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.



  • Margit

    Sounds like an excellent initiative. Would like to know more about it – even more concrete examples of how this is /will be implemented. Also think that at the moment NI is in this big bubble of “oh let’s concentrate on the future and not rake through the past”, which IMHO is wrong. There won’t be any true reconciliation until the collective trauma has been dealt with. Your approach will defintely be one of the tools to get there.

  • anne warren

    “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”

    I agree with both those sentences. The gaps that have to be bridged are the major problem. Getting to A (a commitment to equality, human rights, inclusion, and good relations) and then from A to B (placing responsibility on all individuals and institutions to contribute to the greater whole) both require entire relatively long-term programmes involving media, education, community workers and outreach and so on. Funding is only one of the problems – people holding the purse-strings appear to have no will to start, while any grassroots approach founders for lack of general appeal (as opposed to local issues) and money to promote initiatives.

    And so Ulster people blindly soldier on!

  • Reader

    Gladys Ganiel: Kelly’s recommendation about language is one of eight key recommendations of the report,
    Here’s a ninth, also about language – skip the jargon.
    For instance, I assume from context that ‘mainstream’ has become a verb – even so, what does “5.Integrate and mainstream options which support integration” actually mean? What would be an example?

  • Barnshee

    A judicious mixture of social worker/MBA speak

    AKA claptrap

  • Hi Reader,
    Kelly expands upon all these points in the report, an example for #5 includes recognising the examples where there have been effective mixing in ‘housing, education, employment, sports and cultural and social events’, and using those examples to intervene strategically on a wider scale. She also recommends that: ‘rather than departments and agencies continuing to send mixed messages that imply support for cross-community activities through funding of pilot initiatives or short-term projects, the NI Executive takes the ambitious and courageous decision to make fundamental public policy decisions that place integration at the heart of government objectives, including the Programme for Government.’ p. 111

  • IJP


    The problem thereby becomes the standard means through which funding is allocated in NI.

    The land of saints and scholars has become the land of pilots and projects – but there is rarely any longer-term vision and goal.

    As a result, not only do often very good projects stop well before time, but a lot of time is taken up seeking funding rather than doing work.

    Until we move away from the endless ‘1-year pilots’ and ‘3-year project allocations’, it will remain easy to shirk the ‘fundamental policy decisions’ of which you speak, because the serious evidence for them will be lacking.

  • Reader

    Gladys, thanks for your reasoned answer to my tetchy and abrasive challenge. My initial point on the language in the report still stands. The people who can read it aren’t the ones smashing windows across the interfaces. That’s sort of why I picked on point #5, and I would like to stick with that.
    I can think of a number of ways where integration is happening in the complete absence of any official sponsorship. I live in a fairly mixed area of owner occupied housing. Most of my children went to a nominally RC primary school that was actually mixed because local aspirational Prod families were desperate to escape from the doom offered by the nearest controlled primary. At the other end of town there is a good controlled primary that is also somewhat mixed. My sport is effectively mixed, my workplace is utterly mixed.
    If #5 is to reach anybody, it has to be aimed at people who aren’t making conscious decisions about their lives, or who don’t even have the opportunity. They go to a local school, then leave education after 2nd level. They hook up with a local partner, go to a local pub, send their children to the nearest school, work for a local employer or not at all.
    How will a public sector initiative integrate them?

  • That’s a good question, Reader! And I’m sure that the answers aren’t all in one report. And as you say, there is some positive movement happening – intentionally and unintentionally. There is evidence (some examples in the new book by Lee Smithey, which Alan in Belfast profiled a few days ago – that public policies can help incentivise change, albeit slowly and surely …

  • Greenflag

    One recommendation .

    ‘Do unto others as you would have others do unto you ‘

    Or in modern parlance treat other’s culture , identity , allegiances , flag, religion with respect and tolerance .

    And then you probably won’t have to defend your own traditions against attack.

    The above would of course be a personal , atheistic , humanistic viewpoint .