Peace, Conflict & Beauty: Reflections on Northern Ireland

“They still close the gates every night,” our guide explained as we drove by the 44 foot high wall that still divides the Catholic Falls Road district from the Protestant Shankhill district in Belfast. It was a stunning reminder that peace is not an event, but a process. I’ve visited Northern Ireland twice this year and experienced the hope of the peace builders, the strength of its civil society organizations, the beauty of its landscapes, the bustle of its cities, and the underlying tensions of its history and present. Following are some of my observations and lessons.

On my most recent trip with Jennifer, we began in Dublin, exploring Irish history starting with the Trinity College library, where I was pleasantly overpowered by the smell of the millions of antique pages shelved in this bibliophile heaven. At the Dublin Writers Museum and Glasnevin Cemetery, we learned about the battles a century ago that freed Ireland from British Rule except for its six Northern counties. After years of rebellion and civil war, a 1922 compromise created two distinct countries: Ireland and Northern Ireland. When you cross from Ireland to Northern Ireland, there are no borders like the heavily fortified ones that confronted travelers before peace, but subtle changes as kilometers change to miles, Euros to Pounds Sterling, Union Jacks occasionally appear, and “wee” becomes the adjective of choice (e.g., “Would you like a wee coffee?”).

There are about 4.6 million people in Ireland, 1.8 million in Northern Ireland, and over 39 million Americans who declare Irish heritage, i.e., about six times more Irish in the U.S. than in all of Ireland. To put it in perspective, my home state of Wisconsin is about the same population (5.8 million) as Ireland and twice the size (Wisconsin is 65,556 square miles compared to Ireland’s 32,595). It is a relatively small island with a big history.

As Northern Ireland evolved, the Irish Catholic population faced discrimination in voting, employment, and housing by the British government and its loyalist supporters. There have been protests and armed resistance throughout the 20th Century. A peaceful Irish civil rights movement inspired by the U.S. emerged in the 1960s, but its flame was extinguished by repeated violence, especially the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre in which 14 peaceful protesters in Derry were killed and 14 others seriously injured by the British military (Great Britain finally admitted that all those killed and wounded were unarmed and apologized for its unjustified and unjustifiable military action in 2010). Paramilitary action and terrorism were the norm for three decades claiming over 3,500 lives and injuring thousands of others in what are now known as “The Troubles.” In 1998, former U.S. Senator George Mitchell brokered the Good Friday Agreement, a peace accord by the British, Irish, and various Catholic and Protestant factions that ushered in a new period of power sharing and peace.

“Look at all these cars parked downtown. You couldn’t do that 20 years ago – a parked car would have been treated as a potential bomb,” Alistair, our taxi driver and tour guide explained as we took off from Belfast’s splendid city hall, erected as a tribute to Queen Victoria in 1888 when Belfast was Ireland’s largest city and center of manufacturing and commerce (taxi drivers are trained to give tours of The Troubles colored by their personal stories and insights). “There were no heroes in this conflict, and we all were victims,” he exclaimed as he first drove us around the Shankhill neighborhood starting with two murals – one celebrating William of Orange, the English King who conquered England’s last Catholic King and ensured Protestant rule of Ireland in the early 17th Century, and the other celebrating “Topgun,” a terrorist who earned his moniker for the number of Catholics he murdered. A provocative start, but next we see a new mural, “Women’s Voices Matter,” a painting of a patchwork quilt of positive and inspiring messages erected only a few days earlier in place of one celebrating conflict. As we drove through Shankhill, there was a mix of old murals celebrating or mourning the conflict and new murals illustrating the area’s hope. One new large mural, Shankill Angels, showed a large group of youth and spoke to their dreams. On our drizzly day, a rainbow appeared next to it, the children a pot of gold.

Then we came to the “peace wall” not a monument to peace, but a 44-foot high cement and steel monument to the conflict covered in graffiti messages mostly promoting peace. A wide street and another fence across the street create a kind of no-man’s-land on the Protestant side. We went through the gate, which is still closed each night and was heavily guarded during the troubles, into the Catholic neighborhood on Falls Road. Along the backside of the wall is a mural of martyrs to police violence. The homes have netting or fencing behind so nothing thrown over the fence will hit their roofs or windows.

The Catholic neighborhood is also covered in murals to freedom fighters and martyrs like Bobby Sands, a British Member of Parliament who died on hunger strike while in prison. Alistair said the 9-11 attack on America had an impact on violence there: “Since 9-11, ‘terrorist’ became a more evil term and no one wants to be compared to Al Qaeda.” The city’s downtown is busy now, and the restaurants, shops, streets, and public market provide no hints of its historic tensions. The Crumlin Gaol (jail) is now a museum. The Titanic Museum is Belfast’s big new destination – the Titanic was built here and they pride themselves that it left Belfast in one beautiful piece. Behind it is Titanic Studios where Game of Thrones is filmed. Culture, commerce, hospitality, and great food at restaurants like Made in Belfast didn’t offer a hint that the government was on the brink of collapse while we were there. Shortly before we arrived, all but one Protestant minister resigned from the power-sharing government over the alleged killing of a former IRA member by IRA dissidents.

About 70 miles west of Belfast is Derry, notorious as the site of Bloody Sunday memorialized in songs by U2 and John Lennon. A modernist Peace Bridge, not a wall, connects the Protestant and Catholic communities. The old city of Derry is surrounded by a 400 year-old wall, making it one of the last walled cities in Europe. The Bloody Sunday memorial, like memorials in Belfast, is comprised of murals that tell the story of the day, the troubles, and hopes for peace. Most ironic but maybe fitting as a sign of progress was that on a street where murals showed a child in a gas mask, dead civil rights protesters being carried by mourners, and a dove outlined in a rainbow, the next mural along the street is an ad for a restaurant called Spaghetti Junction.

On my first visit to Northern Ireland, I attended and spoke at a conference for CO3 (Chief Officers Third Sector), the association of Northern Irish nonprofit executives. The conference was at the gorgeous Slieve Donnard hotel in the coastal town of Newcastle surrounded by the celebrated Mountains of Mourne. In this stunning location, I heard the message repeatedly that Northern Ireland had come a long way, but also has a long way to go. I would say the same about the legacy of racism and civil rights in the U.S. There was some polite, good-humored ribbing by some of the other Catholic or Protestant speakers. At one point, a government minister was speaking and someone at my table leaned over and explained that the minister had spent time in prison for murder. The comment reminded me that the past is present here. CO3 led a very sophisticated, informative, well-organized, and fun conference. As the representative of a relatively small sector in a country with little philanthropic tradition and pressures from government austerity, I was impressed with the work of Nora Smith and her team at CO3

My second visit was to speak at the UK Community Foundations conference, a coalition of all of the community foundations in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland at the old Presbyterian Hall in Belfast. I was surprised to learn that their foundations’ collective assets were about the size of my city’s Greater Milwaukee Foundation. Their goal is to grow to $1 billion in philanthropic assets by 2020. In the U.K., there has been more of a tradition of public expenditures and higher taxes to support charitable work instead of philanthropy (which I wish we had more of). Fabian French from UKCF and Andrew McCracken from the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland were exceptionally gracious hosts. Beyond its unique need to grow the idea of philanthropy and issues like they Syrian refugee crisis, discussions and tweets revealed similar concerns with U.S foundations such as inclusion, collective work, community engagement, and impact measurement.

The highlight of the conference, though, was a discussion of Peace Building with Andrew McCracken; Avila Kilmurray, the Catholic founder of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition who sat on the team that negotiated the Good Friday Agreement; and Jackie Redpath, a long-time community development and education activist from the Shankill Partnership in Belfast’s Protestant community.

Avila Kilmurray’s theme was that peace building doesn’t just happen, but is an ongoing process and project for civil society. “We are out of the conflict, but not done. Peace was brought about by civil society, but after the Good Friday Agreement, politicians took over and disparaged the civil society that created them. The elected leaders are formed from their particular constituencies without incentive to create a larger sense of cause or community. There is little civic engagement and the last time people were involved was the referendum to accept the Good Friday Agreement.”

She believes that there needs to be some type of truth and reconciliation process, but unlike South Africa where there were clear winners and losers, Northern Ireland ended in a draw. There is no shared understanding of the causes of the conflict, and even “the causes of the causes of the causes.” She added: “The real work is getting people to move beyond their perceptions and certainties about their own communities to a broader, more inclusive definition of community, and recognition that a united community will create more opportunity for all. To get here, there must be creative space to discuss challenging questions and foster civic engagement.”

She concluded by sharing some lessons about the challenge of peace building: (1) Take nothing for granted; (2) Real change is uncomfortable; (3) People see things in terms of winners and losers; (4) Change must be grounded in peoples’ experiences; and (5) Perception is 9/10ths of reality. The Good Friday Agreement spent pages and pages on how the power sharing government would work, and just a few paragraphs on how average people could be engaged or how community development and civil society could play a role.

Jackie Redpath shared many of Ms. Kilmurray’s points about the need for civil society, but his focus sits squarely on improving the lives of Shankhill’s children. “Young people face particular challenges that affect peace, and a whole generation of youth have grown up since the peace agreement.” He argued that young people can’t be peace builders when they don’t see a viable future. He also described how in the Protestant community, they had power and now feel as though they have lost and are in a defensive position. “Change” is seen as the enemy. Power now rests in the educated and middle class, and only 1% of Shankhill’s youth go to college.

In the past there were certain pathways for their youth – they would go to the shipyards or linen factories for jobs. Mr. Redpath’s group is embarking on a community building process to interview all 5,958 kids in the Shankhill and their parents to discover what they dream about and what they want their lives to be. They then want to co-design pathways with them and build a sustainable system of support for every young person that goes beyond any government and philanthropic support. Inspired by Harlem Children’s Zone and Asset-Based Community Development models, his goal is to get every young person to dream and see paths of opportunity. While he conceded school segregation in Belfast is a problem, he believes you have to pick your battles and with the time he has left, he will fight for all Shankhill youth to have viable dreams and opportunities. That is how he believes peace will be built.

I found these points resonated with much we’ve learned about change in the U.S. I often quote Peter Drucker’s maxim that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” and it appears the peace process has existed more at the level of strategy for governance than strategy for culture change and civic engagement. I was also inspired to see Jackie using lessons from U.S. efforts and community building principles in his work. Along with the other NGOs I visited, there is much good and innovative work happening in civil society.

On my first visit, I visited the idyllic emerald rolling sheep-filled Mountains of Mourne. On my second visit, we drove through lush landscapes capped by the breathtaking cliffs, castle ruins, and geological miracles of Mussenden Temple, Dunluce Castle, Giant’s Causeway, and Carrick-a-Rede. Northern Ireland is a beautiful country with many generous, spirited people. I hope its civil society can build on the peace it brought to the country to bend its own arc of history even further toward peace, inclusion, and justice.

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