Civil society paving path to Northern Ireland peace: past, present, and future

Civil society paving path to Northern Ireland peace: past, present, and future
by Nicole MUNSON
26 April 2023

Event organiser Dr Connal Parr hosted “Paving the Path to Peace: Civil Society and the Northern Ireland Peace Process”, a one-day conference with a panel-stacked day at The MAC in Belfast. The event featured civil society actors in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and was supported by the Irish Government’s Reconciliation Fund in memory of May Blood (1938–2022). Four panels were presented throughout the day, each with a unique theme to address and reflect upon the past 25 years in Northern Ireland since the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. 

Dr Connal PARR. Conference: Paving the Path to Peace: Civil Society and the Northern Ireland Peace Process. The MAC, Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Kevin Cooper Photoline

Dr Parr welcomed everyone and handed over to the chair Tony Gallagher (Queen’s University Belfast), who introduced the first panel, themed “Will I be Heard? Trauma, Healing, Stories”. Marianne Elliott (professor emeritus, University of Liverpool) spoke first about the Opshal Commission’s work in the 1990s, which resulted in a book called A Citizen’s Inquiry and was instrumental to issues discussed and adopted by the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. 

Tony GALLAGHER, Alan McBRIDE, Damian GORMAN, and Marianne ELLIOTT. Conference: Paving the Path to Peace: Civil Society and the Northern Ireland Peace Process. The MAC, Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Kevin Cooper Photoline

Elliott said that she works “on understanding where our problems come from” as a historian. This began with her work for the Opshal Commission, which she described as “[promoting] the idea of people becoming participants in deciding their future” by sharing their stories and including widely marginalised groups of individuals like women and prisoners. Although their recommendations were controversial at the time, they did empower people to take ownership of the peace process, which according to Elliott, is the only way to ensure that a peace process is successful. 

Alan McBride (WAVE Trauma Centre) weaved a tapestry of tragedy and hope through heartfelt storytelling, touching on his experiences. He stated that Northern Ireland society needs to figure out how to allow people, especially victims and survivors, to “live, laugh, and love again” to see true healing. McBride suggested that dealing with the past constructively, envisioning kindness in politics and changing society’s behaviours, were key to completing this goal. 

From suggesting that all flags of any nation represented in the population be accepted at city hall, recognising the continued handing down of non-peaceful behaviours, to suggesting that the Legacy and Reconciliation bill should head back to the drawing board, McBride encapsulated the complexity that is Northern Ireland today. Ending on a question, he asked the audience, “How can we encourage the kind of society that encourages dream makers… to go out and not only follow their dream but to achieve their dream?”

Playwright Damian Gorman finished the first panel by reflecting on the question, “Will I be heard?” His extensive work as a storyteller prompted the suggestion of another question, even more important to consider: “Will I Speak?” Gorman briefly recounted his brother’s traumatic story as a guide to speaking one’s story, even when it is difficult. However, he felt that storytelling is often more for those who receive the story, as they have the opportunity to learn to listen. 

Bronagh HINDS, Jackie REDPATH, Tom GILLEN, Avila KILMURRAY, and Alyson KILPATRICK. Conference: Paving the Path to Peace: Civil Society and the Northern Ireland Peace Process. The MAC, Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Kevin Cooper Photoline

After a quick Q&A with the first panellists and a few comments on the lack of civil society represented at the recent Agreement 25 conference at Queen’s University Belfast, Alyson Kilpatrick (chief commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission) quickly introduced each speaker for the second-panel theme, “Social Movements and Pressure for Change”.

Avila Kilmurray (Social Change Initiative) started by retracing the social movements in Northern Ireland’s history since the beginning of the Troubles. She spoke about the varying tactics and approaches each movement utilized, and lamented over the sectoring of the social movement work over the last 25 years. One key challenge for social movements today, according to Kilmurray, is the lack of solidarity between the issues and their respective networks. 

Bronagh Hinds (senior associate and founder of DemocraShe) also spoke about the women’s movement in Northern Ireland and her participation throughout its history. She highlighted the transversal politics that were done by women (allowing room for differences in opinions yet working together anyway), and how important that was for setting the stage for women’s collaboration when it was time for forging the agreement. Hinds also stated: “The peace process belongs to the people, not the politicians.” 

From the Greater Shankill Partnership, Jackie Redpath opened with a quote from May Blood: “The purpose of a good education is simple; it should enable a child to become the author of their own life.” He recounted the work done in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s within the communities, and how the Greater Shankill Partnership was one of the first organisations to create a long-term, 35-year strategic plan. Ending with a reference to John Paul Lederach’s work around peacebuilding and community development, Redpath suggested civil society needs to begin working as a horizontal actor (speaking with the communities) and a vertical actor (speaking with the government) if sustainable peace is to be upheld.

Lastly, Tom Gillen (former deputy assistant general, Irish Congress Trade Unions) spoke about the history of the work done by trade unions in Northern Ireland, highlighting Better Life for All, May Day Parade, and Hands off My Mate campaigns. 

Diane GREER, Eileen WEIR, Martin MAGILL, and Jim McCUSKER. Conference: Paving the Path to Peace: Civil Society and the Northern Ireland Peace Process. The MAC, Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Kevin Cooper Photoline

After a break for lunch, community facilitator Diane Greer chaired the third panel, “Working in Communities”, introducing Father Martin Magill of St John’s Parish. Magill highlighted the work he and others are doing called “Stop Attacks”, focusing on human rights abuses. With statistics, Magill reminded the audience how these attacks affect children in low-income areas. Suggesting that violence has moved from intercommunity to intra-community, he urged that the issue of poverty must be addressed and that the churches must work together around this and other issues.

Jim McCusker (former NIPSA general secretary) recounted trade union campaigns over the years and highlighted the Northern Ireland Committee, which rallied over 200,000 people and showed that progress could be made without violence. Their work led to the first fair employment act in Northern Ireland, and McCusker promptly cited statistics of lowered claims around religious discrimination as a marker of success.

Eileen Weir (Shankill Women’s Centre) spoke about how women’s centres were built around education. Weir pointed to the harmful narratives that women have endured over the years and how they’ve worked to combat them through their educational initiatives. The Shankill Women’s Centre has recently lost funding; Weir said that whether those programmes will continue is unclear. She poignantly stated that because of the work that they’ve been doing (and all community programs across Northern Ireland), the tourism business is expanding. Community groups, she suggested, need to be credited for making that possible, as they have been the ones doing the difficult work of keeping the peace for all these years.

William CRAWLEY, Lesley CARROLL, Pat HYNES, Emily STANTON, and Mary MONTAGUE. Conference: Paving the Path to Peace: Civil Society and the Northern Ireland Peace Process. The MAC, Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Kevin Cooper Photoline

After a quick break, it was back to the fourth panel introduced by William Crawley (BBC), themed “Reconciliation: Paving the Path to Peace”. American ex-pat and Corrymeela Community member Dr Emily Stanton started recounting her experience arriving in Northern Ireland in 1992 and spoke about how people and place are essential peacebuilding capital utilized by the field. People become compasses for others and the community as it builds relationships. Stanton noted how Corrymeela continues to allow people who deeply mistrust one another to come into a liminal space where something new could be created. 

Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation’s Pat Hynes spoke next about how the centre was created and its important place in the history of the conflict in Northern Ireland. Hynes shared lessons he’s learned over the years of participating in and facilitating dialogue: it’s essential to create inclusive spaces and processes; dialogue can humanise relationships; be prepared; and have no surprises. He purported that “complexity is actually the friend of peacebuilding“, as it allows additional avenues to explore and find areas of agreement.

Mary Montague (Mediators Beyond Borders) retold her story of becoming a peacebuilder and mediator throughout the history of her life. She grounded her experience in motherhood, stating that she was speaking only for herself and to improve her children’s lives. “Peace,” she said, “is not just the absence of violence, nor is it something given to people through political agreements. It is the change between people’s hearts and minds to build sustainable relationships”. This was the essence of her work as an interface mediator.

Dr Reverend Lesley Carroll (Prisoner Ombudsman for Northern Ireland) reflected on where she was before the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement was made, which was in the community with many different groups working for peace. She remembered how her faith inspired her to do this work and always felt that her neighbours were her responsibility, yet peacemaking work was sometimes lonely. Carroll’s work now continues in the prisons, investigating deaths in custody and complaints from prisoners. She shared that she found encouragement through a colleague who suggested she “get off [her] cross”, which meant: “Start taking responsibility and do your bit to change the world.”

In the final Q&A, there was a lively discussion about how far Northern Ireland has come in terms of reconciliation, with panellists referencing the missed deadline of peace walls coming down by 2023, grassroots actors being further ahead than the politicians, and that overall there was a long way to go. Integrated housing and education were also discussed, and Montague spoke of the importance of having difficult conversations in integrated spaces as a way to deepen its impact. 

It was clear that civil society actors were key implementers of peace before and after the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. If Northern Ireland wishes to continue paving the path for peace — as per the conference title — it will do well to focus on the work these organisations continue to do in the community.

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