belfast has been going through – this we can do the same if we are able to reach peace,’” Santos said.
The peace process in Colombia hit a snag last month when a bare majority of the fewer than 38 percent of voters who took part voted “no” in a referendum on the agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
Santos said he was impressed by the progress made in reconciling mainly Protestant unionists and largely Catholic republicans in Northern Ireland.
“That is even more difficult, but you have been doing a great job. I know it is ongoing, still going on, but, for us, it’s also an inspiration,” he said.
McGuinness, a former IRA commander, recalled that he went to Colombia two years ago at Santos’ invitation to advise on the negotiations with the FARC.
“We know there was a disappointment about the failure of the referendum to pass, but the peace process continues. Negotiations have recommenced and we hope that there will be a successful outcome,” the deputy first minister said.
“The Colombian peace process is a significant priority for their government and I know many organizations and people across Northern Ireland have helped in nudging forward the path to peace,” Foster said.