Can you imagine five politicians from Northern Ireland’s five major parties sitting down together, talking about their backgrounds, memories and inspirations – and articulating strangely similar visions of a future together?
Something along those lines took place Friday night in an event at the 4 Corners Festival, “Our Stories at Stormont,” where Chris Lyttle (Alliance), Jennifer McCann (Sinn Fein), Fearghal McKinney (SDLP), Lee Reynolds (DUP) and Michael Copeland (UUP) were invited to share their stories.
This will give us an opportunity to listen to the stories of politicians. Why did they decide to go into politics? How did they choose their party? What drives them? Not a night for debate or disagreement, but for listening.
To the wary or cynical, the line that says it is “not a night for debate or disagreement, but for listening,” may make the event sound like a soft option, a talking shop that skirts the “real issues.”
But there’s wisdom in the central insight behind the event, which is that for reconciliation in Northern Ireland to gather pace, we need to do more than debate issues and policies. We also need to be able to look beyond the issues and have empathy with each other as human beings.
And one of the surest ways of finding empathy for the so-called “Other” is to listen to their story. When we hear something of someone’s background, motivations and experiences, we can often find commonalities among us or understand why they made different decisions than we might have made in our own lives.
But can this lead to reconciliation?
“Reconciliation” is clearly on the agenda of the organizers of the 4 Corners Festival. The organizers are a group of ecumenically-minded clergy and laypeople, some of whom have a public profile and have been trying to put reconciliation back on the public agenda.
And as someone who lectures on a Master’s programme in “Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation,” I have to confess I have a strong interest in promoting that contentious R-word. (Not just the word, of course, but the restored relationships that it implies.)
Having said that, something I’ve learned from Wilhelm Verwoerd and Alistair Little, who teach a module on our Master’s programme, is that “reconciliation” may not always be the most helpful term to bandy about. There may be other, preliminary steps on a road to reconciliation.
Wilhelm and Alistair’s work with grassroots, cross-community groups has a prominent storytelling component. Their experience has been that when people listen to others’ stories, space is opened up for re-humanization.
They talk about re-humanization as a new ability for people to connect with each other, to see the people behind the politics of their party or “community,” and to begin to develop empathy.
Chatting with members of the audience after the “Our Stories at Stormont” event, a common remark was that there was a lot more to the politicians who had spoken than the sound bites in the media. People could clearly recall when they had been hurt or offended by a public pronouncement by a particular politician. But when they had a chance to get a more rounded view of the person that night, they said they would be more willing to give them (and their party) another chance to explain themselves. They had been re-humanized.
Indeed, the limitations of our media coverage were acknowledged by the chair of the conversation, the BBC’s Tara Mills, who “suggested that the media have to take some blame for not allowing the humanity of our politicians to come through.”
For me this also raised questions about why our politicians so often seem to find it expedient or advantageous to articulate extreme or contentious positions in public, when “behind the scenes” they may admit to sharing more in common than we’ve been led to believe.
Perhaps they perceive greater political rewards for harsh rhetoric than for reasoned compromise – even though compromise is what democratic politics is supposedly about.
All five of the politicians said they got into politics out of a desire to improve their communities or achieve justice for people who had been marginalized. Listening to their stories, it was difficult not to feel some frustration that their (shared) ideals seem to have been stymied by Northern Ireland’s sectarian social and political structures.
Storytelling, and story-listening, won’t transform sectarianism overnight. There will be no instant “reconciliation.” But I think there’s something to be learned from the simple re-humanizing power of stories — especially when it includes listening to stories from those with whom we most disagree.