Thinking peacemakers and mediators from a balcony in Switzerland

The air is fresh, the cowbells are ringing interrupted on the hour by the church bell and the world of conflict seems far away. It’s the stillness here that gives room for thinking. I’m sitting on a balcony in Switzerland, an Alpine retreat if you will, and the hotel behind me is populated with peacemakers and mediators from Myanmar, Krygystan, South Africa, Israel, Egypt, Nigeria……

It has been mildly disturbing to return to the years of conflict and reflect on the role of religious identity in those years. Northern Ireland is a case in point for this weeks learning and reflection for peacemakers and mediators working in places where religious and political identities overlap. Was what happened in Northern Ireland about religion or about politics? An easy answer isn’t possible. The complexity of religious and political identities that interweave is not easily explained. 

The questions from the gathered group have been insightful and incisive. We live in a world of conflict but thankfully there are people who continue the work of understanding why conflict happens and they contribute to the possibility of peace, not just tolerance but full blown peace and a world where difference doesn’t divide but adds colour to the harmony of human experience. Not, of course, that we pretend difference either doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter but rather that we learn to value difference and strive to gather truth and hope from our engagement with one another.

Two thoughts occur to me.

Firstly, about peacemakers and mediators. Where do they go after peace agreements? Are they consigned to history or elevated to become advisors and guides in other places? Listening today to how some South Africans struggle with quotas this long after the end of apartheid I hear there is much to be done. It seems to me that peacemakers and mediators are crucial in their role post peace agreements. But perhaps they need to rethink themselves and separate from the past, holding the role but distancing from the buzz and familiarity of the old days and finding place in the new.

Secondly, about how peacemakers and mediators are viewed. Are they valued? Is their role understood? And would any of us even call ourselves peacemakers given that makers of peace can also be disturbers? Perhaps ‘mediator’ is easier but who needs mediators in Northern Ireland these days? And are mediators a contaminated group believed to be politicised puppets of certain establishments?

Those who strive for peace, who are committed to mediating difference, may need to rethink themselves. Many of us need to let go of the fear of calling ourselves makers of peace. Peacemakers and mediators are often derided at home yet those from other places are valued. The stillness reminds me that in the rhythm of life the call to make peace is as regular as the ringing of the cow bells but sometimes life is too loud to hear the call. Until the lights burn low at the end of our days the rhythmic calling of the gospel from the Prince of peace who came to bring peace remains: go, and do likewise.


Prophets in their own front room

At the launch of the 4 Corners Festival today I was struck by the enthusiasm of the organisers and the creative intermingling of culture, hope and experience to provide a festival programme to evoke thinking about The Art of Listening. There was so much talent in the room and all bent in the direction of bringing the City to life through encounter and shared learning.

One phrase has stuck with me all day. Rev Steve Stockman, one of the festivals founders and man of crafted language, was speaking about an event to be held in The Long Gallery at Stormont on Friday 5th February. The reshowing of the BBCs documentary True North will be, said Stockman, ‘prophetic.’ I paraphrase him now but he said that something can be very good but when moved to another place it becomes prophetic. We watched a clip from the documentary in which a young bandsman speaks of how he feels judged. This judgement is not made out of understanding or an attempt to listen but from a distance, without thought for the one judged. The pain of that judgement and what it inflicts is palpable in the voice of the young man willing to open his story to a listening audience.
Something can be very good but when moved to another place it becomes prophetic. 

That’s what’s stuck in my head. I have thought about the courage of so many in this country, of the very good work that has been done and continues to be done with young people supporting them to resist violence and division; with those who have been wounded in body, mind and spirit; among and between divided communities; with those who have caused injury and harm; with those who have stood by and zipped their lips when it would have been better to speak out. I have thought about the energy of politicians and middle level grafters for change and people on the ground and communities reaching across to the other side to touch that which is held in common. I have thought about those who have had the courage to open their hearts and about those who have sat in what is sometimes the painful place of listening. I have thought about the many prophets in their own fronts rooms who have not yet found a way to get out of their own front rooms. And I have thought about those who feel unnecessarily judged and misunderstood. But most of all I have wondered what it would mean for us to take what is very good about our history, about our acts of courage, about our attempts to weave new relationships for a better future and move those very good things to another place. What would be prophetic about that? Would it make a difference?

When the prophets of old spoke, some listened and others did not. But the speaking was important. The doing was important. Where the prophet stood to speak and to whom. These things all contributed to the prophetic moment but what made the change was the listening. That’s what unlocked a past and threw open the possibility of a future, a different future.  We may tremble at the thought of being heard or at the thought of listening but honing the skill of listening when what is very good is moved to a different place may be what unlocks the ever turning cycle of damage that we persist in doing to one another. We have all the pieces to dismantle the obstacles to a more embedded peace which gifts healing to the broken, justice to the suffering and hope to the hopeless. We just haven’t got those pieces to the right place.
Something can be very good but when moved to a different place it becomes prophetic.


Uncomfortable actions if not uncomfortable conversations

I read an article yesterday entitled: Cognitive dissonance in Egypt (

For months now I have been thinking about this as an explanation for our impasse in Northern Ireland. Cognitive dissonance theory suggests that we human beings like to hold our beliefs and actions in harmony and when we don’t we are uncomfortable. That very act of believing one thing but acting like we believe another is cognitive dissonance. When I listen to the public debate I hear words that suggest a willingness to find agreement, even at times to respect differences. But the actions tell me a different thing. For example, when people say we need to reach agreement for the good of those who are waiting for operations or for the good of victims yet here we are six years on from the Consultative Group on the Past and we are still having the same debate. It’s hard to say that actions have matched words. We’ve been through two sets of intensive negotiations since and here we are again with everyone agreeing it wouldn’t be good to keep going until Christmas. As it feels right now Christmas won’t be long enough.
The discomfort that those in negotiations must feel leads to the blame game with which we have become all too familiar. Everyone gets so uncomfortable that they want someone else to fix it and resorting to blame is an attempt to force someone else to fix it. Of course it won’t work because the other who is meant to fix it is also feeling uncomfortable and playing their own blame game. And so the merry go round that arises from what I call our trauma based reality because cognitive dissonance is itself a result of trauma.
I don’t think we should get too carried away about being traumatised. There are many who have suffered deep trauma but we can’t all occupy that ground. If we do we diminish their experience. But we have become familiar with trauma behaviours and we simply repeat the patterns in our public life. That pattern of repetition does violence to those with genuine trauma experience because it reinforces what they have already experienced – that they didn’t matter enough to be treated well, that their loved one were dehumanised and murdered, that they were depersonalised by the violence they experienced, that no one was really listening when they wanted to tell what it was like.
individuals experiencing seemingly unresolvable cognitive dissonance need to be provided with the support they need to find a pathway through the discomfort. But what of our public debate and our impasse? Two possible approaches to the challenge seem to me to have mileage in them.
1. Become aware of the dissonance. This bringing to consciousness enables people to step back from reactive behaviours and gives pause for thought as to what can be done.
2. Examine the dominant definitions of the place we are in and see if an alternative is possible. For example, it is said by some that we can’t govern ourselves or get along and that the peace process is finished. Might we say that we have entered a new phase of the peace process, that some of the efforts we have made have not turned out as we thought they might and that it is time to try something else? If we could say that then we release ourselves from the trap of failure and defensiveness that immobilises.
It seems shallow to say that we have come a long way. But we have. Reaffirming the basic commitments that got us to where we are is a good start to settling the discomfort and giving the space to apply ourselves to developing a road map to navigate us through the impasse. We have to find a way through so that we do not do more violence to one another.


It’s the people who make the difference…

This time two years ago I was sitting in Barcelona learning about Truth Commissions – unfortunate terminology that outlaws some helpful thinking here in Northern Ireland. We too readily associate Truth Commissions with amnesty and drawing a line under the past.

For me, the Barcelona week was challenging in the breadth of the concepts addressed, the processes examined, the legal outlines provided and the management manuals we were furnished with. But most important of all were the people I met. We gathered from all over the world – human rights activists, humanitarian workers, legal experts, people who had stood shoulder to shoulder with victims and survivors and perpetrators and governments and armies in different situations. People of compassion and hope, some of them in Barcelona, remain an inspiration to me today. It is always real people with real life experience that make a conversation real.

Reflecting on that training course my mind turns to these shores, to the Stormont House Agreement and political negotiations, to the threat of poverty and division and discontent. I call to mind victims and survivors, their waiting and their hope. I call to mind the former combatants with their heads in their hands. I call to mind the children and young people who are still at war even though they never lived through what I called ‘The Troubles.’ I call to mind the trans-generational trauma and the persistent sectarianism and the loss of interest in politics. I call to mind the fear that haunts and the disinterest that is not alert enough to notice when we are slipping away from the promise of a better and more shared future. I remember the days when I grew up – dip your lights….stop at the checkpoint….don’t go up there there’s a bomb scare….be careful who you speak to…don’t kick the rubbish on the street, it might be a ‘device’….wave at the nice soldiers….don’t tell who you are….

I am glad I now live in a different world.

But this one thought persists – it’s the people who made the difference to the conversation.

Political ambitions, electoral mandates, borders, legal responsibilities, effective processes, even truth and justice themselves sit somewhere in behind the people whom they are meant to serve. Real people, with real lives, real hopes and real brokenness are what makes the difference to the conversation.

It’s the people who make the difference, especially the broken by whose care a society’s moral vision is, in my view, measured. In the mammoth task of todays political and social difficulties there is one vocation and it is to make efforts as yet unimagined, but possible when real people are kept in the conversation to make the difference.


Belfast: Toward a City without walls

I was privileged to speak at the launch of Vicky Cosstick’s insightful and challenging book about Belfast and the interfaces we live with and live around. Here is what I said and encouragement to purchase the book –

This is the time to be slow,

Lie low to the wall
Until the bitter weather passes.

Try, as best you can, not to let
The wire brush of doubt
Scrape from your heart
All sense of yourself
And your hesitant light.

If you remain generous,
Time will come good;
And you will find your feet
Again on fresh pastures of promise,
Where the air will be kind
And blushed with beginning.
― John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings

With incisive skill John O’Donohue cuts through bricks and mortar to understand that there is a time for everything under heaven – a time to lie low to the wall until the bitter time passes and a time to find feet on fresh pastures, blushed with beginning. Vicky Cosstick’s book is of the same insight as she leads us through history, symbol, meaning and story to the challenges that are still with us in our divided and much loved City of Belfast.

I took a black taxi tour for the first time earlier this week. Our guide was informed and interested in the world that has been and the world that we are still building. I stood, as many have stood and as Vicky has stood, at murals and memorials, beside stone and tin and wire, and felt again the division, the safety, the fear, the challenge represented by wall after wall, interface after interface, site of division after site of division.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall

writes the poet Robert Frost in Mending Wall. And something there is in Belfast that doesn’t love a wall. Quoting the work of Emily Ravenscroft Vicky addresses the ‘entrenched dialectical identities’ represented by walls and built into us by history and experience. ‘The resort to division’, as she calls it, began in 1866 with the separating wall built into the City cemetery to hold us to our separation in death as in life. Vicky charts the history of walls ending with the newest wall built in 2007 at Hazelwood College when minds were changing and turning towards new thinking as devolution approached and Sinn Fein announced their support for the PSNI. The dilemma of walls sits easily in that year with the building of a new wall on the one hand and the emergence of imaginative thinking to address those things that divide us on the other and now enshrined in the Together Building United Community Strategy with the commitment to bring down the walls by 2023. Frost too recognises the dilemma for not only is there something in us that doesn’t love a wall, there is something in us that believes

Good fences make good neighbours.

Over the years the dilemma has swung responses one way or another. In 1980 the Housing Executive began to face lift the walls thereby integrating them as something more acceptable to our society but also betraying a resignedness to the division, to the lying low to the wall as if the bitter time would never pass.

Yet we have found our way around and across the walls. The 1996 phone network allowed trusted community workers on either side of the walls to communicate with each other. The investment of the International Fund for Ireland’s peace walls programme has brought to light many ways in which people at community level have and are crossing, traversing the walls. Yet a challenge remains to find that place, blushed with beginning, in which hesitant light can extinguish division. I quote:

All the peace walls programmes have discovered that ultimately it is relationships and conversations that make change happen… Community workers have developed a shared understanding…. Ultimately it is the actual experience of having a barrier removed, of being in a more normal environment, that is likely to alter the dynamic within a given community from the self-reinforcing ‘vicious circle’ into ‘virtuous circle.’

Relationships and conversations. They make the difference. Vicky acknowledges walls as ‘the debris of the unfinished peace process’ and unearths the debris of trauma, community engagement, leadership failure, separation of the churches from community relations organisations, declining Protestant working class neighbourhoods, the constraints on economic investment and the limitations of political tourism. With skilful art she describes the architecture of a community on a journey to something better and she reminds us of the journey we have already made, that often painstaking journey to reduce violence and build relationships. She pays tribute to those who have followed the route of conversation and relationship,

… building unusual relationships with and among others, crossing boundaries at risk to themselves.

It is stirring to read those familiar names – Suffolk, Lenadoon, Cupar Way, Duncairn, Bryson and to call back to mind the human tragedy and suffering held in memory and represented in walls. Yet Vicky doesn’t overwhelm us in her challenge but encourages us to use again that which is familiar to us, that which we know how to do well. She writes:

This is how change happens: through small steps forward and sometimes back, through synergistic relationships, serendipity, through ‘emergence’: patterns of apparently unrelated but coincident events bubbling up across a complex system. Through fleeting moments in private and group conversations virtually impossible to track or record. Through people noticing, listening, echoing.

This strategic direction, this way of working, is familiar to us but, as people who have laid low to the walls, we may lose our strategic vision of a City without Walls. That is, until we read this book which inspires and challenges, traverses its way around academics, politicians, community leaders, church people, people living at the walls and people working around the walls and brings to our minds our love for this place. Vicky has traversed this divided society with incredible ease which is, in no small measure, due to her smile, her straightforwardness and her comfortable presence among us. I could see the wideness of her smile and hear her clean cut Englishness betraying her surprise as she wrote:

Interfaces may be ritualised to an extraordinary degree – in White City there are said to be segregated bus stops…

Ritualised division and separation will take some time to undo. 2023 may be something of an ambitious target. Yet Vicky tells us we need not be overwhelmed or disabled by the presenting task – remember conversation and relationships. In his own poetic way John Paul Lederach puts it like this in his forward to the book:

The journey toward a city without walls will require fissures and cracks, windows and gateways, pebbles and a few weedy vignettes that crumble the long arc of stone-laid history.

I thank Vicky for telling that unwritten story which is so difficult to recount, the story of conversations and relationships, of many unsung heroes and heroines, a story blushed with beginning.

If you are feeling at all weary in making peace or uncertain of what to do next then this book is for you. If you are in need of inspiration or of something to lift your spirit then this book is for you. Thank you Vicky for becoming part of our lives and for showing us ourselves and who we have yet to become.


Silent Testimony – An exhibition at the Ulster Museum

The exhibition runs at the Ulster Museum until January 2016. Everyone should visit. There are 18 paintings by the artist Colin Davidson, paintings of people who have experienced loss because of ‘The Troubles’.


The paintings themselves are outstanding in their skill and impact but even more impactful is the knowledge with which one comes to these paintings – the knowledge that there is suffering and sorrow carried silently in the souls of those who have lost loved ones. They feel that loss every day, memories prompted by both the familiar and the unfamiliar – a smell, a sound, a sentence. There are no words in the face of human suffering such as this, suffering meted out at the hands of others. There are no words in the face of the silent testimony of these witnesses lined around the walls. They witness both suffering and resilience, pain and the strength of the human spirit. They witness too the hope that edges its way through experience and opens a sometimes tiny space for life.
These 18 witnesses are present in silent testimony to the lives of all those who carry the pain of loss and the terrifying reality of inhumanity to others in the human family.

“We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use? What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, and straightforward men. Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?”

― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison


Hating Hate Crime

Easter was marred for Polish families living in North Belfast who were the targets of hate crime. It is not the first time. In May last year The Guardian reported the Polish Consul’s concern about attacks on families living in East Belfast. At that time the PSNI were reporting a 40% increase in race and hate crimes, mostly in the greater Belfast area.

Driven from their homes, these families will carry with them the scars that run deep into their souls. When one part of the human family turns on another the crime is as deep as betrayal and as dangerous as any physical attack in its emotional implications. The attempt to expunge, shame or drive out any human being is an affront to the united and diverse community we are attempting to build in Northern Ireland. It is also an abuse that any society calling itself ‘human’ cannot and should not tolerate.
One of our public representatives said to me that condemning hate crime is not enough on its own. She is right. In the slippage that comes with electioneering, when hearts and minds are focussed on winning one battle, eyes are further off the ball than usual. There is no doubt that for some time there has been slippage in rebuilding communities. The peace dividend runs thin and we have not yet sourced the tools, energies and values to build for the future. We need to do more than fixate on matters of the past, which can be addressed with political will and societies cooperation, and condemn the things of the present. We need to find ways to sources tools, energies and values from the future we want to reach. Hating hate crime is not enough.
From my perspective, one of the sources for energy in dangerous and challenging times is the Bible. My tradition is rooted back into more generations than I can count, back to the children of Israel who travelled by the call of God into futures often unknown. Even when settlement came new challenges presented themselves. The words of Deuteronomy 10 have sung out like a constant refrain in the history of those who stand in the Judaeo-Christian tradition:

The Lord defends the rights of orphans and widows. He cares for foreigners and gives them food and clothing. And you should also care for them, because you were foreigners in Egypt. Deuteronomy 10 vv18-19

Recalling our history of being strangers in a strange land evokes the memory of strangeness and the importance of welcome in which is found security, safety and the kind of human flourishing that comes from knowing that we belong to the one human family.
Northern Ireland has a community history of ‘putting people out’. That is one of the things of the past that we will have to leave behind if we are to build the future in which community, human community in all its diversity, is cherished. We are challenged to find ways to unite against hate and to dredge up, from our various cultures and traditions, what we need to inform us for tools, energies and values that are future focussed.
Race and other hate crimes –
Somewhere in the stories about the Polish families we almost lost sight of another hate crime, this time against a disabled person. You can read the story here:
You can make a difference here:

Just another example of how we strike at the dignity of another human being. Enough is enough. The destruction operates at every level of our beings and erodes our humanity. If you have never been the victim of a hate crime you are unlikely to know the level of emotional abuse that is experienced by that person and indeed by their family who have loved and cared for them in self-sacrificing ways.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Universal Declaration Article 1