Northern Ireland Model Transformed Conflict Through Engaging Communities

Eric Olsen
May 22, 2014

Global Peace Foundation Hosts Capitol Hill Forum

Dr. Alan Largey (top) and Barry Fennell (bottom)

The unique path to peace pioneered in Northern Ireland—after the turbulent decades that took more than 3,500 lives, known as “The Troubles”—may hold lessons for other conflicts, according to a symposium held at the Hall of States on Capitol Hill, in Washington, D.C.

Two representatives from Cooperation Ireland, Dr. Alan Largey and Barry Fennell, shared some of the ways the cross-border NGO has used cross-community engagement in the efforts to build peace. Joining them was Harold Saunders, Chair of the International Institution for Sustained Dialogue, and James Flynn, President of Global Peace Foundation International.

Recalling the shuttle diplomacy that brought Egyptian and Israeli representatives to engage in a peace process during his tenure as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern/South Asian Affairs, Saunders emphasized the psychological dimensions of the conflict. “We are talking about transforming relationships, building relationships that are the essence of peace. We intuitively saw peacemaking as the transformation of relationships.”

When Kissinger and his team shuttled back and forth between three countries, Saunders added, he was conveying their concerns, their thinking, “creating virtual relationships, so that when they met, they were not strangers to each other.” Sustained dialogue eventually led to a consensus among the general population of the respective countries, permitting the leaders to enact the final agreement.

Bringing antagonistic groups together to truly listen to each other can provide a safe environment for long-held perceptions to be brought out—and for empathy to arise.  Cooperation Ireland has used such methods to enable those embittered by sectarian violence to encounter those of the opposition group in deliberate and focused communications.

Harold Saunders

Ending the active phase of hostilities may not resolve the underlying tensions, and Dr. Largey noted that once the external partners in the peace process withdrew, a lot of the communication stopped. The two populations now coexist, he said, but in segregated communities, divided by more than 100 “peace walls”–but also divided by sectarian education, public amenities, and even vocabulary:  the peace document itself is termed differently by the two sides, one calling it the “Good Friday Agreement” and the other the “Belfast Agreement.”

Cooperation Ireland has identified four levels of developing peace: Peacekeeping (stopping the violence); Peacemaking (building governmental structures reflecting citizens’ voices); Peacebuilding (developing peaceful communities and normalizing relationships); and Peacesharing (helping others in conflict situations through sharing the lessons learned in their experience.)

Jim Flynn (top) and Mark Farr (bottom)

Through projects that engage people across community lines, citizens are able to gain new perspectives. Dr. Largey reflected on the Irish delegation’s visit to Crown Heights in Brooklyn, New York the previous day, where Hassidic Jews and African/Caribbean Americans have endured a tumultuous relationship.

“We were listening to this side and then that side, and it was just so similar to the things that are happening back home,” he said, adding that a specific incident is remembered differently by the different communities. “We run a program called “Entwined Histories” which has the premise that ‘We have a common history, but an uncommon remembrance.’ And I think that’s what’s happened up in Crown Heights.”

“The work we do is community based, relationship building.” Fennell said. “It’s challenging, it’s difficult, it’s energy-sopping, but to do this, you have to be in there, in the environment, to make that change.”

Responded to one question to panelists at the conclusion,  GPF President James Flynn said peace can come when many individuals and groups each do some part, which taken together create a tipping point.

“We don’t need a translator when someone is crying, or is laughing. Our human-ness is our common base,” Flynn explained. “When we understand ourselves, our common humanity, we can change the way we think about each other and perceive each other.”

The forum was moderated by Rev. Mark Farr, President of the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue.

The Global Peace Foundation was founded in 2009 by Dr. Hyun Jin Moon. It seeks to promote innovative, value-based approaches to development and peace.

Follow Us

Take Action

Create a positive and impactful change in your area today.

Recent Posts

Related Articles