In this episode of What Northern Ireland Means to Me, we meet Dr Emily Stanton, who is a practitioner and an academic in peacebuilding, originally from the United States.
When I think about Northern Ireland, the word that comes to my mind is complexity. There are many positive aspects of that complexity and that’s there’s challenging difficult aspects of that complexity as well. My experiences here have always caused me to really reflect on myself. So, thinking about questions of identity reflects back on my own upbringing, my own assumptions about what identity means, and what its importance can be to people. Having lived here for as long as I have now, I do feel a sense of belonging. And yet, you know, I’m not from here and there will always be ways in which I’m reminded that I’m not from here.
I question things around community. What does community mean? What does peace mean? What does the violence mean? Those are all the experience of living here. And what Northern Ireland has allowed me to do is to really interrogate all those things that perhaps maybe I would have taken for granted or not looked as deeply into, had I not had the experience of being here.
I came here as a student in 1992, my background was in peace studies. And so we came to learn about the grassroots peacebuilding work that was being done here. And I always felt that there was a kind of vanguard of action here. Because there was an overt conflict, people were involved in trying to build peace, to tackle it. Whereas there was what might be called latent conflict in many other countries — United States, where I’m from, for sure. And that latent conflict, because it hadn’t erupted yet, was easy to ignore. Only when episodes erupted, then people would move into firefighting mode and deal with it, but then it would subside and it wouldn’t get comprehensively dealt with.
So, I think there’s a lot that can be learned. The progress is still ongoing here. There’s a need to continually be paying attention to these issues and to continue to interrogate what is peace and are you there yet? What is violence and have you really addressed it comprehensively? But I think there’s lots to be learned from what has been done here. And I think these are always ongoing issues.
Because my field is peacebuilding and my field is conflict transformation, Northern Ireland taught me so much about the importance of words — that words matter, to be careful of my language, think about how people perceive me, look for nuance, to understand that conflict is never simple.
I would have hoped I would have been able to come to that understanding working elsewhere as well. But I think it has enabled that deeper understanding. Growing up in United States, Belfast was a name you heard along with Beirut and all of the other war- torn places that were kind of written off as though there was no hope for them. The message is that no, that’s not the case, it doesn’t have to be that way. There is always a possibility for peace, but it needs ongoing attention. There are things that are part of that that are really hard to measure, like trust and hope. But I do think there’s no place that should be written off.
What Northern Ireland Means to Me is presented by Julia Paul and produced by Shared Future News, to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland, with funding from the Heritage Fund on behalf of the Northern Ireland Office.
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Images © Allan LEONARD