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Kevin Cullen

Piecework of peace

A couple of weeks ago, Padraig O'Malley was skulking around Baghdad with $40,000 in his pocket.

Traipsing around the most dangerous city on earth with 40 large might not seem like the smartest thing, especially for someone universally regarded as brilliant. But then O'Malley, a professor at the McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, was on a secret mission.

The cash was to buy airline tickets for Iraqi politicians, so they could fly to Finland to meet with politicians from South Africa and Northern Ireland, who had been quietly flown to Boston in 1992 in a similar exercise in conflict resolution.

That conference 15 years ago, putting in the same room in Boston people who wouldn't be seen on the same block in Belfast, is now viewed in the rear mirror of history as a giant step toward ending the Troubles. It got people who despised each other talking, with the encouragement of South Africans who had seen it all before.

"The theory," O'Malley explained on the phone from Johannesburg, "is that people from divided societies are in the best position to help others from divided societies."

O'Malley was raised in Dublin and spent much of his adult life in Boston, so for all his impressive academic credentials, he is steeped in a philosophy that holds it's not what you know, it's who you know. He holds the Joe Moakley Chair of Peace and Reconciliation, and used Moakleyesque moxie to assemble a gathering aimed at fostering the kind of dialogue that, it became obvious this week, is sorely lacking.

In January, following a confab at Tufts University, O'Malley and Mac Maharaj - the last African National Congress fighter to put down his gun, whose biography O'Malley wrote - began sounding out Iraqis about meeting with African and Irish facilitators. They called their old ANC friend Cyril Ramaphosa, who called Martti Ahtisaari, the former president of Finland. Ramaphosa and Ahtisaari oversaw weapons decommissioning in Northern Ireland. Finland agreed to host the conference. One of O'Malley's former students, Robert Bendetson, president of the Cabot House furniture stores and a Tufts trustee, agreed to pay for it.

But it fell upon the 64-year-old O'Malley to get the Iraqis to Finland. He went to Baghdad in July and spent five weeks in what was not an ivory tower.

"In Baghdad, nothing works," he said. "For the first eight days, there was no electricity or water in the hotel."

He ate stale bread and tried to sleep in a stifling, threadbare room. But he found a diverse group, both Shi'ite and Sunni, willing to go. He stole out of Iraq to get the money before returning in late August, with three days to seal the deal before a religious holiday prohibited travel. He picked up two Iraqi bodyguards and went to a rundown storefront. He waited four sweaty hours before some guy handed him the airline tickets.

As he and his bodyguards drove away with the tickets in a brown paper bag, they were waved down at a checkpoint by Iraqis in uniforms.

"They didn't look in the bag," O'Malley said. "We got through."

Ensconced four days in a hotel three hours north of Helsinki, the Iraqis heard how the Irish and South Africans made many mistakes and wasted years and lives before they found a compromise that ended generations of violence. They heard Martin McGuinness, a former IRA commander, explain how he and lifelong enemy Ian Paisley haven't shaken hands but are running a government together. Alone, the Iraqis hashed out a 12-point communiqué committing themselves to democratic principles.

"Some of the Iraqis gave me their worry beads," O'Malley said.

The next step is up to the Iraqis.

Some people say the Finland conference won't amount to much.

Funny. That's what everybody said 15 years ago, when enemies stared out at Dorchester Bay and found they were looking at the same thing.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.

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