Transformation through collaboration: Foster
The Harri Holkeri lecture: Women, leadership and peacebuilding
by Allan LEONARD
23 May 2016
First Minister for Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster MLA, was the guest speaker at the fourth annual Harri Holkeri lecture series, on this year’s topic of “Women, leadership and peacebuilding”.
A dozen protestors outside the entrance of Riddel Hall made their own explicit demands for leadership on the issue of women’s reproductive rights.
The Director of the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice (ISCTSJ), Professor Hastings Donnan, welcomed guests, while Professor Patrick Johnston provided some detail of Queen’s University Belfast’s global contributions and competitiveness.
The Finnish Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Mrs Paivi Luostarinen, provided background to the lecture series, with a biography of Harri Holkeri’s career, which included his role in Northern Ireland, stints at the United Nations, and work in Kosovo.
Mrs Luostarinen said that she hoped that the lectures contribute to conflict transformation, and how tonight’s topic of women and leadership particularly interested her, as Finland works towards implementing UN Resolution 1325.
The First Minister took to the lectern, gave thanks for the warm introductions, and began her presentation with a quotation from her own election pledge: “To seek accommodation with each other, not conflict. To move our country forward.”
Ms Foster said that effective leadership transcends gender. There is no inventory or menu list to become a good leader. What is required, she said, is to have a keen desire to make a difference.
She credited the voluntary organisation, the Brownies, with giving her self-esteem and self-belief, and where she learnt the values of taking responsibility, making informed decisions — essentially, how to be a leader.
Ms Foster praised the work of youth leaders as invaluable, enriching our society: “Their effectiveness is not measured on a spreadsheet.”
She named three women who particularly influenced her:
- Margaret Thatcher
- Queen Elizabeth II
- Maud Kells
The first two were perhaps not surprising choices. She admired Ms Thatcher’s ability to thrive in what was at the time a thoroughly man’s world of politics, and she described the Queen as having a towering presence — humble yet instilling great pride.
Ms Foster described Maud Kells as epitomising peacebuilding, working in the Congo for over 50 years. Ms Foster said that from Maude she learnt the importance of the relationship between leader and follower, and how this can generate transformation through collaboration.
Ms Foster ended with by quoting C.S. Lewis, reflecting upon the status of peacebuilding in Northern Ireland: “Day by day, nothing seems to change. But when you look back, everything is different.”
BBC journalist, Yvette Shapiro, then facilitated an interview style question and answer session. The first set of queries were by Ms Shapiro herself, covering contentious topics such as flags, equal marriage, and abortion.
For such social issues, the First Minister replied that she is ready to have “a calm and reflective engagement between those who want to redefine marriage and those who don’t”:
“Let’s remove the heat and have space for a conversation,” she suggested.
Ms Foster said that she is also up for a conversation about the use of the Petition of Concern mechanism at the Assembly, “as we normalise politics here”.
Responding to a question about female elected representation, she gave examples of elevating women in the DUP when in office, and how important it is that women see a pathway in pursuing politics, through role models and encouragement.
Professor John Brewer suggested that our peace process is a moral not political one, requiring a moral vision of what Northern Ireland could look like. The First Minister responded with affirming the role that civic society will have in realising such a vision: “It’s important that they engage too.”
While Ms Foster earlier expressed complete confidence that a Justice Minister will be appointed, and the rest of the Northern Ireland Executive formed this Wednesday, the matter of a better justice service was asked. The First Minister replied that it was important for young people to have aspirations for better things: “You’d think that we’d have made more progress here, 18 years after the Agreement.”
This made me reflect on her earlier comment how the Brownies provided such spiritual nourishment and hope for a better future; her praise for the work of youth organisations; and call for engagement from civil society. Cynically, one could describe this as a rehash of the Conservatives’ “Big Society” policy. Perhaps more generously, one could see how those voluntary and community sector institutions of the past may not be influencing as many young people today, yet the significance of their work remains. The National Citizen Service could be one of many complimentary alternatives to the likes of the Boys Brigade, for example.
The last question was asked from a current Mitchell Scholar (a scheme implemented in honour of Senator George Mitchell, who worked alongside Mr Holkeri in forging the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement) — will the mothballed Peacebuilding and Conflict Resolution Centre (PbCRC) at the Maze/Long Kesh development site ever see the light of day? The First Minister replied by repeating an earlier statement that the past should never be used to limit the future, and how any centre must be reflective of what has happened here, but not a rewrite of the past.
I wasn’t entirely convinced by this response, because it contains contradictions. If there is transformation through collaboration, and parties involved use a centre to learn multiple perspectives and as part of an onward vision, then isn’t the potential for writing a new future (not any rewrite of the past)?
I had hoped to get my question request recognised, but alas time ran out. I found it remarkable that no one asked any international questions, in this audience with invited professional diplomats (Finnish, Chinese and American services represented).
However, after the assembly dispersed and making our way out some minutes later, I opened a door to be greeted by the First Minister walking towards me.
“Och, hello Allan! How are you?”
We both have family heritage from County Fermanagh, don’t you know?
We shook hands and I introduced my wife, who complimented her lecture.
I quickly gave her my question — what lessons from our peace process does she think others could learn from us, as well as what lessons does she think we could learn from others?
“That would have been a good question. You’ll have to save that for the next time!”
Well, at least now we’ll both be ready.