At a bit of last minute, I filled in for a colleague to speak at a roundtable discussion at the 15th International Conference on Thinking, held at Queen’s University of Belfast.The roundtable was chaired by Evanthia Lyons (QUB), and fellow discussants were Mari Fitzduff (Brandeis University) and Karen Trew (QUB). There was a separate but interrelated theme for each of the five days of the conference; for Thursday, 23rd June, the theme was “education and democracy”, and included presentations and workshops dealing with peace and reconciliation. As the conference programme described our roundtable event:
Experiences of the peace processes in Northern Ireland have contributed to the rapid development of scholarship and practice associated with peace building and conflict prevention. The literature on peace building that has emerged in the last decade reflects international efforts to educate future practitioners and scholars. This roundtable brings together a panel that has been closely involved in practice, research and scholarship, which helped to define the field. They have been asked to reflect on emerging theoretical and practical accounts of the process of change from their knowledge of local and international efforts to promote and maintain peaceful co-existence.
I organised my presentation in two parts — a reflection on the theoretical themes, or threads, that I heard throughout the day, then upon my own work at the Northern Ireland Foundation.There were three threads that I chose to underline and make my own arguments:
- Contact hypothesis — if not followed up with reciprocal exchanges and/or networked activity, yes a waste of time
- Linear peace process model — increasingly criticised as inadequate; peace plays out differently for sections of society at different rates; failure to demonstrate benefits weakens long-term success
- Societal vision statement — or as Brandon Hamber calls it, meta-narratives; will Northern Ireland ever have one?
I then went on to describe how this affects my work projects — galvanising support for improved community relations in Northern Ireland and developing practical projects that are delivered by members of divided/contested societies in the Forum for Cities in Transition.And with Karen Trew and Mari Fitzduff’s contributions, there followed a interesting and investigative roundtable discussion. For example, Paul Smyth (Public Achievement) talked about the need for more organisational collaboration (and Northern Ireland’s poor track record here); challenging the narratives (and need for leadership here); and how we set up the space for productive dialogue. There was also a deep question and much discussion about the role of the media in Northern Ireland, whether it should see itself as delivering an explicitly positive agenda for peace. The best conclusion I heard was that media is as much a product of Northern Ireland society as anywhere else. Following is my audio presentation: