Peace is more than hope - it's a strategy
BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND
It was like being in a dark tunnel for a long, long time," says Mary McCarron, a mother of eight from Londonderry, or simply Derry, to Catholics like her. "All of a sudden, there was light.Skip to next paragraph
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"That's what the peace agreement was like. It's a wonderful thing," she adds. "It would be terrible if it came apart."
Mrs. McCarron speaks for most citizens in Northern Ireland, whichever their allegiance during "the Troubles" of the past 30 years. As politicians today struggle to break an impasse over implementation of the peace agreement, polls show that more people now support it than in the May 1998 referendum.
And while the euphoria that spread across the province last year has bumped into hard realities, people for the most part seem out in front of the politicians - in mood and in actions.
It's not just Belfast's bustling city center - empty when the Europa became the most bombed hotel in Europe - where people lounge and laugh in the sun on the lawn outside City Hall. It's not just the ease of travel on the new high-speed train between Belfast and Dublin without a sign of security forces on watch. Or the air of normalcy along Falls and Shankill Roads, where a paramilitary mural touts compromise.
It's that active "peace-building" is going on at the grassroots here in many forms, as imaginative and committed groups aim at transforming a society bitterly divided by centuries-old political and cultural differences, long-standing inequities, and years of vicious violence.
Some 3,600 people have been killed in the Troubles, and 40,000 injured. Proportionally, the deaths are equivalent to 495,000 in the United States. Both sides nurse deep grievances and have seen themselves as victims and as a threatened minority: Catholics in Northern Ireland, and Protestants on the island as a whole. Protestants have long dominated the Catholic minority through inequitable institutions. And economic deprivation on both sides has fueled the conflict. In some poor Belfast neighborhoods, estimates say as many as one-third of the men live out their lives without holding a job. Joining a paramilitary group has given some both income and status.
During the 1990s, efforts have mushroomed to bridge the divide, confront the sectarianism that has stymied past peace efforts, and begin to build a new future.
Some 140 groups now work at the process of reconciliation. They are teaching new skills for mediating differences, helping victims and perpetrators come to terms with the past and get a new start, nudging communities and institutions to embrace diversity, and encouraging churches to become part of the solution rather than part of the problem. (Part 2 of this series will look at ending violence and Part 3 at religion as part of the solution.)
"We're probably optimistic for the long term that ... the process of peace is a societywide phenomenon," says Brendan McAllister, director of The Mediation Network of Northern Ireland. "And that while the political process has gone into a state of crisis, the wider process of peace is at work and is unstoppable. Even though, like a train journey, we may have to go through tunnels and periods of fear, we're still moving forward."
"One of the lessons we've learned here is that it's not enough just to hope for peace," says Mari Fitzduff, who in 1990 helped found the independent Community Relations Council (CRC). "You have to be very strategic - as strategic about peace as the warmakers are about war." The CRC has spurred planning for change in institutions and villages across the province.
Since the cease-fires in 1994, the European Union has donated funds for "peace and reconciliation," giving a boost to local efforts. Yet the challenges of reconciliation remain so daunting that many shy from the term.
"There's been so much hurt on both sides over such a long period that reconciliation remains an aim, but it's over the long term," says Joe Campbell, Mediation Network's assistant director. "There'll be a number of steps in reconciliation. Ending violence is only a first step. We use a phrase here: 'remember and change.' We need to remember how we got ourselves into this, we need to remember all that's happened, but in such a way that allows us to change."
Remembering in the right way isn't all that easy. Those who study reconciliation in "societies in conflict" say memory - individual and collective - is a powerful factor. In Northern Ireland, it has seemed an obsession. The sacrifices over centuries of those who fought to secure Ulster for the United Kingdom or the Irish Republic have been the living stuff of politics, bedeviling past peace efforts. The 3,000 annual parades - which, along with policing, remain the most contentious issue - involve commemorations.