A duty of hope: DFAT Reconciliation Networking Forum

Annual Reconciliation Network Forum 2017, Dublin Castle © Eilish BOSCHERT

A duty of hope: @DFATirl Reconciliation Networking Forum
by Eilish BOSCHERT for Shared Future News
26 October 2017

This year’s annual Reconciliation Networking Forum was held in Dublin, inviting community practitioners from all over the island to convene at Dublin Castle for a daylong session of critical engagement, constructive dialogue, and productive workshops.

The forum’s theme, ‘Reconciliation: the reality, challenges and responses’, encouraged attendents to critique the current state of affairs in the community and voluntary sectors and brainstorm methods by which these issues could be practically addressed.

Opening the event, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Simon Coveney, addressed the elephant in the room: disillusionment and disappointment instigated by political impasse and cutbacks — a seemingly endless loop of stagnation for community relations practitioners. However, Minister Coveney insisted that we cannot neglect the progress that has been made over the years — progress attributed to “the building of relationships, the deepening of understanding and the reaching across the divides, carried out by those on the ground dedicated to reconciliation”.

Those on the ground, he argued, are the ones who have the responsibility to generate goodwill in the face of political gridlock and utter lack of unified leadership. Using their knowledge and experience, community workers must find ways to renew the hope that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland: “Optimism fosters momentum, just as momentum allows us to be more optimistic.”

After the opening address, panelists, including Kate Turner, Liza Wilkinson, Bob Collins, Paula McIlwaine, and Emma Johnston, were invited to speak on the forum’s theme of reconciliation.

Director of Healing through Remembering, Kate Turner, emphasised the use of arts in peacebuilding as a way of building new curiosities — new ways to remember and reflect. According to Turner, “Reconciliation is an ongoing relationship where we … appreciate the ambiguity of our differences.” In this way, peacebuilding in Northern Ireland should be aimed at creating a society for both ‘them’ and ‘us’ that does not need to be fixed, she argued.

Following Turner, Wilkinson addressed the importance of understanding and embracing our differences, in order to create communities that cater to the needs of many. She said that social advancement does not occur just from looking after oneself; each individual person relies on so many others in order to succeed. Wilkinson argued that recognising this is the first step towards building equity, and creating safe places for open and honest conversations facilitates relationships that promote the growth of a community that acts on behalf of many.

Addressing integrated education, McIlwaine asserted that ‘shared’ space and education perpetuated binary thinking by remaining superficial and avoiding deeper issues. This, in and of itself, is a huge impediment to reconciliation, as it indoctrinates children into a system of segregation that they have no control over, she continued. “Integration is not part-time — it is all day, every day,” McIlwaine said. Halfhearted efforts at inclusivity should not be accepted when real change can begin in primary school, she argued.

Speaking on behalf of Youth Action and vocalising the challenges of young women in particular, Johnston stressed the disenfranchisement of young women from the social and political sphere. She remarked that with the rise of sectarian behaviour and hate crimes in her area, young women face an added level of vulnerability because they are targeted by their gender. Johnston ended with her three C’s: collaboration, critical thinkers, and compassion. She finished by saying that we all have an individual responsibility to impact change — beginning with making collective decisions, questioning the status quo, and proving to women that they have a prominent place in this political landscape.

Finally, Collins argued that every effort toward integration is resisted within Northern Ireland. The absence of violence, he maintained, makes it easier for communities to transmit hatred. The tradition of cultural superiority is not being questioned because people have become complacent with the state of affairs, Collins thought. However, within the current political climate, he said that there is the danger of communities polarising further: “If you pour vitriol into the water supply, don’t be surprised if people are poisoned.” We should not resist outside intercession, he suggested. In fact, Collins saw that there is an obligation for those within the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, and the wider UK to understand each other and work together.

Directly following the panel, forum attendees were invited into the discussion, voicing their concerns and opinions on the state of reconciliation in Northern Ireland. One volunteer wondered what reconciliation truly meant, as there had never been ‘conciliation’ in Northern Ireland. Another participant even went so far as to assert that ‘the war in Northern Ireland is not over’.

Responding to the comments, Collins declared, “We are emerging from violence and living with conflict.” He also argued that politicians refuse to engage in the politics of possibility, which enables — and reinforces — sectarianism. Wilkinson added that peacebuilding is not about the restoration of relationships, it’s about creating them from scratch and moving forward collectively. This begins, as McIlwaine suggested, by giving people a voice to tell their stories.

Before the lunch break, Helen Henderson (Director, St Columb’s Park House) explained a selection process called ‘consensual decision making’ (essentially this is a form of multiple choices but with a minimum higher threshold for acceptability). Delegates duly ranked their preferences for ‘key priority areas for the reconciliation and good relations sector’. The top results reaching a near 60% consensus weighting were:

  1. A shared vision and clear strategy for peace and reconciliation work which promotes collaboration and partnership working
  2. Providing organisations with access to a range of funding streams, including support for core costs, which helps to protect existing community based peace and reconciliation projects
  3. Providing meaningful opportunities for young people to engage together through integrated or shared education projects

In the afternoon, participants worked in groups for some more strategic thinking. From the rapporteurs came suggestions, such as:

  • Creating a Department of Reconciliation in the Northern Ireland Executive (which would work across all Departments)
  • Resurrecting a Northern Ireland Civic Forum, but with addressing the issue of membership, in order to ensure individual (not institutional) participation
  • Evolving projects that bring people together in designated ‘safe spaces’ to all other places

Sara McGrath (Political and Reconciliation Director, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) concluded the day with a short speech, explaining an attitude to her and her colleagues’ work as a ‘duty of hope’. Considering the politically bleak landscape, perhaps such a compulsion is required.

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