‘Be unrealistically optimistic’ of unfinished business of peace and reconciliation
by Nicole MUNSON
24 May 2023
Many dozens were welcomed to Ulster University’s Belfast campus by Professor and Provost Cathy Gormley-Heenan, to launch a “Call to Action” report published by The John and Pat Hume Foundation. In partnership with a hefty group of influential players in Northern Ireland’s peacebuilding landscape, the report resulted from seven months of events that engaged 700 people. The two-and-a-half-hour event featured prominent academics, government officials, and grassroots leaders speaking to the report.
Gormley-Heenan passed the mic to Northern Ireland’s Civil Rights Commemoration Committee Vice Chair, Dympna McGlade, for opening comments. McGlade noted the few missing people in the room, such as Brandon Hamber (co-author of the report) and others who contributed to the creation of the report.
Looking back at the passing of the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, McGlade reminded the audience about the 81% turnout and 71% “yes” vote for the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. She then compared this turnout rate to the mere 54% turnout for the most recent council elections, and suggested the continual dysfunction in government and legacy issues are to blame.
McGlade then reflected on the report and how participants discussed and reflected on the most prominent issues in Northern Ireland, such as segregation, lack of community interaction, integrated education, and continued paramilitary control over certain communities. Youth were especially integrated into the events for this report, as well as people of colour and minority communities, to understand the issues most important to those groups and how the report authors integrated their thoughts into the suggested actions.
A quick video recap of the March 2023 event in Derry highlighted event participant voices. This highlighted youth and grassroots actors, one of whom was Catherine Cooke who stated community workers “have lost that challenge voice… because a lot of us are funded by the government”. Cori Conlon from Youth Action NI also reiterated the importance of young people and those not in the room when it comes to reflecting on how to move society forward in implementing peace.
Eliz McArdle (Ulster University course director for BSc and community youth work) then took to the stage to present the final report to the audience. Thanking the co-authors for their hard work, McArdle stated that the outreach for its creation lasted seven months, from October 2022 to April 2023, and that the report engaged 700 people over 30 events. A breakdown of the participants at each event suggested a higher level of women’s participation than men’s. The final event in Derry utilized a consultation document where the actions were debated by participants, which then fed into the newest call to action document.
McArdle reviewed the main themes presented in the report: political progress, participation and civic engagement, cohesion and sharing, and issues not covered by the agreement. When speaking about political progress, McArdle noted participants’ anger towards political leaders and that many felt the peace process was in crisis, despite the positively recognised establishment of the agreement and increased sense of safety.
In the participation and civic engagement theme, participants spoke about how women, young people, the elderly, and ethnic and minority groups were continually marginalised. There was a strong desire for civic engagement and a vehicle for enhanced political participation, breaking the myth of supposed apathy from young people. McArdle stated there was a general call from participants to invest in up-and-coming peacebuilding leadership.
Issues of segregation in life, housing, and education were present in the conversation around cohesion and sharing. There was a desire from participants to decrease sectarianism and address paramilitarism by withdrawing support and funding provided by politicians. McArdle noted the many issues that were highlighted that are not addressed by the peace accord, such as the increase of new communities, racism and discrimination of people of colour, the presence of trauma in the community and its residual effects on youth, concerns over the legacy bill, and the impact of flags, emblems, and parades on communities.
Beyond the themes present in the report, McArdle stated and reviewed its proposed 12 actions as well as the next steps for this partnership group. The actions suggested covered issues raised, such as tackling paramilitarism, formulating an inclusive peace plan, and integrating education. In terms of the next steps for the partners, McArdle stated that the group would continue to speak with individuals to update the report in the future to ensure its relevance to action.
After the report’s review, future hopes were discussed for Northern Ireland and the peace process. From a youth perspective, Bethany Moore (Foyle Women’s Information Network) described her experience as a “cease-fire baby” who didn’t meet another Protestant until the age of 17. Reflecting on the realities of life here, Moore reiterated statistics about Northern Ireland as having the lowest productivity across the UK, how families spend more on childcare than on their mortgages, and that this is the most dangerous place for a woman to live across Europe due to domestic abuse and femicide.
Moore highlighted issues for youth in Northern Ireland, including eradicating homelessness, de-stigmatising mental health, realising women’s reproductive rights, eliminating racism in society, having better education, and developing more youth services. She urged those listening to include youth voices in further conversations about moving the implementation of peace forward, saying, “Don’t let us go another 25 years failing our young people. Listen to us, recognise us for who we are… it’s time to hurry up and finish the job.”
Lyn Moffett (chair of the Junction and Community Dialogue) encouraged the room to say “yes”, as they did in the referendum, to human rights, ending fear, sharing life across communities, and increasing community dialogue. Moffett exhorted the audience to say “no” to walls in the community, the legacy bill, and historical deprivation in specific communities.
Paddy Harte of the International Fund for Ireland welcomed the next speakers who responded to the report, starting with Denis McMahon (permanent secretary, The Executive Office), who noted three main reflections: peace is a personal issue; change is inevitable, but progress is not; and we should be “unrealistically optimistic”.
Joint Secretary of the Irish Secretariat in Belfast, Laurence Simms, highlighted some of the institutions that are working as well as some funded research being done to learn across and from the marginalised in the community. Peace activist Anne Carr focused on how important integrated education and housing are for healing the divides still present in Northern Ireland. Calling on the government to “get back to work”, Carr enticed those listening to stand against apathy. Finally, Jonathan, Baron Caine, wrapped up the response segment by speaking about his unwavering commitment to the agreement and his priority to get governmental institutions back to business.
The final session was a panel hosted by Duncan Morrow (director of community engagement, Ulster University). With limited time, Duncan asked one question of the panellists why, nearly 25 years later, we are still discussing all of these issues and the agreement itself. Carr stated that we left full accountability for the implementation to the politicians, and it’s time we decided what we do and don’t want. McMahon reminded the audience that it is the ministers’ job to make the decisions as elected officials who have been out of office for many years since 1998; often, the urgent replaces the important when focusing on implementing change in society.
Turning over the mic to the audience for questions, three ideas arose: a museum space for civic engagement, why reconciliation seems to stop and start, and how communities could lobby for the government to get back in their offices and for change. Carr stated that the creation of space for civic participation is key if policymakers are to hear the community’s voices. McMahon noted that for reconciliation policy to continue moving forward, the people who make those decisions need legitimacy, which is given through voting, which is why the process tends to start and stop alongside the government. Simms said that it can be difficult to get a community to lobby for the highly interdependent issues in Northern Ireland, which means that it takes time for change to come about, but that there is no substitute for politicians hearing from the communities in moving things forward.
Closing out with final comments, Tim Attwood (secretary, The John and Pat Hume Foundation) stated that the partnership formed to create the report will continue forward together. The engagement plan with youth, government, and ministers in Northern Ireland and abroad will aid them in this pursuit of implementation. Attwood also recognised the difficulties organisations on the ground face with cuts to funding and said that we will all need to continue the work of implementing peace at the interfaces.