Peace tourism: A mobile history of Belfast’s grassroots peacebuilding
by Eilish BOSCHERT for Shared Future News
3 November 2018
On a Saturday afternoon, Dr Emily Stanton led guests on a unique bus tour through the heart of Belfast as part of the ESRC’s sixteenth annual Festival of Social Sciences. Unlike typical city bus tours that highlight Northern Ireland’s combative history, Stanton’s tour illuminated 50 years of peacebuilding initiatives in Belfast. This tour collaborated with with Rob Fairmichael, a veteran of local peacebuilding initiatives and current coordinator of the Irish Network for Nonviolent Action Training and Education (INNATE). Stanton and Fairmichael brought us to all four corners of the city, discussing the hidden history behind the Troubles — a history of grassroots collaboration in the midst of conflict.
Why have local practices and practitioners been excluded from peacebuilding theory in Northern Ireland? This was Stanton’s main question in her examination of grassroots peacebuilding. Too often definitions of peace centre on political negotiations that entirely eliminate the hard work of local actors before as well as after agreements have been implemented. According to Stanton, practice that only leads to political agreement discounts the social aspects of peacebuilding which are integral to sustaining and developing peace. She has made it her mission to tell the story and understand the practical knowledge of grassroots practitioners: those who have intimately experienced, resisted, and sought to transform conflict in Northern Ireland.
Examining grassroots efforts between 1965 and 2015, Stanton split those 50 years into six distinct phases of peacebuilding:
- Increasing the volume on the conflict radio (1965-1968)
- Crisis response and fire-fighting (1969-1972)
- Holding societal threads together (1973-1979)
- Getting on with it (1980-1991)
- Tilling the soil for political agreement (1992-1998)
- Two steps forward one step back (1999-2015)
Stanton revealed the culture of advocacy that began in the 1960s which created space for ecumenical relationships; however, it also began to examine the latent inequality and mistrust pervading Northern Irish society at the time. The Corrymeela Community was the first grassroots effort to bring people of different backgrounds together in dialogue to confront these divisions. As the tensions between communities rose in response to the expectations or fears of social reform, other organisations emerged to quell the rapid escalation of conflict between communities. For instance, Women Together created an alliance of Catholic and Protestant women that intervened in sectarian attacks and provided practical support for one another. Simultaneously, peace committees were forming across Belfast, acting as a neighborhood watch to protect people at flashpoint areas during contested parades, while peace rallies at Ormeau Park gathered thousands of attendees to stand against social division and the escalating violent campaigns.
As the conflict grew and transformed, so did grassroots peacebuilding efforts. Initiatives that began as resistance to violent conflict developed into dialogic efforts to bring all sides to the table in the face, or aftermath, of atrocity. The Fitzroy-Clonard Fellowship formed in 1981 to create interfaith dialogue and encourage relationships between the tribal divide. Quakers also took a significant role in peacebuilding in Northern Ireland; their neutral socio-political status and ethos of non-violence allowed them to act as political intermediaries, promote peace education, and provide support to Maze/Long Kesh prisoners and their families.
In more recent years, efforts have shifted to contend with political fallout and bring a communal voice to the forefront of political dialogue. Initiative ‘92 was an attempt to actively engage civil society in how to collectively move forward. Rob Fairmichael, who worked on the campaign for six months, revealed that it was difficult to persuade people that there was an initiative that wasn’t affiliated with an ‘ism’, but an open agenda and cross-community engagement was vital to the success of the Initiative.
Other initiatives, such as WAVE Trauma Centre and Healing Through Remembering (HTR), have provided resources for reflection and healing. The signing of peace agreements does not indicate a reconciled society, it is merely a step in the right direction. By providing space for those who have traumatised by conflict, regardless of their identity, WAVE has encouraged mutual healing and support across social divides. In the same way, HTR takes creative, non-partisan approaches to engaging with the legacy of violence, pain, and loss. HTR’s ‘Day of Reflection’ invites all those affected by the Troubles to commemorate lives lost and the impact that the conflict has had on our society.
At the conclusion of the tour, Stanton explained that the core of her research were the voices of ordinary people asking, “How do we grapple with this?” These ordinary people stood up within their communities and set the groundwork for political agreements. They were the vanguards of peace: holding their communities together and providing support when governments could not. The practical and emotional support of these grassroots initiatives have created and sustained cross-community relationships to this day. The knowledge and experience of these local actors is invaluable to peacebuilding research in all societies struggling with conflict.