Is time the only consistent factor in post-conflict reconciliation?

In the course of a recent conversation, the statement was made that while international studies can point to many policies and initiatives that failed to lead to increased levels of reconciliation, few if any studies cite examples of practices or policies that can be shown to have successfully accelerated reconciliation.

Whether on the back of a family dispute, a church split, or communities driven apart through forty years of conflict (and hundreds of years of debated history before that), the constant part of any solution is that time tends to bring healing.

It is Community Relations Week, and there has been much celebration of peace-building projects across Northern Ireland. I’ll post later some extracts from the Annual David Stevens Memorial Lecture delivered this year by Prof John Brewer which investigated whether “political change is causing changes to people’s religious habits, or the other way round”.

Yet the annual Peace Monitoring Report demonstrates that Northern Ireland remains a society ill at ease with itself. It is easy to point out conflict and count some of its cost; but it is difficult to measure reconciliation in progress.

There is nothing that can be put in the water to brainwash us all to get along. No amount of money from Europe, America, the Middle East, London or Dublin can fund Northern Ireland into society that is diverse yet harmonious.

So it strikes me that policy-wise, removing barriers that would stand in the way of or further delay reconciliation should be the focus for government and grant-awarding bodies. If it’s going to take time, at least let’s help it to take no longer than necessary.

Develop curiosity and encounter the other. In a land where my story trumps yours, my rights outweigh yours, and I’m right while you’re deluded, we would surely be placed high up any international fixed mindset leader board. I see it in children, politicians, business leaders, as well as myself. Actual as well as mental fairy tales build up about other communities, colouring our perceptions and affecting the decisions we take. Not wanting to know what other people think and what makes them tick should be is much worse than not liking what you find out.

Keep them’uns closer. It’s more difficult to dismiss and continue to alienate those you disagree with if you deliberately try to be in relationship with them. Ian Paisley knew that he could do more good by working with Martin McGuinness than by continuing to freeze him out. Keeping tabs on the enemy won’t stand in the way – over time – of understanding, collaboration and cooperation, never mind repentance, forgiveness and love.

Pick fights on behalf of the small guy. Community traits of belligerence and standing up for what’s right could be widened out. Encourage groups to put their skills and energy into helping groups who are smaller and find it harder to speak up and be heard in the public square. Maybe the time for single issue bodies to receive grants is over. Instead, complexity should be embraced and encouraged, funding those who are willing to tackle diverse sets of issues, or work for the benefit of diverse sets of people. As well as highlighting racism, the “local homes for local people” protest has highlighted the lack of community agreement with the points-based housing allocation process. Yet where is there a body that deliberately brings together ethnic minorities, single parents, families with caring responsibilities to speak up and lobby for changes to the rules and regulations?

Lastly, we should tell stories of what the future might look like. This was a point raised by the then Methodist President Rev Heather Morris at the re-launch of For God and His Glory Alone last year. Marathon runners – I am told – and parents out for a walk with small children will often pick a point on the horizon and head towards it. Having a destination builds anticipation and drives you forward. Whether thinking about small steps or quantum leaps, articulating how we imagine a reconciled community working would lift our focus from looking over our shoulders at past pains and disappointments.

xchange_bannerAnother source of ideas may be the Xchange Summer School is running in Enniskillen on Thursday 26 and Friday 27 June. It aims to give people space to engage in “new thinking and creative challenge” to bring about social change in Northern Ireland. As well as fringe events, trips, parties and food, they’ll hold sessions to address changing the conversation on the arts, media, liberties and history.

The four themed sessions are priced at £5 each (to cover the cost of Ardhowen Theatre) and a summer school pass is still available for £50 that gets you in to participate in the full programme.

Lance Price, Simon Weston, David McWilliams, Debbie Watters, Adrian Dunbar, Ruth Dudley Edwards columnist and Steven McCaffery are amongst the invited contributors.

Potentially, out of the summer school will come individual and collective actions as well as policy ideas. Accusations that it’s the same old worthies attending will only be true if those are the only people who turn up. If you’re down in Enniskillen, pop in and lend the summer school your ideas.

One of the organisers, Karen Hall, spoke to me about the summer school at its launch in May.

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