“Bits and Peaces” celebrate Irish peace movement history

Community Conflict Skills book cover. Mari FITZDUFF.

“Bits and Peaces” celebrate Irish peace movement history
by Naomi HIGGINS
1 December 2021

Innate, the Irish Network for Nonviolent Training and Education, was established on the premise of “the need for an umbrella group to support groups and individuals exploring nonviolent approaches to conflict and social change issues”. On 17 November 2021, the network hosted the first of two seminars: “Bits and Peaces — Irish peace movement history: Northern Ireland peace work during the Troubles” (video link).  

The event was billed as an attempt to record some “peace history” — the work and achievements resulting from peace and reconciliation activists. For approximately ten minutes, each of the six guest speakers was asked to share “a particularly memorable event or experience” that encapsulated their activism experience during Northern Ireland’s Troubles.

First to speak was Ann Patterson,  a long time activist on peace and other issues, a member of the Peace People, and most recently an employee of the Quaker Cottage family centre in west Belfast, a cross-community family support centre that provides services for some of the disadvantaged areas of north and west Belfast.

Patterson was born to a World War II veteran, who brought her up with a strong social conscience, due to his own belief that the British Army glorified the war. She was raised to hate war. Violence came to the streets of Northern Ireland just as Patterson joined the civil rights movement of the 1960s. She formed a group of people who got together at weekends to make a human shield to protect civilians and soldiers from one another. Patterson remembers mothers and soldiers alike stopping to thank them for their efforts of protection. She described her involvement with the Quakers, for example meeting and giving practical assistance to those visiting friends and family in prison. Patterson remarked that with the increasing violence, “We all lost our soul”; she kept humanity in the conflict by writing notes to those who died. She did this until the death toll was too much to keep up with, but continued to promote peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland through nonviolent means. Patterson concluded, “We must keep doing what we were doing — bringing people together for peace.”

Anne Carr was born to a working-class Protestant family in west Belfast, but moved to Canada at three months old. She did not return to Northern Ireland until 1964, at the age of 12, but this distance from the religious conflict during her formative years shaped her lasting viewpoint. By age 15 her formal education ended and she went to work for the civil service. In the 1970s, she fell for a Catholic man from south Belfast. He came from one of two Catholic households in the neighborhood, and when he was safely away on a lads’ trip to Spain in 1972, two Protestants arrived at his door with a gun. It was shortly after this incident a group of nine, including Carr and her partner, moved to London to escape the conflict. Not lasting in London long, the pair returned shortly after — married. This was a secret kept from Carr’s father for two years, out of fear for his reaction, as he was a steadfast DUP supporter. Being in a mixed marriage, Carr was insistent of an integrated education for her children, prompting the founding of All Children’s, Newcastle — the first integrated primary school developed by parents outside Belfast, in 1986. In 1990, she went on to work at Women Together, and worked with a colleague, Pat Campbell, to advance its work. Carr described how they convened sessions for women to discuss “things that were left outside the door”, as well as organising training for women, and more. She highlighted the organisation’s work on developing policy on support for those who were injured or bereaved as a result of the conflict. This work fed into the Bloomfield report, which led to the provision of a state pension for victims and survivors. Carr finished, “I still work with women. I still bring women together. I will continue to do so — my feet are still on the ground — until [my feet are] under.”

Derick Wilson has been involved with peace work since 1965 with Corrymeela, a movement of people rallied around one inspirational idea: “Together is better”. To Wilson, Northern Irish reconciliation has always been about “giving people a space where we could live together amongst our differences”. From 1970–73, he worked for the Community Relations Commission’s Schools Project, which promoted a large part of his work. Wilson remarked, “Young people [were] being seen as problems, not gifts, to society.” Wilson worked with the Corrymeela North-South Youth Programme, which brought those from all sides together. There were three phases to this programme, starting with visiting one another’s homes, followed by a local weekend trip, and ending with a trip to Europe. These periods of time together in different settings allowed the children to put their differences aside, find common ground amongst themselves, and have fun as children should. Wilson believes this process allows a place for harsh and meaningful discussions to occur, while allowing those to “experience the intimacy of honest differences”. He ended his talk with his public hope to “have a civil society and a hopeful society that can have an interdependent society”.

Geoffrey Corry, a pioneer of mediation in Ireland, has promoted family, workplace, and community peace since the 1990s. He had a key role in establishing the Mediators’ Institute of Ireland. In the 1980s, Corry took on the role of chairman of the Glencree Centre, whose goal is to transform violent conflict while building peace. In 1994, the Glencree Political Dialogue workshops began amidst the news of a ceasefire. These workshops took place over 50 residential weekends, up until 2007. Other key elements to the Glencree Initiative were an annual three-day summer school and interest-based negotiation skills training. During the residential weekends, participants controlled the agenda, allowing current pressing issues to receive cross-community thought. Over the course of two and a half days, three topics were explored, with bonding sessions to build trust. Corry firmly believes informal time during these weekends are as important as formal time, attributing positive work during this time to an “honesty bar”. At these weekend retreats, participants were able to share stories, which Corry saw as “the basis for building human relationships”.

Mari Fitzduff is a powerhouse of women in the world of peace. From her Dublin birthplace, she first arrived in Northern Ireland in 1976, to the unceasing trouble of the “killing fields” in County Tyrone. Her need for sustainable peace came on what she calls her “Damascus morning” in the early 1980s, when a young group of British soldiers knocked on her door asking if there was anyone in her house who should not be. Earlier that morning, Fitzduff had seen young IRA members practicing in the fields behind her house. Knowing these soldiers were looking for the probable IRA members, she knew she had to intervene. All she saw was two groups of undereducated men, who would go on to kill each other, after joining the ranks out of economic necessity. This moment is what propelled her peace career. She has since gone on to be the first director of the Community Relations Council in Northern Ireland and subsequently director of INCORE at Ulster University, as well as a professor and founding director of the Conflict Resolution and Coexistence program at Brandeis University in the US.

The final speaker of the evening was Michael Doherty, a Derry native who has been involved with cross-community work there for many years. Growing up in a conflict-driven society, Doherty can directly pinpoint the moment he was called for peace. One day his family’s barbershop was blown up, while he was working. To this day Doherty does not know why this barber shop was the target of said bomb, but he bears the lasting impact of the explosion with partial deafness. This event prompted him to go back to school for an education in 1975. In 1986, the Department of Education mandated community relations to be a core element of youth services. Doherty became the first community relations worker at this time. He continues his career as a mediator and as former director of the Peace and Reconciliation Group in Derry.

Bits and Peaces was an enjoyable, semi-formal event that brought together peace workers from across the region. At the beginning of the seminar, you could see the group interacting as old friends. The field of peace studies is so small, one can imagine the overlap of these professionals over the course of their careers.

On 24 November 2021, Innate hosted the second half of this seminar, “Bits and Peaces — Irish peace movement history: International peace work in Ireland” (video link).

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