Twenty-One Lessons from Northern Ireland

Former “enemies” -- Martin McGuinness at left, an IRA (Catholic) leader, and Ian Paisley, a DUP (Protestant) leader -- enter Stormont where the Parliament of Northern Ireland meets as they begin their power-sharing leadership roles. Photo by Hugh Russell, Irish News.

In researching and writing this issue on Northern Ireland, I saw recurring themes, which I have summarized as 21 lessons. –Bonnie Price Lofton, ed.

  1. Relatively few people can have a huge ripple effect in enabling a society to solve its conflicts non-violently. In the early 1980s, Northern Ireland probably contained no more than 50 people wholly dedicated to peace work. Each person touched by those people in turn rallied others, resulting in tens of thousands by the early 2000s working at all levels of society to consolidate peace in Northern Ireland.
  2. Raise awareness of the humanness of “The Other” and of the existence of alternatives to violence. Einstein is credited with saying, “Problems cannot be solved at the same level of consciousness that created them.” Increasing empathy and awareness must be an early goal of peacebuilders.
  3. Head to neutral soil, if possible. In highly charged situations – where any contact with “The Other” might be viewed as betrayal by one’s own group – it can work nicely to arrange for quiet, intergroup contacts away from one’s home setting.
  4. Informal contacts are key! Find ways to enhance socializing – over food and drink, while sightseeing or fishing, sharing photos of one’s children, or even singing a song together. It almost doesn’t matter the nature of the joint activity, as long as the parties in conflict have a chance to get to know each other as humans. For Terry Shevlin, formerly in the Royal Ulster Constabulary – where being a Catholic policeman made him an assassination target – the highlight of a 1999 educational trip to Atlanta under “Policing Our Divided Society” was when he and others in his highly diverse group from Northern Ireland responded to an invitation by a black Baptist preacher, a scarred veteran of the Civil Rights movement, to interlock arms and sing “We Shall Overcome”!
  5. Recognize and address people’s deepest needs, including their fears, their sense of being besieged and treated unjustly, and of having less access to power and resources. Understand the impact of trauma on them. Unaddressed injustices and trauma fuel cyclical violence.
  6. Small changes matter. For many years, the Belfast City Council, controlled by Unionists in Northern Ireland, displayed a banner on city hall that read, “Belfast Says No.” For Christmas 1994, the banner was changed to “Belfast Says Noel.” With a tiny change of wording, city residents were nudged toward a more positive attitude.
  7. All players are needed: courageous, visionary leaders who say “enough” and seek solutions; international assistance from the European Union, UN, United States and others; and civic society activities, such as religious groups working with political prisoners, academics revamping school curricula to remove fuel for the flames, and restorative justice practitioners working with the police force. Cumulatively, all contributed to positive change in Northern Ireland.
  8. Quiet, unpublicized “shuttle diplomacy” can be very useful. By allowing opposing parties to hear each other’s stories and even to send subtle messages to each other, citizen-diplomats can play a useful role, assuming they absolutely guard the confidences of those they are shuttling between. In Northern Ireland, where face-to-face dialogue is not a cultural norm, this style of indirect mediation is frequently employed.
  9. Be prepared to build upon “iconic events,” such as the impact of a visiting international figure, such as Bill Clinton or Kofi Annan. Or it may even be a “peaceful” demonstration that ends in violence. Or a natural disaster. Or a well-known, wronged person who publicly chooses the path of reconciliation rather than revenge, such as Nelson Mandela. Whatever it is, the iconic event can mark the beginning of a sea-change in people’s perceptions, assuming the event is leveraged by others working for peace.
  10. Funding makes a huge difference. In Ireland, the governments of the north and south funded civil society and local political initiatives, as did the EU, U.K., U.S. and other governments. Funds contributed by Irish-Americans also factored in (sometimes for the worse, when weapon acquisitions were funded, but as the peace process unfolded, this funding tended to shift to community-building initiatives.)
  11. Tap the energy and peace hopes of women. Women’s groups tended to focus on the human side of the conflict in Northern Ireland, rather than on political issues, like the wording of the constitution and the definition of borders. Attracting women on all sides of the conflict to work for better health, education and employment, women’s groups played a huge role in moving Northern Ireland toward the Belfast Agreement.
  12. Persevere! “There were no quick fixes in Northern Ireland,” says Sue Williams. “There were a series of modest, but essential, initiatives which did not succeed in the first instance, but which allowed others to build upon them.”
  13. Time can be an ally. When the leaders of political parties and armed groups have been in leadership positions for 20, 30, even 40 years, dealing with a bottomless pit of conflict, they tend to become open to change. “They get tired. Society gets tired. It may be fatigue, exhaustion, aging, diminishing testosterone,” says Williams.
  14. Duplication of efforts is okay. With Northern Ireland’s prisons filled with men linked to paramilitary organizations in the 1990s, all kinds of well-intentioned organizations sent volunteers and staffers to work with the prisoners – Save the Children, the Quakers, Protestant and Catholic clergy, Workers’ Education Association, prisoner-support groups associated with the paramilitaries themselves, etc. “When one program failed, lost its funding or its credibility, or simply lost its way, there were others able to continue the work,” says Williams.
  15. Underlying socioeconomic issues must be on the table. For example, if there is high unemployment or discrimination regarding who gets the jobs, the impact of this must be acknowledged and steps put in place to address it, as occurred when the Fair Employment Commission and Tribunal was established in Northern Ireland in 1989.
  16. Complete victory for a particular side is rarely possible. Once the parties realize that, the door cracks open to a peace process.
  17. Hard truths must be part of the dialogue. To move toward peace, differences have to be admitted, “hard truths” must be exchanged. Otherwise the parties are operating out of completely different perceptions of reality. With such exchanges, the parties will still disagree, but at least “The Other’s” reality will be acknowledged, a necessary starting point.
  18. Listen and talk. Again. And again. And again. The process is useful, even if repetitive. Some of the emotional “affect” is reduced in the talking and listening. It loosens people up psychologically. For people who feel marginalized, it reduces their sense of exclusion.
  19. If from outside the conflict, stay out of the driver’s seat. The people “on the ground,” the locals, know more and understand more about their own conflict than outsiders. Support from outsiders for the efforts of local peace workers will usually be welcomed, but outsiders first should ask, “What kind of support do you need?” and provide that in a respectful, humble manner. Beginning in 1989, Mennonite agencies sending volunteers to Ireland put themselves under the scrutiny of a group of Protestants and Catholics from both North and South, called Support Body for Mennonite Witness in Ireland. In the spirit of serving rather than being in charge, the Mennonites consulted with this group before undertaking initiatives or accepting invitations.
  20. Think far future. Know that your work will make a difference far beyond any peace accord signed under TV lights. Those years of building up women’s organizations, of interacting with prisoners (who are about to be released into society), of introducing restorative practices in school systems… these will all be needed to enable the paper agreement to stick, for lasting changes to seep through society.
  21. Give away your peacebuilding knowledge and techniques. Celebrate when other organizations take hold of your best ideas and practices, perhaps even setting up similar peacebuilding programs. This is a sign that you are doing God’s work, not your own. As the president of EMU, Loren Swartzendruber, has expressed it: “The more of us in the peace business, the better.”
People change.
Joe Campbell