Bringing Antagonists Together To (Not) Talk About N. Ireland

Over the past year, the White House has stepped up its efforts to help solve the conflict in Northern Ireland, sending former Senate majority leader George Mitchell to be moderator of the peace talks.

Now another hefty American institution has gotten into the act. Last week, the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University hosted behind-closed-doors discussions among 24 representatives of the troubled province's Catholic and Protestant political parties.

The topic wasn't Northern Ireland - quite. But that was just the idea. By exploring issues underlying other crises, conference organizers reasoned, the antagonists in Northern Ireland might find fresh ways toward peace in their land.

The safety of a quiet setting, outside the media spotlight, offered participants a chance to communicate without concern for how their words might sound to constituents back home.

What the participants brought back to Northern Ireland with them "will feed back into the [peace] process," says one of the conference organizers, Paul Arthur from the University of Belfast.

The when and where of the case studies were not important. But what they illustrated was. As one participant explained, you can study a case about the police actions in South Africa, but what you are really talking about is police conduct in Northern Ireland.

While participants said the week-long seminar had been useful, the longstanding rifts remained evident. Protestant Ulster Unionists refused to talk directly with Catholic Sinn Fein members during the workshops and declined to pose with them for a group photograph. Even the campy fun of an outing to Fenway Park for a Red Sox game one night could not make the delegates forget their differences. Instead of sitting as a group, they scattered to seats all around the park.

One participant, Ulster Unionist Drew Nelson, said that the program at Harvard had not changed his perspective toward the other political parties. But Martin Linskey, one of the discussion leaders, notes that at the end of a workshop session that focused on how to best represent one's constituency, a significant, if counter-intuitive, idea had emerged: "The deeper the divisions in [a] community, the greater the moral and pragmatic obligation of elected representatives to be broad-minded and flexible," he says.

Sometimes that means taking risks. As participant Elizabeth McCaffrey said, "If you don't take chances, you lose the biggest prize - peace."

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