A Northern Ireland lesson

Anne Carr
2 June 2007

I have just returned from the first conference organised by the Nobel Women's Initiative May 2007 where strong and brave women's-rights activists from around the world - Afghanistan to Somalia, Burma to Uganda - shared their stories and work. Amid violence and mayhem, these women are creating amazing networks and capacities to help repair and rebuild their societies. The experience has led me to reflect on my own long journey as a peacebuilder in Northern Ireland, which I hope could be a source of optimism to sisters in these and other lands devastated by seemingly intractable conflict.

On 8 May 2007 our Northern Ireland devolved assembly met, inclusive of all our elected representatives, from the Democratic Unionist Party to Sinn Féin, to inaugurate a new political era. The 108 assembly members elected on 8 March sat down together, agreeing to share power and to work together for the good of all our people.

And I for one had to pinch myself to see if I was really witnessing this with my own eyes.

This was because what I was witnessing was not begrudging, dismissive, demonising behaviour and body language from previous arch-enemies in the staunch Unionist and Republican camps, but eye contact, smiles, laughter and good-humoured banter.

For me the for-so-long-impossible had happened - and tears trickled down my cheeks.

After the death of over 3,600 people and injuries to tens of thousands more, after all the pain and all the false dawns - something new and special was emerging. A seemingly unsolvable centuries-old conflict in Ireland was coming to an end and an acknowledgement that whatever our different and just aspirations, politics rather than violence was the way forward and compromises had to be made. Even the reporters present admitted that this "good news story" left them almost unable to believe their eyes.

Anne Carr is a dialogue practitioner in Northern Ireland Anne Carr was part of the gathering of the Nobel Women's Initiative (NWI) in Galway, Ireland, on 29-31 May 2007 .

The purpose of the Nobel Women's Initiative is "to address and work to prevent the root causes of violence by spotlighting and promoting the efforts of women's rights activists, researchers and organisations working to advance peace, justice and equality"

Also in openDemocracy from the NWI:

Isabel Hilton, "Peacework: lessons we have failed to learn"
(1 June 2007)

Nadwa Sarandah, "Nothing is impossible, the difficult takes longer" (1 June 2007)

Shirin Ebadi, "The meaning of peace in the 21st century"
(4 June 2007)

openDemocracy's blog about and podcast from the NWI conference are here and here

A long road

I have been involved in peacebuilding work in Northern Ireland for a very long time.

As a Protestant teenager in Belfast in the early 1970s I dared to cross the religious divide and marry a Catholic. We witnessed at first hand the devastating violence and fear as the new era of instability emerged following the civil-rights marches of the 1960s. We had heard the guns, witnessed the bombs and saw our friends having to leave their homes and move to the "other side" through fear and intimidation. But it was only when the first of my four children were born that I started to actively work to end the violence and join with others to attempt to build a society based on love and trust.

Along with a few other parents I worked to develop the first "integrated" primary school for Protestant and Catholic children, outside the Belfast area. We had seen the success of Lagan College in Belfast and wanted our children to be educated together in an ethos of harmony and mutual understanding in Newcastle, Co. Down where I then lived. We started with nothing and had to raise the funds to start the school and run it for over two school years before the government took over responsibility for funding. A wonderful primary school, All Children's - now oversubscribed with an enrolment of over 200 children - was born.

I then called the first meeting to establish a second-level college in the area so that children could continue their education together into their teenage years. Shimna College, Newcastle was the result; it has become a successful integrated secondary school teaching children from 11- 18 years old, which has been awarded special status for its excellence in languages. These are parent-driven, parent-supported initiatives which have made such a difference to our children's ability to mix on a daily basis.

In 1990 I joined the Women Together organisation and spent the next eleven years of my life actively campaigning with women from across Northern Ireland to end the violence. We organised vigils and rallies on a regular basis, always seeing the immediate aim of halting the violence as only a starting-point of the long and difficult process of rebuilding relationships, supporting those who had lost loved ones and moving on.

It was a hard road with moments both joyful (the paramilitary ceasefires of 1994) and tragic (the breaking of the IRA ceasefire of August 1994 with the bomb at Canary Wharf, London, in February 1996). When the latter happened, we immediately called our supporters together and held a vigil outside Belfast city hall. 5,000 people gathered at very short notice - all sending a message to the world that violence was not the answer and that the painstaking process of dialogue and building relationships across the divides was the only way forward.

The re-establishment of the IRA ceasefire in July 1997 gave momentum to the peace-talks process. The Northern Ireland Women's Coalition was founded to ensure that women were at the heart of the process. I played my part and eventually stood for election to local government, winning a seat on Down district council from 1997 - 2001. The Women's Coalition was crucial in the development of the peace process that led to the historic Good Friday agreement of April 1998: its abiding principles of inclusion, equality and human rights brought a fresh and practical agenda and language that helped to seed a hard-won transition from conflict.

The work of dialogue

At the heart of all my years of peacebuilding work has been a commitment to the importance of dialogue among conflict. The years of violence, death and destruction in Northern Ireland caused untold pain and grief and left communities very divided, with up to 90% of our people living apart and often never getting an opportunity to get to know someone from the "other" side.

For years I have worked, wherever and whenever possible, to bring people together to share with one another their hopes, aspirations and fears and to challenge stereotypes and assumptions, which only direct face-to-face contact can do. I helped establish an organisation called Community Dialogue in 1997, to give ordinary people on the ground an opportunity to meet and talk about sorting out their difficulties and building a new future. We felt that dialogue between ordinary people were as important as that between politicians.

These conversations on highly contentious issues often involve people from difficult areas, sometimes in a quiet rural location and sometimes in the midst of divided estates or schools. They are vital, difficult and important meetings. They are not about reaching agreement, but about providing opportunities in as safe a space as possible to share our deepest thoughts, feelings, hopes and fears on any controversial topic - to create understanding and to help people to make informed choices about their future.

I believe that honest dialogue, no matter how difficult, is the cement that holds societies together. By hearing one another we create new possibilities. We share, we learn, we realise that the creation of a shared society, where we can all belong, is possible.

Our dialogues always focus on three basic questions - on any issue which divides us:

  • what do you want?
  • what do you need?
    (and, ultimately, considering that others in our society have very different aspirations)

  • what can you live with?

That momentous day, 8 May 2007, was also the culmination of this approach to peacebuilding - a day when all our politicians agreed to sit together in government and work out a way forward which acknowledges our differing aspirations, creeds, cultures and politics and creates the basis on which a truly shared future can begin.

This realisation that politics and not violence is the only way forward was a long time coming - but it had to come. There comes a time when people lose their fear and things are never the same again. That is the moment when the foundations of a brighter future have been secured - and the real work can begin.

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