Can Northern Ireland ‘Embrace the Language of Profound Change’?

In a research report launched today at NICVA, ‘Progressing Good Relations and Reconciliation in Post Agreement Northern Ireland,’ the University of Ulster’s Gráinne Kelly identified as her number one recommendation that political leaders and policy makers should ‘embrace the language of profound change.’

This finding resonates with me, because I’ve become increasingly concerned about the apparent turning away from the language of ‘reconciliation,’ by politicians and policy makers, as exemplified in the Cohesion, Sharing and Integration document.

Like Kelly, I think the language of reconciliation can be useful, and there have been constructive examples of its use in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, the Shared Future document and the Report of the Consultative Group on the Past.

(Readers of my posts on Slugger will be aware of my line of thinking on this – admittedly typical of someone who lectures on a programme called Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation. In my own recent academic work, which I present at the Political Studies Association meeting in Belfast next month, I’ve been trying to recover religiously-based resources for reconciliation that might enhance public debate in Northern Ireland).

Kelly’s recommendation about language is one of eight key recommendations of the report, which I expect will soon be made available on the ARK (Access Research Knowledge) and INCORE (International Conflict Research Institute) websites. Kelly is INCORE’s Policy/Practice Coordinator.

The text of the ‘Embrace the language of profound change’ recommendation (p. 107-108):

The task of moving a society on from the economic, social and psychological causes and consequences of the conflict, while tackling the insidious legacy of division requires ambition, commitment and courage. Local political leaders have demonstrated these qualities regularly over the past two decades. That being said, much work remains and the challenges can appear daunting. It is not a time to be tentative or hesitant in defining the task ahead. Progress is not assisted by the use of confused and vague language which clouds our vision as to the goal to be achieved. The Declaration of Support section of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement recognises the impact of the conflict on the society. It reads: “The tragedies of the past have left a deep and profoundly regrettable legacy of suffering. We must never forget those who have died or been injured, and their families.” It goes on to establish the goal to be achieved: “But we can best honour them through a fresh start, in which we firmly dedicate ourselves to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust, and to the protection and vindication of the human rights of all.” (1998:2)

Clear and unequivocal language is required to define both the process and the desired outcome. The language of reconciliation used by the Agreement clearly articulates the depth and breadth of change required. It encompasses a vision of the future, while recognising the hurts, losses and suffering of the past. It understands that, as a process, a commitment to equality, human rights, inclusion, and good relations is required. The right language, if precisely articulated, places responsibility on all individuals and institutions to contribute to the greater whole. By adopting the vision of reconciliation, the 1998 document provided a coherence to the process of building a ‘shared and better future’ for all. Words used without explanation or definition can lead to misinterpretation and misunderstanding. Broad agreement on terminology allows all involved to move towards the same objectives, based on an understanding of the goals to be achieved and the component parts which will lead us to that path. Responses submitted to the consultation on the framework for Cohesion, Sharing and Integration reiterated the need to restore the language of reconciliation to the centre of government policymaking. It is recommended that serious consideration be given to a process of understanding and defining a clear vision for a ‘shared and better future’ and articulating it through the language of reconciliation. This language was embedded in the Agreement, and continues to have resonance within wider society to the present day.

The full list of the eight recommendations is:

  1. Embrace the language of profound change
  2. Adopt a strategic framework for action and a significant commitment of resources
  3. Create efficient and meaningful structures through which progress can be achieved
  4. Develop greater understanding of what works and why
  5. Integrate and mainstream options which support integration
  6. Articulate the link between good relations, reconciliation and dealing with the past
  7. Seize the opportunity presented by upcoming commemorations to make space for engagement, dialogue and learning between communities
  8. More effective utilisation of existing information, statistics and research data

The research was funded by the Equality Directorate Research Branch of the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Kelly’s methodology was qualitative, involving in-depth interviews with a focused sample of people from the political/policy, community/voluntary, and grant-making sectors.



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