‘Unfinished business’: peace summit demands action for reconciliation
by Laura RODRIGUEZ-DAVIS
3 March 2023
Peacebuilders from across the island gathered at the Ulster University Derry/Londonderry campus for Peace Summit 2023: The Unfinished Business of Peace and Reconciliation, hosted by The John and Pat Hume Foundation. With the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement’s passing approaching, the conference called for reflection on the past 25 years and planning for the future. “Today is all about tomorrow,” foundation secretary Tim Attwood declared in his opening remarks.
The event began with a welcome from Gerard Deane, director of the Holywell Trust and chair of the conference. Ulster University Provost Professor Cathy Gormley-Heenan reminded attendees of the significance of the Agreement and the unfinished work of reconciliation that remains. Attwood continued by reflecting on the legacy of John and Pat Hume, lauding the work of peace activists over the years, and looking towards the future of peacebuilding in Northern Ireland.
Professor Duncan Morrow (Ulster University Director of Community Engagement) chaired a panel discussing the past, present, and future of reconciliation in Northern Ireland. The panel consisted of five peace activists: Dawn Purvis (Vice-Chair of the John and Pat Hume Foundation); Catherine Cooke (representative for the Foyle Women’s Information Network); Reverend Dr Livingstone Thompson (chair of the Racial Equality Subgroup); Cori Conlon (technical theatre assistant for Rainbow Factory with YouthAction NI); and Jamie McAdoo (administration and finance assistant with YouthAction NI).
Panel participants reflected on their experiences with the Agreement and its relevance. There was an acknowledgement that the agreement had significant achievements in history but lacked the foresight to address many issues that remain today. “It didn’t imagine, for example, that a black man from Jamaica would need to feel included,” noted Thompson. Purvis concurred, stating that the Agreement was meant to evolve, and she expressed disappointment that so much division, exacerbated by Brexit, still exists.
Conlon and McAdoo spoke about youth disengagement with politics, based on the perception that politicians are not interested in young people. Conlon also expressed ambivalence about the relevance of the Agreement, which she asserted needs to change in order to accommodate a diversifying society: “That’s what young people want. We want to see a very diverse, multicultural executive.”
The panel also shared what they wished the Agreement had included, such as an implementation committee and more inclusion of women’s leadership. Cooke lamented, “I do believe that women are getting left behind, and that women have not had the government from the Good Friday Agreement that we expected.”
Thompson argued that following the spirit of the Agreement — which was about cross-community connection — would allow Northern Ireland to welcome pluralism in society. McAdoo also affirmed the value of cross-cultural relationships and the need for youth integration. Conlon reported that many youth are isolated in their own communities, and credits involvement in organisations like Rainbow Factory for fostering her own cross-community experiences and making her voice as a young person feel valued.
Thompson referenced research demonstrating the increased likelihood in Northern Ireland of experiencing racism, compared to sectarianism, and the importance of moving beyond relationships formed by bonding over past trauma (“trauma bonding”) to create new connections that can help overcome racism. “Research has shown that a well-managed diverse context will always outperform a monocultural context,” the biblical scholar informed.
When asked what gives them hope for Northern Ireland, the panellists pointed to increased diversity, young people, a sense of safety, and gatherings of people from different backgrounds for peace. Morrow concluded the panel discussion by affirming the value of spaces, such as this peace summit, for diverse civic voices.
The panel was followed by a message from Paddy Harte (chair of the International Fund for Ireland), to honour the investment made in the Northern Irish peace process. He reviewed the work that the organisation does to promote peace, inclusivity, and relationship-building, and offered the audience words of inspiration and encouragement in pursuing peace.
Professor Brandon Hamber (the John Hume and Thomas P. O’Neill Chair in Peace) at Ulster University, then introduced a report detailing the findings of a consultation with peacebuilders, community members, and young people between October 2022 to February 2023, across Northern Ireland and the border counties. At various workshops and engagements, the consultation participants collectively reflected on the journey of peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland since the passing of the Agreement as well as their hopes for the future. All peace summit attendees were given a copy of the report, which was the focus of the subsequent conference discussions.
The themes brought forth by consultation respondents were synthesised into the following four categories:
- political progress
- participation and civic engagement
- cohesion and sharing
- issues not addressed in the Agreement
The report concluded with a call to action, offering twelve recommendations based on the points raised, such as tackling paramilitarism, enhancing social well-being, and creating a vehicle for civic engagement. Hamber noted that the consultative dialogues evoked feelings of hope, fear, frustration, and rightness among participants.
Conference attendees were then engaged in an interactive workshop facilitated by Elizabeth McArdle (Ulster University Course Director of Community Youth Work), based on the report. As groups, people gathered at posters around the room featuring topics brought up in the report, such as social and residential segregation and integrated education. Comments from the sparked discussions were recorded on the posters.
After returning from lunch, Jamie McAdoo presented a video from YouthAction NI, offering a perspective about peace, mental health, and cross-community connection from young people before conference-goers jumped into another interactive workshop focused on envisaging the future. Participants were asked to prioritise the twelve recommendations from the report and then focus on how to implement two of the steps, generating lots of lively discussions.
To summarise the day’s takeaways, Dympna McGlade from Community Dialogue reviewed the comments and discussion. She noted the call to move beyond “orange and green” politics, with stronger political leadership that aims to progress the peace and reconciliation process in Northern Ireland. Inclusive civic participation that reflects the diversifying culture was frequently mentioned throughout the day, McGlade observed.
Funding for peacebuilding, youth participation and empowerment, and educational, residential, and social integration were also discussed during the summit. McGlade expressed optimism for a new peace plan looking towards the future and gave the final admonition, “We need to finish the job.”
Chancellor of Ulster University Dr Colin Davidson closed the conference by acknowledging that creating a new future is not possible without coping with the past. He drew attention to the lingering grief and trauma of survivors and the need to acknowledge the harm done. Davidson urged that the peace summit should only be the start of an ongoing process.
The conference’s conclusion was followed by a remembrance of late Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam, known for her participation in the peace talks for the Agreement. Catherine Cooke read a poem about Mowlam, recalling her bold spirit. Peace activist Anne Carr shared memories of Mowlam being barefoot in government buildings and championing women and youth. Henrietta Norton, a film director and Mowlam’s stepdaughter, spoke about her stepmother’s passion for integrated education, partnership, and diversity, and how she always committed to making others feel heard.
The peace summit was certainly a day for reflection on the progress made over the past 25 years, but it was also, perhaps even more so, about the work that is still to be done. Although peace and reconciliation remain unfinished business in Northern Ireland, the conference reminded us that there is much hope and determination for the future.
The Peace Summit consultation document is available to download, with responses welcome by 7 April 2023.
Images © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster CC BY-NC.