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.

, , , ,

  • DogInTheStreet

    An excellent summer scheme of course but as you say, it’s the same old worthies (but better worthies than unworthiness) but who no doubt mean well. Also no doubt those who attend will be the non sectarian middle class which is typical of such events a bit like the Ulster Project

    Aside from forced attendance of such events for those who need to attend it the most, the onus rests on the middle classes to play a bigger part in political life and not just take their enlightened minds and hide it in a box otherwise such events are for naught and will change one single bitter bigoted mind.

    The concept of the same old names is not confined to politics. Anyone familiar with the NI poetry scene would be forgiven to think there is an act of parliament decreeing that there shall no poets allowed save for Maedbh McGuckian, Glenn Patterson, Michael Longley.

    NI does strike me a society where the great and the good are ossified in a self made higher echelon that is jealously protected and allows not new faces to shine esp those won’t don’t come from academia or the arts or journalism.

    Another example of ordinary but intelligent articulate but unfashionable people being excluded.

  • > … so no doubt those who attend will be the non sectarian middle class …

    I’m sure the organisers will welcome the sectarian middle class, as well as sectarian and non sectarian working class and upper class and all in-between!

  • The government cannot force us to love each other. I’ve long maintained that the road to lasting peace consists of a) removing barriers and perverse incentives, and b) prosperity. With these in place, reconciliation takes care of itself over a few generations, or at least becomes the preserve of low level initiatives.

  • gendjinn


    great piece. It took 3 generations in the south for the hatreds of the civil war to be buried.

    It really depends on the intensity of the hatred and whether there are ongoing aggravating factors. Sometimes you have to wait for those involved to die, sometimes you have to wait for their children do pass before the event has left the emotional consciousness of the group.

    The most effective action is talking across the divide. Slugger has stereotypes & surprises from all traditions, just as there are many Nationalists with whom the only point we agree on is a UI, there are Unionists where the position on a UI is our sole point of disagreement.

  • DogInTheStreet

    Alan I am sure they would welcome them indeed would bigoted people of any social strata attend such an event in the first place? How many racists attend Rock Against Racism gigs or multicultural awareness programmes in GB?

    and yes I know you will say the event is open to everyone but like any event or club, only those who are members in heart and mind turn up. Not many jazz haters in Ronnie Scott’s eh but the door would be happy to take their entry fee nevertheless.

    The issue here is not these events themselves. They are positive and I’d rather they are held than not. How do we ensure that those who need to attend ie bigots, attend them. After all, isn’t it their minds we badly need to change?

  • DogInTheStreet

    Therefore we need more political activism from those who want to break down the barriers as it’s not good enough to just to be good but to do good too and be evangelical about it even if it means going into the lions’ dens and saying unpopular things

  • There are few violent ethnic conflicts that have ended with structured social-engineering political solutions. There are basically two versions, the first is:power sharing or consociationalism in which the various ethnic or religious communities are represented and have vetoes over legislation but have no real incentives to cooperate with each other. The other variety, popularized by Duke University Law School professor and political scientist Donald Horowitz, is vote pooling or voter pooling. In this system, used in the presidential election of 1979 in Nigeria and in Malaysia, requires the winning candidate or party to win a minimum percentage of votes across the country so that he is required to pick up votes from every major ethnic or religious community. Under this system the DUP and Sinn Fein would either be forced to eschew their sectarian appeals and cooperate more or would be in opposition with Alliance in power. So far consociationalism has been used in Bosnia and in Northern Ireland and has kept the conflict from becoming violent again but has not promoted healing the political conflict among the two communities (three in Bosnia). The main argument to be made in favor of consociationalism over vote pooling is that by holding out the possibility of post-conflict political careers for insurgent leaders it gives them an incentive to end the violence. But once the violence is ended the conflict continues by other means.

  • I’ve argued something similar to the Horowitz proposal, but without having to categorise all voters – if parties were required to stand an equal number of fair-employment-catholics and fair-employment-protestants (as already defined in legislation) it would go some way to encouraging them to expand their mandate.

  • Turgon

    Andrew Gallagher,
    “if parties were required to stand an equal number of fair-employment-catholics and fair-employment-protestants (as already defined in legislation) it would go some way to encouraging them to expand their mandate.”

    What a shockingly illiberal suggestion: genuinely Orewllian in its perversion of democracy.

    Alternatively we could let people form political parties dependent on their political views be they what you approve of or not and then let voters vote for them as they wished. That is a actual democracy.

  • Turgon,

    Is fair employment legislation a perversion of the free labour market?

    Liberalism does not mean letting people do whatever they want. It means only restricting people’s liberty in a proportional and necessary manner. I believe this is proportional and necessary.

  • Turgon

    Fair employment and free labour markets relate to employment not to elections. Insisting that only certain people can stand for certain parties in order to fit what someone else deems as proportional or necessary is highly undemocratic.

    “I believe this is proportional and necessary.”

    When applied to democratic elections that level of arrogance is breathtaking. Your opinions are not to be imposed on democracy: your position is actually autocratic.

  • Turgon,

    Breathtaking arrogance? I just stated an opinion. I don’t see it as any more outrageous than mandating a certain proportion of women.

  • @Andrew,

    Such a radical approach as you suggest is not required, after all Alliance has no rules on candidate background and yet regularly attracts large numbers of votes from both communities. This is because of its policies, not because of the religious identity of its candidates.

  • tmitch57,

    It is not currently required, because the process of designation forces community-specific parties to work together and gives them a mutual veto. But if we are ever to move away from mandatory coalition there need to be alternative safeguards. Alliance may be pleasantly cross-community, but other parties are not.

  • Andrew,

    I think that it is much better that we provide an incentive to the parties to moderate their rhetoric and diversify than some hard prescription. The vote pooling method is a tested version that has worked. A group of demographers in Northern Ireland or outside demographers provided with the local data could easily come up with a set of rules such as requiring a party to poll 25 percent in every constituency in order to be represented, This would be much better than simply mandating that ALL parties have 50 percent of their candidates from each of the two main ethnic communities. I don’t really like gender prescriptions either.