When Did We Forget How To Build Peace?

Today marks the UN international day of peace, the General Assembly has declared this as a day devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace, both within and across all nations and peoples. So, let’s look at Northern Ireland and ask a difficult but critical question –  have we lost the peace-building tools that we once used to good effect?

There is no doubting we have come a long way since the signing of the GFA. Yet, we now find ourselves stuck with a pen factory’s worth of red lines and a failure to deal with the past – the effect of which has been almost 20 months without a functioning government.In 1998 we had a group of politicians prepared to be take chances to change the landscape. Their approach gave us the sense that anything was possible and brought a sense of hope. Hope is in short supply at present and cynicism has crept across communities like fog from the Lagan.

I hear and feel anger, and see people bristle at the mention of politicians as I chat with them in South Belfast and beyond. We’ve retreated to our sectarian silos and there seems to be a fear of sticking our heads above the parapet. I believe the fear comes from ideas of how our “own community” might react to our decision making more than anything else.

I’ve experienced this attitude in a very local sense this summer. We saw the introduction of a flags protocol on the Ormeau Road for the first time. Loyalists stated that they would use one flag on each lamppost along the Road. The flags would stay up for no longer than 3 months and no paramilitary flags would be used. The protocol was welcomed by local Green MLA Clare Bailey, yet there was a predictable kick back from Sinn Féin, and more surprisingly from some within the Alliance Party, particularly Councillor Emmet McDonagh Brown.

Cllr McDonagh Brown sounded shocked during a audio interview, when Clare Bailey said she had met loyalists in a local band hall. Heaven forbid!

Contrast this with his fellow party councillor and former Lord Mayor, Nuala McAllister, who sat down with loyalists in North Belfast, over a potentially contentious parade during the summer. This dialogue and engagement led to a local agreement which reduced tension and included the removal of some flags in the area.

Clare Bailey and Nuala McAllister exemplify the epitome of political leadership. They embody progressive politics, unafraid to reach out and meet with those you may not necessarily have much common ground with. Looking at the big picture and striving for the greater good and crossing into unfamiliar surroundings to build peace.

I would argue that the challenge for those calling themselves progressive is to get to a place where a Union flag or a Tricolour flying from a lamp post should not be treated as a threat. If we are serious about integration, then we need to have conversations about tolerance, real peace building.

Meaningless sound bites about “uncomfortable conversations” have no positive impact whatsoever in the streets and districts that suffered most during decades of violence. Sound bites about “uncomfortable conversations” matter little to the people living in areas of social and economic deprivation twenty years after the GFA. Sound bites about “uncomfortable conversations” matter little when the most in uncomfortable conversation you’ve had recently is whether to plump for quinoa or quiche for lunch.

We have to be in the business of providing alternative ideas and solutions for communities from within communities. It’s too easy to be populist. The challenge is to build peace, even when others may criticise and attack as you move into difficult territory.

This summer was a broadly positive one in South Belfast, particularly in comparison to the difficulties in North Belfast, East Belfast and Derry. As for the Ormeau flags protocol, it was adhered to and the flags came down. South Belfast also saw the Orange Lodge at Ballynafeigh open it doors to Bredagh GAA and in return they were invited to local GAA event. We need more of this, quiet peace-building at a local level.

Ideally, there would be a level of political leadership from above on these annual issues, but with no devolved government for over 20 months, many local communities have been left on their own.

Just before Stormont collapsed, a working group was commissioned to look at issues such as flags and parades. The findings of that group are currently on a shelf somewhere, gathering dust. There is no Minister to sign off  on the report and its expert recommendations. The cost, a mere £650K. Pissed off at that? I’d say you’re well within your rights to be.

Has it got to the point where we now need outside help in order to overcome the huge stumbling block that is the legacy of our troubled past? Despite coming a long way in 20 years, we haven’t shown the political maturity to deal with our past. I believe we must bring in an agreed international body to take an objective look at the legal issues pertaining to our past, while we get back to managing our fracturing health service, economy and education system.

We are approaching a huge political moment as the deadline for Brexit looms. The impact of Brexit on our little part of the world will be seismic. Yet we stay stuck on the same difficult issues around the legacy of out violent past. To simply do nothing and call yourself a progressive is dangerous. Peace-building has to be at the core of every single thing we do if we are to build a better society.

Brian Smyth is a Green Party representative for Lisnasharragh. Tweets at @briansmyth99