In 2006 I used a Fulbright Specialist for work on sustainable peace and reconciliation studies in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland. I wanted to talk to people there on all sides of what had been assumed to be an “intractable conflict” dating back centuries as native Irish challenged the colonial rule of their British overlords. In the city of Londonderry, I was able to interview survivors of the intense “sectarian” violence that erupted from the 1960’s through the 1990’s and were termed the “Troubles,” conflicts that took some 3,500 lives in this tiny “nation” of 1.8 million.
This number of casualties is approximately the same number of people killed in the attack on the twin towers in New York City in 2001. On a per capita basis the numbers of casualties in Northern Ireland would be tantamount to some 403,000 deaths in the U.S. and, spread out over that time period, would amount to more than 13,000 dead per year for 30 years. Imagine the trauma and the recovery needed.
In 1998, after a groundswell of activism led primarily by women and other ordinary citizens, the leaders of Northern Ireland were able to fashion and sign the Good Friday Peace Agreement. The old paradigm of peace through “bombs and bullets,” a strategy that held this region in a vice grip of hierarchical tension and controls, would give way to power sharing and the decommissioning of weapons, the “big sticks” of anarchic terrorist warfare.
“Fiona” was too close to an assassination attempt and still carries a bullet lodged near her heart that surgeons cannot remove; and “Barbara” had to deal with a father who joined the paramilitaries and left her mother with nine kids to raise on very little while he was on the run, in and out of jail, and the family’s reputation “smeared.” While stories like these are quite common in a small nation where nearly everyone was touched by these “Troubles,” these women found that their pain began to heal through a program of neighbor-to-neighbor, facilitated story-telling.
In a program titled Toward Understanding and Healing, funded through a European Union effort to promote healing in areas that had experienced conflict, a small group of Derry residents come together for a 3-day residential to tell their stories, listen, accept and support each other. This may seem simple but it’s not when you recognize the cultures of avoidance, silence and fear that have developed here. You just “didn’t want to know” and you “didn’t ask.” Developed by Maureen Hetherington, the Director of The Junction, Toward Understanding and Healing has demonstrated the value of skilled facilitators and the power of community-based listening, acceptance and support.
When the men and their “big stick” weapons showed up, the tone and substance of discussions changed. Many citizens went into hiding. Communities were dominated by these gunmen, so convinced of their need to show “strength” and take action. A question of “us or them” was at the core. Yet, with the population moving toward parity with relatively equal numbers of Protestants and Catholics, any “final” solution through warfare was increasingly untenable. Everyone needed another way forward, a new paradigm. Decommissioning the “big sticks” was a critical component of the Good Friday Peace Plan that is still in place and holding today.
What they heard from the ex-convicts, shooters and bomb makers who came to these sessions were stories of professed “patriotism” to defend their communities. As these men listened to the victims they began to understand the suffering and that there might be other ways forward. In turn, the women heard stories of courage in defense of families and friends. They also began to see these men in a different light and that the “big sticks” they carried were dominating relationships and options. There had to be better ways forward. As they said, “four hundred years of bombs and bullets had failed.”
Bill Timpson has been on the faculty at Colorado State University in its School of Education for many years and a member of the Fort Collins Rotary Club where his focus on sustainable peacebuilding in Burundi, East Africa, has been supported by two Global Grants. If you have questions or ideas, contact Bill: email@example.com