What does a priest from Myanmar, a former Republican combatant, and an ex-loyalist combatant have in common? That’s what I was wondering, nervously, as I travelled to Belfast recently to hear about peace efforts in Northern Ireland. I shouldn’t have worried.
Trócaire had arranged for Father Paul Dwang, one of our partners from the northern state of Kachin, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), to hear the stories of two former protagonists in the Northern Ireland conflict, Gerry Foster and Alasdair Little.
They are now peace activists working across the divided communities of Belfast. We also learnt about the experiences of our host, Trócaire’s Northern Ireland Regional Director, Eithne McNulty, in mobilising women to play an important role in peace-making.
In talking about violent conflicts as seemingly diverse as that of Northern Ireland and Myanmar, it didn’t take long to realise that there are many common themes, such as poverty, injustice and an imbalance of power. The manipulation of civilians by powerful elites had particular resonance to our group. Father Paul explained that neither side – the Kachin Independence Organisation and the Myanmar military – is interested in finding a solution to the war, not least because it allows for the continued illegal extraction of rich natural resources. The need for the leaders to protect their status, wealth and power is very real.
Such leaders tend to focus on recruiting and impressing young people, all too often the ‘cannon fodder’ of war. Young women and men become so vulnerable in times of conflict, and yet they are also the generation that hold the key to breaking the negative cycle of war.
Caption: A child at a camp for displaced people in Kachin State, northern Myanmar. Conflict has displaced over 100,000 people. Church agencies are responding by providing shelter and food to people in the camps. (Photo: Eoghan Rice / Trócaire)
Gerry talked of being a young man in the bitterly divided streets of inner-city Belfast, where there were no jobs and no prospects. The attraction of joining the radical republican group, the INLA, were obvious to him. What did he have to lose when their leaders spoke of having ‘right’ on their side.
Alasdair spoke of how the leadership used religion to reinforce this image of being ‘in the right’, as well as creating and manipulating stereotypes of the enemy. He was taught to demonise ‘the other’, even though they were mainly young people like himself living in nearby streets. Over time, it became easier for him to blame ‘the other’ for his own sense of disenfranchisement and failings. It was only after years in prison that he came to the realisation, slowly and painfully, that he was being taught to demonise himself.
Gerry and Alasdair told us their personal journeys: from committing acts of violence and having physical and psychological violence done to them, to finding their own paths to reconciliation. It was immensely powerful. As Eithne commented, she has heard these stories many times but it never fails to move her. To me, they embodied the difference between peace-building and what we call conflict transformation.
Don’t get me wrong, I was shocked at hearing of the extreme violence and how it has shattered the lives of individuals, families and communities. It was also daunting to hear of the painstaking individual journeys they both went through; how they had to find the courage to transform themselves before they could help their communities.
It was also clear that there are no silver bullets when it comes to building peace. Nor are there fairytale endings. There was a strong sense that these men were by no means at the end of their journey, but they inspired hope for the future.
Gerry and Alasdair’s stories brought home the reality that unless a political peace process is underpinned by community-level peace building, then it will not succeed. It takes individuals working tirelessly in their communities to counter the negative stereotypes of ‘the other’. These people must be willing to take very real risks and show true leadership.
It reminded me of Trócaire’s work in Timor-Leste. We officially closed our offices there in August 2013. At the closing ceremony we heard about our support to small groups, even individuals, during the darkest days of the Indonesian occupation. It was through simple acts of solidarity that we were able to give them courage to struggle on. Some of them are today’s leaders in Timor-Leste.
Trócaire continues to work in other violent conflicts today, like Somalia, South Sudan and the Palestinian Territory, striving to change attitudes and behaviour, not just the symptoms of war. But as Alasdair spoke of trying to influence individuals, one by one, to bring about real reconciliation, it struck me that we are hugely challenged by the push to work to scale, to ensure value for money and to find evidence within ever shorter programme cycles. I find it difficult to reconcile the two strands at times. I remembered Justin Kilcullen, our former Director, at the closing of the office in Timor saying: “Metrics never transform anything; people do.”
Alasdair spoke of the power of nature and neutral spaces to enable deep dialogue with oneself, as well as with former enemies. He originally met Gerry in the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation in Wicklow. I remember visiting the peace centre when I first came back to Ireland after many years working in Somalia. My first thoughts were: isn’t this a bit of a luxury to bring people from all over the world to this beautiful secluded spot in the heart of Wicklow? But it didn’t take long to appreciate the healing power that the stillness and neutrality of nature can have on individuals who are brought up to hate, to feel stressed, and to live off adrenaline for survival.
Sadly, such physical spaces which supported Alasdair, Gerry and others in their search for peace are now closed, and funding for peacebuilding work is scarce now in the north. Isn’t that a bit premature, I thought to myself, as Gerry and Alasdair took us to visit the so-called Belfast peace wall. They remarked wryly that this huge concrete and wire edifice that marks the boundaries between Catholic and Protestant communities has actually grown in length since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
The building of trust is another critical ingredient to conflict resolution. This was brought home by Eithne’s experiences in the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition political party, with the contribution of inspiring women like Monica McWilliams, a Trócaire Board member, who is currently Professor of Women’s Studies, based in the Transitional Justice Institute at the University of Ulster.
Their efforts ensured that women’s voices, so often excluded in political processes, were heard loud and clear. And it was a powerful voice; one that got politicians to focus on the daily reality of families living in poverty, coping with violence and abuse in the home, and managing the impact of high alcoholism and unemployment. Above all, their politics spoke more to the language of human rights, placing human dignity and inclusion at the heart of the solution, rather than searching for it in the ideologies of religion, ethnicity and exclusion.
Caption: Hongsar Htaw (28) and Manoing Rot (26) from Mon State in southern Myanmar, members of a youth group that has undergone gender training to encourage women to become more involved in decision-making processes. Men like Manoing encourage women to get involved in local organisations and to participate in their communities. (Photo: Eoghan Rice / Trócaire)
As Father Paul heads back to Kachin at the start of July, I wonder what he made of his short visit to Belfast. He has been on his own journey of discovery in these last nine months in Ireland, studying for a Master’s Degree in development at Kimmage Development Studies Centre. He talks now about wanting to do things differently when he returns. About the impotence of only providing humanitarian relief to the victims of conflict. His organisation, Caritas Myanmar, provides life-saving assistance to over 100,000 conflict-displaced people but, he says, the real work lies in finding long-term solutions to the war.
I get the distinct feeling that his journey to build peace in his community has been helped a little by a few short hours sharing stories over cheese sandwiches with courageous peace activists in Belfast. I’m sure their paths will meet again.