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The Peace Process -- Irish Stories and Stages

Facilitation: Rob Fairmichael, INNATE

The civil strife, which plagued Northern Ireland for 30 years, officially stopped in 1998 when all factions involved, Catholics/Nationalists/Republicans, Protestants/Unionists/Loyalists and the British and Irish governments, signed the Good Friday Agreement. However, Ian White, director of the Glencree Centre of Reconciliation and himself a Unionist-turned-moderate Protestant who fled with his Catholic wife from increasing intimidation in Belfast, pointed out that cross-communal relationships in Northern Ireland are still very weak and peace between the people involved has still to be built.

The story of the work of the Glencree Centre demonstrates some ways forward in building relationships after violence and some of the issues that we face. Glencree, located in the Republic of Ireland, has developed various programmes to try to meet needs and gaps in the peace building process in Northern Ireland and to complement and support the work of governmental and nongovernmental organisations and groups in this field. The Centre provides a 'safe space,' facilities and the expertise of staff and volunteers for any group or individual that wants to work towards a lasting peace in the North. It is financed by both British, Irish and European governmental organisations and private sources, though fund-raising consumes a lot of valuable time. In order to facilitate its workshops and projects, the Glencree Centre has developed three values: (1) inclusiveness of all persons; (2) non-judgement of any person, although this is sometimes quite difficult and (3) non-scapegoating.

The programmes at Glencree are constructed for different target groups: residential political workshops bring together political leaders, activists and -- often reluctantly -- members of the security forces from all parts of the British Isles for a weekend of structured dialogues and informal talking ('storytelling'). About 200 participants take part in around 8 workshops a year. This often leads to fruitful networking between participants and to the realisation that the 'enemy' can be talked to without sacrificing one's identity. Glencree offers training programmes in negotiation, mediation and other Alternative Resolution Skills. It also tries to engage leaders and members of the main churches -- often accused of either perpetuating the conflict in the North or of sticking their heads in the sand -- in cross border and cross community workshops. In these workshops it is particularly important that the participants learn to accept that two truths can exist: "If one is right it doesn't mean that the other one is wrong."

Jacinta de Paor presented a victims/ survivors project L.I.V.E. (Let's Involve the Victims Experience), with two films: one was about youths from North Belfast, one of the most notorious conflict areas, taking part in a weekend project; the other showed the first meeting in 2000 between Pat Magee, a former IRA member who was a bomber involved in carrying out the Brighton hotel bombing in 1984, and the daughter of one of the victims of that bombing. L.I.V.E. started very small but now has ten weekend meetings of 25 people each year. Victim-survivors from all parts of the British Isles, mainland Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, take part. Meetings usually start on Friday with an informal trust-building introduction and continue on Saturday with 'training' (e.g. related to the media or bill of rights) and, if appropriate and mutually accepted, a meeting between victims and ex-combatants, which is often challenging.

Fun, art and music are important aspects of the work both in themselves and in facilitating the process of verbal exchange. Most crucial is that each person talks about his or her suffering, tries to accept it and listens to that of the others. In order to avoid people not listening, each person with a question has to get up and sit in a certain chair. This kind of strategy might be summed up as healing memory through story-telling. Although this kind of healing is mainly individual, it also affects the communities as a whole, as the stories told are communal as well as personal. The interconnectedness and relatedness of the participants' lives, past and present, always become apparent. The objectives of L.I.V.E. are support for victims while they are dealing with their past, the acknowledgement of past hurts and wrongs, learning how not to hate and building relations and bridges. However, nobody is asked to forgive, that is a choice each person has to make for him-or herself. The question of when justice comes into this process was not ignored, but according to Ian the justice tends to come through the questions the victims raise and the answers they get from the ex-combatants to these questions. During the workshops, any question can be asked, although this is often difficult for the 'victimised.' Moreover, all stories told are equally important and welcome. Not surprisingly, participants in L.I.V.E. often disagree, but violence has never occurred. Importantly the complexity and limitations of identifying someone solely either as a victim or as an aggressor often become apparent.