RISING Stormont: Journeys of Dialogue and Reconciliation
In late 2016, The Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, and Coventry Cathedral joined the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building at the Parliament Buildings at Stormont Palace in Belfast, Northern Ireland, hosting RISING’s first ever overseas peace forum, based on the RISING Global Peace Forum held in Coventry, UK.
RISING STORMONT: Journeys of Dialogue and Reconciliation was designed as a one-day dialogue to exchange peacebuilding strategies between cities, focusing on the on-going divisions, tensions and peace process in Northern Ireland, and to raise awareness of the rise in hate crimes nationally post-Brexit, which echo the tensions felt during the Northern Ireland Conflict.
THE NORTHERN IRELAND CONFLICT, also known as ‘The Troubles’, refers to the recent THREE-DECADE ethno-nationalist conflict between ‘Irish’ nationalists/republicans (Almost all Catholic) and ‘British’ unionists/loyalists (Almost all Protestant Christians) in Northern Ireland during the late 1900s.
Erupting in 1968 and ‘ending’ with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the troubles are sometimes described as a “guerrilla war”, with the majority of warfare taking place on the residential streets and towns of Northern Ireland.
The groups and organisations participating in the confrontation eventually resolved to do so through peaceful and democratic means. This ascendancy of politics and dialogue over violence was however, not easily achieved, and came with a devastating loss of life .
More than 3,500 people were killed in the conflict, of whom 52% were civilians, 32% were members of the British security forces, and 16% were members of paramilitary groups.
As many as 50,000 people were physically maimed or injured, with countless others psychologically damaged by the conflict, a legacy that continues to shape the issues and culture of contemporary Northern Ireland.
Whilst Northern Ireland is today at peace, it is far from being peaceful, with enormous divisions and tensions still very apparent, both physically, with around 41 physical territory barriers and hundreds of politically motivated murals still in place across Belfast. There has also been ongoing sporadic violence and conflict in the region since the Good Friday Agreement was signed, including a campaign by anti-ceasefire republicans.
Since the announcement of the UK’s exit from the European Union (Brexit) in 2016, hate crime has been on the rise across Britain, echoing the tensions felt during the Northern Ireland Conflict.
RISING BELFAST: Journeys of Dialogue and Reconciliation
The symposium was attended by a wide range of community leaders and members, and consisted of a full day of incredibly thought provoking presentations, led by speakers from The Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry Cathedral and the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building.
Chris Lyttle, Alliance MLA for East Belfast, opened the event, acknowledging Belfast’s inspiring conflict transformation story and the progress that has been made across Northern Ireland. He noted that:
“Reconciliation doesn’t have a pre-laid pathway, but has to start from individuals, family and neighbours, before extending to wider society.”
Recognising other community initiatives including the Towards Understanding and Healing project and the Together: Building a United Community Strategy, he proudly welcomed RISING BELFAST as “an opportunity to inspire local leaders and community members to continue striving for peace.”
Professor Mike Hardy, Director of the Centre for Trust, Peace & Social Relations at Coventry University and Chair of the RISING Global Peace Forum
Drawing on Lyttle’s introduction, Professor Mike Hardy acknowledged that “peacebuilding is a complex process that requires compassion”, with many lessons to be learnt from Northern Ireland’s ongoing peace process.
Speaking about the importance of communication for peacebuilding, Hardy said:
“Dialogue must initiate and unite three main stages – the encounter, the exchange and the engagement.”
He added that “the improvisation of dialogue can make it feel like a performance”, but:
“Positive and constructive communication must be built on reciprocal relationships – For a truly peaceful world, dialogue should be compassionate with an understanding of contrasting cultures”.
Padraig Ó Tuama, leader of the Corrymeela Community was next up to the podium. With an Irish background, he opened by expressing the strong differences in cultural narratives he experienced when he relocated to England, suggesting that:
“Disputes between Protestants and Catholics are exasperated by hostilities of centuries, different chosen pains in history, and different storytelling.”
He added that this creates contrasting narratives that justify one particular version of history to “confirm what you want to believe”.
This steered the topic to also focus on the rise in hate crime post-Brexit, which he noted is often lost in the attention given to the other long-standing confrontations we collectively focus on. Drawing parallels between the past and the present, he concluded by pleading the community not to let the past repeat itself as it is today and to take action now:
“Whilst dialogue and reconciliation may involve extraordinary pain which is not easy, it is better than death or living in a divided society – we need to take risks build a stories of transformation together.”
Coventry Cathedral’s Reverend Canon for Reconciliation, Sarah Hills, then took the opportunity to address the importance of “paths of forgiveness” as opposed to “paths of revenge” when attempted to build reconciliation.
Noting that reconciliation may not feel like an option in some places, she reminded us of Erasmus’ famous words, “at the beginning was conversation”.
Agreeing with earlier speakers, she added that:
“Reconciliation is a complex journey to engage with the other, but the central point should always be dialogue.”
Touching on technology, globalisation and increased ways of communication, she emphasised the need to be open, hear and listen to others better, as well as learning to disagree peacefully with each other, concluding that:
“Powerful dialogue starts with the understanding of our own story, as well as the past, in order to transform the future.”
Lord John Alderdice, UK Parliament and Chair of the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building delivered the final presentation of the symposium, initially stressing the importance of “the broader context in peace building”. He said:
“Peacemaking involves creating opportunities for dialogue – constructing a context where dialogue can take place, where you can sit down and talk. The idea is not to force the relationship to work; it is to understand the things that obstruct the natural understanding and engagement between groups of people.”
He added that: “there will always be ways to achieve reconciliation and ways to relate with each other”
“Dialogue has to be carefully set up: peace makers have to work to understand feelings of participants, who is going to talk first, symbols, suitable places or times”
Considering that the issue of conflict in Northern Ireland is not about individuals, but about damaged relationships at the level of groups, he continued, “reconciliation must integrate group and community approaches.”
He concluded by rejecting narratives that attempt to block changes of ‘traditional’ culture values. He said that
“Engaging in a peace process involves shifts of attitudes, of ways to engage people, and how to feel about the past and the future.”
He also welcomed informal ways of engaging others like art or cultural activities. During the wider discussion. He demonstrated this with his organisation’s recent sponsoring of a selection of Loyalist bands in a cultural diversity event, Music Unite. By engaging them with multicultural ways of playing music, they have moved from a singular interest in marching to a broader interest in music and engaging with others.
Finally, Lord Alderdice stressed the importance of dialogue’s stamina, which can survive only if it is institutionalised socially and politically with a holistic, both top down and bottom up approach, involving all groups at a dialogue level..
Belfast News Source: BBC History