Reconciliation: Maybe, just maybe
The Peace Builder’s Handbook by Michael Doherty
by Allan Leonard for Northern Ireland Foundation
19 September 2014
Michael Doherty, a recognised mediator for over 30 years, today launched The Peace Builder’s Handbook, a resource for those involved in facilitating challenging conversations among community groups. There was a guest speech by Peter Osborne, Chair of the Community Relations Council, which provided financial support for the publication. June Trimble, Director of Youth Action, which hosted the event, expressed her thanks for both Mr Doherty’s and Mr Osborne’s support, saying that the more resources there are such as this, the better.
Mr Doherty described his motivation for producing the handbook, encouraged by his recent experiences in participating in the Forum for Cities in Transition, an international network of cities that are in various stages of conflict transformation.
But it started in 1986, with the authorship by Dr Brian Mawhinney of the “blue document”, which included the importance of involving youth clubs as a core element of community relations work in Northern Ireland. Here, the organisation Youth Action took up the mantle, and secured a Community Relations Officer.
It wasn’t until 1992 before guidelines on community relations work was produced. Mr Doherty described the pioneering work of Chuck Richardson, Anne Dickson and Mari Fitzduff.
In 1996, the Community Relations Council established a training department, to assist those implementing community relations work on the ground. This extended into schools, with the Education for Mutual Understanding (EMU) programme.
The nomenclature changed from “community relations” to “good relations”, as referenced in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and EMU evolved to lessons that could be taught within the discipline of citizenship in the school curriculum.
At the level of the Northern Ireland Government, public policy developed from A Shared Future to Cohesion, Sharing and Integration, to the current document, Together: Building a United Community (TBUC), for which the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMdFM) are consulting the public for a review of its implementation.
Mr Doherty mooted whether we have an understanding of sectarianism, and an understanding of good relations. For him, what is certain is, “We’re not in a post-conflict situation yet.”
After this review of community relations work in Northern Ireland, the Chair of the Community Relations Council, Peter Osborne, spoke about the evolution of relationships within Northern Ireland since the Troubles.
Mr Osborne cited the Good Friday Agreement, saying that all of us should go back and re-read essential elements.
For example, the Agreement states in its first paragraphs that “we make a fresh start in which we firmly dedicated ourselves to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance and mutual trust and to the protection and vindication of the human rights of all.”
It further states, “We are committed to partnership, equality and mutual respect as the basis of relationships within Northern Ireland, between North and South, and between these islands.”
Furthermore, the 2006 St Andrews Agreement states that “the culture, right and aspirations of all are respected and valued, free from sectarianism, racism and intolerance.”
Mr Osborne continued by saying that in November 2012, the First Minister Peter Robinson said that he wanted true and genuine reconciliation brought about not by words in a document, but by changes in people’s attitudes. Just before then, Mr Osborne said, Declan Kearney of Sinn Féin had said that there needs to be a shared commitment to begin understanding and knowing each other better, as part of a reconciliation process.
Even more recently, in August 2014, Mr Osborne described his experience of attending a Feile an Phobail event on reconciliation, where Colin Parry and Martin McGuinness spoke. Mr McGuinness (deputy First Minister) said that reconciliation, for him, was the next big phase of the peace process.
Mr Osborne quoted words spoken by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, at a church service to a mainly white audience of parishioners, remarking on the collective silence of white South Africans shortly after the killing of 500 black South Africans. One stood up and asked the Archbishop, “What would you have us do?” to which he responded, “What would you do if your brother, father, son, family had just been killed?”
Mr Osborne reflected upon the responses of the people of Northern Ireland during numerous atrocities, from Whitecross, Kingsmill, Monaghan and Birmingham: “Did we say and do what Desmond Tutu wanted us to do?”
“No, we didn’t,” answered Mr Osborne.
He described our society as one of “malignant relationships”, which we are still coming to terms with: “Reconciliation is not going to happen just because we have a peace agreement; it will take years and years of concerted effort.”
Mr Osborne then challenged whether Northern Ireland Government is willing to put investment in this probable multi-generational project: “There’s been plenty of personal investment, including the likes of Michael Doherty in this room. But what of financial investment?”
As a comparator, Mr Osborne pointed out that from Northern Ireland’s overall total annual budget of £22 billion, just £13 million is spent on community relations work (all forms); the Community Relations Council is responsible for administering £2 million per annum. In contrast, £60 million of public funds went towards the creation of Titanic Belfast building.
“If we don’t invest in [reconciliation] work, then tourists may not return to Titanic Belfast because we will have gone back to the future,” Mr Osborne warned. He said that the relative poor investment in community relations work needs to be included in everyone’s submission to the TBUC review.
Mr Doherty brought everyone back to the darker side of peace in Derry-Londonderry, where he lives. “Celebration” is marking facts that punishment attacks don’t kill, just maim. But he pledged to continue with his peace building work; he wants to keep promoting the will and desire to not go back to where we were as a society.
He explained the structure of The Peace Builder’s Handbook, showing how any worksheet can be used anywhere in the province (and beyond).
Mr Doherty finished with a reading of his poem (within the handbook), “Reconciliation”:
Reconciliation is a mindset yet
To be considered
By a people who do not
Want to be reconciled
Because of a rooted hatred
That has been instilled by
A history we did not make.
To be reconciled is to admit
We may have done wrong because
We thought we were right.
To be reconciled means we may
Have to forgive the deeds of
Others who have caused us offence
When we felt we did no harm.
Maybe we need to reconcile
Ourselves with the notion that
We never will be reconciled.
But maybe, just maybe.