Murals and Peace Walls: Reflections on Interfaith Forum in Belfast, Ireland

Global Peace Foundation
November 14, 2014

by: Samantha Robb

Alan Largey and Barry Fennell, from Co-Operation Ireland lead a delegation of Nigerian Faith Leaders throgh Belfast’s Peace Walls and Murals. (photos by Samatha Robb)

Co Operation Ireland’s Alan Largey and Barry Fennell, in partnership with Global Peace Foundation led a delegation of Nigerian Faith Leaders around Belfast’s Peace Walls and Murals on October 29. The tour took in some of our most well-trod tourist routes across the Falls and Shankill Roads, before moving across to East Belfast and up the Newtonards Road to the front steps of Stormont.

Largey and Fennell were quick to point out that their tour tales would be tongue in cheek versions of our history at times, yet would strive to give as balanced a view of the reality of our conflict. Both also made it clear that ‘the truth’ of our conflict could vary greatly depending on which community you belonged to and that interpretations of events can be quite different.

Neither tour guide allowed our delegates to simply absorb the information, but challenged them to keep some rather contentious questions in mind, whether we should bring the walls down and gloss over the murals, or leave them as they are?

Peace walls and murals have become symbols of our entrenched divisions and differences between the communities here prompting some to argue that they should be removed. Barack Obama said it was ‘time to take the walls down’ on his visit to Ireland. While this is a great sound bite for a visiting president, the reality is that since the Good Friday Agreements, the walls have literally grown taller and increased in number, suggesting that our communities fail to share his enthusiasm.

Nigerian faith leaders adding their messages to the Belfast Peace Walls. (photos by Samatha Robb)

Should we continue to paint new, positive messages over the divisive political ones that exist today or do we use them as reminders of the pain of a past we do not wish to return to. The attraction of ‘Troubles Tourism’ can’t be underestimated and tourists from all over the world take bus and black taxi tours around the city to see and understand their relevance here. The unfortunate reality is that these images are not only reflections of a painful past, but visual markers outlining the very present resentment and feelings of injustice felt inside these communities.

Bishop Joseph Bagobiri, of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Kafanchan remarked that;

     “It is our hope that the physical walls may still be there, but the real ones inside us will sooner or later give way to better understanding, greater respect.”

As the group drove from the lower Newtonards Road towards Stormont, the change in scenery was apparent to all. The delegates noticed that as the area became more affluent, the murals and peace walls declined.

It isn’t news that those involved in the most public and broadcast displays of the remaining divisions between and within our communities are more prevalent in underdeveloped working class areas. These communities feel that they have been side lined and left out of the peace process and the benefits that have come along with greater political stability and security. The question whether these communities are any better off is significant. It is also important to ask whether any further attempts to develop peace and stability will be successful, if we fail to create economic opportunities for communities that feel they have been forgotten about. These difficulties are not particular to Northern Ireland, yet it is our own brand of conflict that we must address through co-operation and partnership across the political and economic divides.

When talking to Bishop Bagobiri about the divisions here, he was surprised to some degree by the prevailing conflict between communities that share the same faith roots in Christianity. He explained that Nigeria had also once had these difficulties between Catholics and Protestants, but that it was one they inherited from their Evangelising Missionaries. After some years of communication and partnership between faith and political leaders and their respective communities they were able to create mutual respect and understanding based around their shared roots in Christianity.

In some ways this led us neatly into the following day’s presentations and discussions at the Skainos Centre in East Belfast. Dr. Gary Mason, Director of Journey Towards Healing led the delegation on a tour of the building, outlining its broad usage within the community in the East and those who visit from other communities to join in the activities and programmes being run there. Here Mr James Flynn, the International President of Global Peace Foundation expressed his wishes that this forum would allow for the sharing of experiences and ideas in relation to the work of peacebuilding.

Members of Co-Operation Ireland, Global Peace Foundation and a special delegation of faith leaders from Nigeira take a group picture in front of the Sakinos center. (photos by Samatha Robb)

Professor John D. Brewer set the academic context for ‘The role of Faith Leaders in Conflict Resolution and Peace Building.’  He suggested there were two strands to Conflict Resolution and Peace Building, the Political Peace Process and the Social Peace Process.

Dr. Samuel C.K Uche, Prelate of the Methodist Church of Nigeria

Brewer suggested that while the role of faith leaders might be limited in the political peace process, the establishment of new political institutions and legislature, when it came to the social peace process, the can be of the greatest benefit to their communities and broader society. He also stressed the necessity of putting values into practice. It is no enough to espouse the principles of peace and co operation, but to be seen to be practicing these ideals in everyday life. Dr. Brewer further impressed upon those present that conflict transformation is not enough, that social justice must be ingrained in the processes, that if people remained poor and feeling marginalised, they will feel they have gained nothing from peace.

Looking at our own community and faith leaders, individuals like Father Alec Reid were mentioned during the conference as examples of individuals who risked their lives in the pursuit of peace. His Eminence Dr. Samuel Chukwuemeka Kanu Uche, spoke passionately about the Inter Faith work he has been a part of in Nigeria, creating links between Traditional, Christian and Muslim Leaders and Communities. He expressed very clearly his belief that ‘peace is not the absence of conflict, but a state of mind that is focused on resolving conflict without using violence.’ In agreement with Dr Brewer he stated that ‘we should not only advocate peace, we should live it.’

“Peace is not the absence of conflict, but a state of mind that is focused to resolving conflict without using violence.” His Eminence Dr Samuel Chukwuemeka Kanu Uche

The panel discussions and further debate highlighted some of the challenges faith leaders face in the modern context. Peter Sheridan of Co Operation Ireland stressed the importance of those individuals with moral authority within their communities daring to challenge established channels of communication and interaction. It was also highlighted that it is not always those in politics who have the greatest leadership qualities and that faith leaders have the opportunity to step forward and provide direction and act as an example within their communities.

On the final day of the delegations visit they visited Clonard Monastery where they heard the history of the Monastery and the late Father Alec Reid, and their involvement in the resolution of the conflict here. A particularly warm welcome was extended to His Highness Alhaji Zubair Jibril Maigaiwari II, Ameer of Birnin-Gwari, acknowledging the need for understanding between faiths in light of modern conflicts. His Highness said a prayer for peace in the Chapel, showing a willingness of both leaders to encourage and accept the difference of the other, with respect and understanding.

Visiting the Clonard Monestary. (photos by Samatha Robb)

Later at Holy Cross Church, the delegation heard from Father Gary Donegan and Bishop Noel Treanor about the work being carried out in the community here. In this interface area, with the ongoing protest at Twadell Avenue, Fr Donegan is out night after night, engaging with locals, encouraging peaceful protest.

It was clear that by the end of the three day exchange, much learning was taken from the failures and successes of those working towards peace and reconciliation both in NI and Nigeria. It was clear that educational integration and Inter-Faith Networks have been very successful in Nigeria, and could be a great source of inspiration for us in NI. At the same time the Nigerian delegates were extremely impressed with the multi-purpose, shared space in Skainos and looked forward to replicating similar projects in Nigeria.

Forums such as this allow learning across communities and geographical and national barriers and are a testament to the work being carried out by Global Peace Foundation. The vision of unity and diversity espoused by Global Peace is not merely advanced in the promotion of ideals, but this style of forum creates links with individuals all over the world, developing relationships and allowing for practical and real interaction.

Samantha Robb is an intern with Co-operation Ireland.

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