Only a few years ago if Northern Ireland were mentioned in connection with Third World trouble spots, it was generally to do with the exchange of terrorist know-how, weapons and funding. Now, when the two are mentioned in the same breath, it concerns the export of expertise in peace building.
The appointment of Tony Blair as an international peace envoy to the Middle East is the latest example. Russia, the EU and the UN have overlooked his role in the Iraq war and joined with the United States in backing his role. The former prime minister has that sort of clout for one reason – his role in Northern Ireland, including tempting Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness into coalition and persuading the IRA to decommission.
If Blair hadn't been so successful in bringing the IRA into the democratic fold, he would never have been considered suitable to promote peace between Hamas, al Fatah and the Israelis. Those pictures of Blair, Paisley and McGuinness laughing together in early May have boosted the former PM's reputation and taken the spotlight off the daily slaughter in Basra and Baghdad.
Sinn Féin, meanwhile, is sending delegations to the Basque region to advise on how to wind down a conflict it once cheered on. In the past, if you heard of two Northern Ireland veterans tramping through the jungles to talk to insurgents, the first thought would be of IRA terrorists providing bomb-making skills in return for cash. Nowadays it is Paul Murphy, the mild-mannered former secretary of state for Northern Ireland, and Chris Maccabe, the joint head of the British-Irish Secretariate. Recently the pair searched out the Tamil separatists to advise them on how best to engage with the Sri Lankan government.
Maccabe, a softly spoken man with an ironic turn of phrase and an eye for detail, is one of the coach drivers of the peace process and held a series of senior positions thorughout the conflict that preceded it. He was among the first officials to meet Sinn Féin openly.
Not many people could tell you which island in the Indian Ocean is attempting to govern itself using the Northern Ireland Constitution Act of 1973. It is Zanzibar, home to nearly a million people who have adopted the Stormont model. They see it as a means of ending years of violence and agreeing a devolved status within the state of Tanzania.
Maccabe has been engaged to offer advice on how to iron out a few local difficulties between two parties who differ on how closely they should be linked to Tanzania and are so finely balanced that neither can gain a decisive advantage over the other. Sound familiar?
Maccabe advises continuous dialogue and minor acts of trust. He points to the example of the British government, which always kept its lines of communication open to the IRA. He points also to things that seemed unpromising at the time but which later made progress possible. One example is the failed talks between the IRA and the British government in 1972 that Gerry Adams was released from prison to attend and at which McGuinness had a concealed weapon.
"The fact that Adams had been brought out of prison by the British government as long ago as 1972 showed people that trust was possible," he said. "Adams came out, he didn't mess about or misuse it, and the British government didn't kill him and McGuinness when they got them to London. That established some sort of trust and confidence."
At the time the talks demonstrated the depressing distance between the two sides. The British found the IRA unrealistic, the republicans thought the British arrogant, and afterwards the violence escalated. In retrospect it can be seen as the beginning of a long learning curve. Both sides knew they could deal with the other if they ever wanted to.
McGuinness and Adams were allowed to remain in place because the British authorities recognised them as people who could be dealt with at some stage. Throughout the Troubles McGuinness had a line of communication to Michael Oatley, a senior MI6 official, which was used periodically to test ideas
and to seek assurances on what was going on. Oatley is now part of a conflict resolution think tank that has been urging dialogue with Hamas, based on his lessons in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.
The behaviour of Adams and McGuinness can be presented as collaboration or a cynical exercise at leadership level while their IRA followers fought and died, but that is not the whole story. "A puppet figure, like the Americans had in South Vietnam, tends not to work and it certainly hasn't worked in the Middle East, where anyone the Americans promote is automatically distrusted," explains a British official. "It is different if there are people who are clearly in control. Then it usually pays you to do nothing to wreck them."
The logic is that an intelligent and popular leadership will in time see the need to do a deal. If removed, a new leadership will have to begin the learning curve.
Right through the Troubles there were deals between loyalist and republicans, sometimes over rackets and territory but also to de-escalate tension. One example used to illustrate the lessons of Northern Ireland is the murder of two loyalist prisoners in Crumlin Road jail by the IRA in 1991. Both sides quickly realised that if this continued it would end with dead women and children, visitors and relatives coming to and from the jail. Talks started, there was no retaliation, and the heat went out of the situation.
The story is instructive, but it also shows the limitations of the Northern Ireland model. True, there were escalations of violence, but both the paramilitaries and the state pulled back at crucial junctures from pushing it to civil war. All the taboos were broken at one time or another, but they remained taboos. People were attacked in churches, but there were never regular attacks on places of worship and religious processions of a type we see in Iraq. The paramilitaries were to some limited degree responsive to public opinion.
The size of the British state compared to the area of conflict in Northern Ireland also made it possible to contain the conflict. A smaller state whose very existence was threatened would have had to either concede or respond with greater aggression. That is what happened during the Irish civil war, where it was not possible for either the Free State forces or the insurgents to play the sort of long game that the British played in Northern Ireland. Each knew the other could win, whereas the British forces never really had to contemplate the possibility of defeat.
That is the problem in the Middle East, where Blair has an uphill struggle. The patience of Job won't be enough in Gaza; too many people will die during the learning curve. The distrust between the two sides is too severe.
Another lesson from Northern Ireland may, however, be useful. That is the need to engage neighbouring states and international players in a broadly agreed approach. This can create a steady political pressure to which apparently unreconcilable sides will, in the end, succumb.
Since the early 1970s the British and Irish governments have been intent on a Sunningdale-type settlement that would include power sharing and north-south co-operation. America and Europe bought in. They had many differences about the detail, but they stuck with the basic template and, after more than 30 years of trying, finally put it in place. Thirty years, there's the rub. Other conflict areas do not have that long.