Friday, June 29, 2012

10:18 A.M. June 29, 2012

10:18 A.M. June 29, 2012

It's a rainy morning in Clones, my first day in the Republic of Ireland. Sometime soon Lauren and the girls will be making their way to the airport, and by this time tomorrow I'll meet them in Dublin.

The first two weeks here have been emotionally packed. Though the trip has been well-paced, every interaction leaves much to process. Yesterday Jenae and I took a cab to visit Interaction Belfast, an organization working along the West Belfast interface we had walked the day before. Our cab driver, a man younger than me, grew up in St. James, a rough neighborhood down the road from where the flag had been placed on the mountain. His family's claim to fame was having a photo of their neighborhood in the paper under the heading, "worst housing in the UK." He was witness to eleven murders by the time he was 15, which he described to us in some detail on our ten minute drive.

Moments later we were served tea and biscuits by a lovely man a bit younger than my parents who had been      a loyalist combatant in the troubles. The tattoos on his arms told the story of his life: from those he gave himself as a young man; to those he received in prison serving a life sentence for murders, attempted murders, armed robberies, and other crimes; to those he got after release. He was released as part of the Good Friday agreement in 1989, and has been working in peace-building programs ever since. "The thing you have to know," he told us, "is it's not as if those people fighting were sociopaths...they didn't wake up one morning wanting to kill people." They were mostly children killing children, he explained, the children on his side recruited by their priests and M.P.'s (Member of Parliament) to defend their community. He was 40 years old before he set foot in a Catholic neighborhood, literally across the street.

They call any place where Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods brush up against one another an 'interface'. Sometimes they are separated by a wall, sometimes a road, sometimes a stretch of bare ground. The interfaces have historically been volatile, with violence on both sides. Roison McGlone, one of my colleagues from INCORE and a  self described non-violent combatant, came to Interaction Belfast as the Director twelve years ago. At the time, most people were sick of the violence in their neighborhoods, and blamed the other side for starting trouble. She sold them on the mobile phone network as a peacekeeping strategy. Key community leaders who lived on either side of the interface were given mobile phones. In the beginning, when there was trouble they would try and move people along, and call in to the staff, who would alert the other side, or if needed, the police. Later Interaction Belfast provided phone lists to the phone holders so they could call the other side directly - but the distrust was so high the list simply had phone numbers and the letters "U" for unionist (those who favor a union between Ireland and Britain) and "N" for Nationalist (those who favor a united Irish Nation).  After years, Roisin was able to bring the phone holders together for weekly meetings. They were rough at the start, with members of each side blaming the other for the violence. Over time, they came to see that they all wanted the same thing - to have safety for their communities. The greatest gains came when they were able to bring the phone holders together away from their community to engage in strategic planning, and really see how similar they were. In this way, peacekeeping was peace-building. 
Roisin, Amie and Noel  at Interaction 

While Roisin sees that individuals have moved greatly in the peace process, she contends that at any moment, a single event could take her community two steps back. The current challenge, as she sees it, is getting beyond the "politics of containment" - there is a lack of political will to tackle some of the most contentious issues that continue to polarize communities. From Roisin's perspective, the parades of the Orange Order are at the heart of this. There are over 3500 parades in Northern Ireland each year. While most are peaceful, some march directly through Catholic neighborhoods - equivalent to anti-Indian groups marching through Montana reservations. While there have been negotiations about many things - building shared spaces along the interfaces, and integrating the police force, for example - the parades and the Orange Order (who currently have 2 recognized 'bank holidays' observed by the country) continue to be "off the table" for negotiation.

It will be good to have a few days outside of Northern Ireland to sift through all the stories I have heard these past two weeks, to try and make sense of what it means in this context, and how these learnings might inform our work back home. 

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