Dr Struan Kennedy writes: This year marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement which formally ended thirty years of the conflict known as the Troubles. Naturally there has been a series of events commemorating this significant milestone which have, just as understandably, celebrated the achievements of those involved in bringing about momentous change. However, while a distinct trend in the historiography favours a top-down approach, delivered by elite political actors, the project ‘Paving the Path to Peace: Civil Society and the Northern Irish Peace Process’ offers an alternative, complementary coverage.
By shifting the emphasis toward a more diverse range of actors, the project highlights the invaluable contribution of local grassroots organisations. It corrects any truncated view that peace rose up rather suddenly from limited and private negotiations. In truth peace emerged slowly and has its origins in the tireless work of a host of social movements who struggled and endured at some of the worst interfaces of the long conflict.
Along with a major publication, the project’s outputs included a one-day conference at The MAC in Belfast, which crystalised several crucial aspects of this important work. This short article picks out just four ideas that materialised from many other fascinating insights articulated by the diverse range of contributors. The knowledge and memory of the audience—including protagonists of civil society initiatives during the 1980s and 1990s—testified to the enduring strength of collective action. Additionally, the composition of the conference’s panels (not arranged according to strict themes) was representative of the multidisciplinary engagement and crossing of boundaries that occurs in civil society itself.
The first idea came from the first speaker, Alan McBride from the WAVE Trauma Centre, in the day’s opening panel: ‘Will I be heard? Trauma, Healing, Stories’. Fittingly enough Alan began with a story of bumping into a woman outside Asda many years ago who initiated conversation in a startling manner: ‘Oh are you OK, Alan son? Isn’t it awful … aren’t you just waiting to die?’ Momentarily unable to place the woman and taken aback by her question, Alan found himself absentmindedly agreeing with her before continuing his shopping. It wasn’t until waiting at the checkout that he remembered the woman’s name. Anne’s husband had been murdered in the 1970s and she had never fully recovered from this loss. Knowing that Alan had suffered similar bereavement—his wife, Sharon, being one of nine victims of the Shankill Road bombing in 1993—she perhaps wished to connect over this shared bond. Realising the impact of his words, Alan dashed back outside and stopped her car to amend his statement: ‘I don’t agree with you. I don’t want to die. I want to laugh, to love, to dance again. And I want that for you too.’
This anecdote gives us a powerful glimpse into the value of WAVE and other victims’ and survivors’ groups. On occasion it is necessary to resist the comfort of mutually reinforcing each other, especially if the view being reinforced is how bleak life is. Instead, Alan stressed the journey of working progressively and therapeutically with people to try and move them onto a space where they could eventually imagine the joy of living, laughing, and loving again. Some may feel an isolated anecdote is too specific, too much a micro-narrative, but from this we gain awareness of mental health issues on a macro, societal level.
A comprehensive study from 2011 found the prevalence of PTSD in Northern Ireland to be the highest of all countries that have produced comparable estimates including the USA, other Western European countries and countries that have experienced civil conflict in their recent history. Despite an estimated 61 per cent of the Northern Ireland adult population having experienced a traumatic event at some point in their lifetime, public spending on mental health is far lower there than in the rest of the UK. In England, some 12 per cent of the health budget is spent on mental health, compared with just 6 per cent in Northern Ireland.
From an intangible and private, albeit on a large-scale, problem we shift toward a very explicit and public challenge facing the region. Along with the series of separation barriers perpetuating residential segregation, the continued existence and operation of paramilitaries is perhaps the most obvious reminder of conflict. In addition to involvement in organised criminality such as drug-dealing and racketeering, the so-called ‘punishment attacks’ inflicted mostly on young men in their own communities is regarded as an affront to decency and the rule of law.
Through fearful coercion, paramilitaries appoint themselves an illegitimate justice system dispensing ‘punishment’ in the form of vicious beatings and shootings, usually for misdemeanours. This was the subject of Father Martin Magill’s talk as he represented the pressure group ‘Stop the Attacks’ who campaign against the impunity of paramilitaries as they carry out human rights abuses. This coalition of youth workers, clergy and faith leaders was inspired by earlier efforts like ‘Families Against Intimidation and Terror’ (FAIT), set up in 1990 by a mother whose son had been shot by a paramilitary organisation. Fr Magill also paid credit to the meticulous work of Prof Liam Kennedy, who produced the landmark report on paramilitary attacks on children and young people (under twenty-one) with the title ‘They Shoot Children Don’t They?’ back in 2001. Whilst Fr. Magill acknowledged a recent decrease in recorded attacks, he refused complacency stating that the thirty-three incidents last year were thirty-three too many and that the group’s ultimate objective was to be so successful that they put themselves out of business.
The scale of abuse was highlighted by reference to Andrew Madden’s article in the Belfast Telegraph which collated Freedom of Information requests from the Police Service of Northern Ireland. From April 10th, 1998, the day the Good Friday Agreement was signed, to February 2023 there were 3,259 assaults or shootings records; 349 of these victims were under the age of eighteen. Rather than simply quoting these shocking statistics, Fr Magill gave them a poignant and personal depth. The following descriptions of injuries were written in the utilitarian language of police reports but delivered with the measured pace of an orator. However quiet the room had been it seemed to fall even further into a horrified silence:
Suspected broken nose, cut requiring five stitches to nose, six stitches to inside upper lip, three stitches on small finger on right hand which is also broken and grazed to left side of head. The victim was male and aged twelve … Five gunshot wounds to right leg, two gunshot wounds to left leg, one gunshot wound to right elbow. The victim was male, aged eighteen.
The conference’s objective was not only to reflect on the darkness and ills of society but to illuminate hopeful strategies for change. With this in mind, Fr Magill ended with a radical but practical proposal inspired by the broadcaster Jim Deeds. It consisted of reimagining the uses of churches and other religious buildings. Underattended as they so often are, they could be opened up for people in need of food, shelter, childcare, education and refuge. The call to action was clear, that faith practitioners could and should do more to fulfil John’s Gospel chapter 10, verse 10: ‘I came that they may have life and have it to the full.’
The final two ideas were provided by Eileen Weir of the Shankill Women’s Centre, a hugely respected community development practitioner whose extensive experience was in keeping with the calibre of the conference. Weir contrasted normative piecemeal funding with long-term and sustainable investment. During an All-Island Women’s Forum, Head of Campaigns and Mobilisation Rachel Coyle censured this trend of underinvestment for exacerbating social exclusion across the island. Furthermore, it significantly diminishes organisations’ capacity for collective action, political analysis and supporting women’s representation and participation.
Weir was convinced that civic society had achieved more in keeping the peace than politicians. Given that the resultant stability has facilitated the tourism boom, Weir argued that any major business settling in Northern Ireland should take a charity of their choosing under their wing and invest in them.
The second point Weir stressed was the need to inspire young people to take up key roles in civil society to address persistent inequalities. They need to be involved in the politics of today and not of forty years ago. An older generation may have passed down trauma, but they can also pass on the skills and lessons they have learned. This mirrored the opening remarks by ‘Paving the Path’ project lead Dr Connal Parr: ‘we want new relationships and dialogues to emerge from today.’ To that objective, all panels were filmed and made available for public use as an educational resource. Such resources are required given the capricious nature of peace. Some of the milestones along its path can be uprooted, whether by paramilitary spoiler violence, political dysfunction, or deteriorating community relations. Therefore, progress made is not necessarily progress maintained. Indeed, there is plenty of paving yet to be done, as the path continues …