Experiences in Northern Ireland

Mari Fitzduff

Professor and Director of the MA Conflict and Coexistence Programme at Brandeis University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: Can you give me a brief overview of your work?

A: Right, okay, well, it started in the mid-80s. I lived in a very, very conflicted area where 30 of my immediate neighbors were murdered. I literally looked up one day and the British army was trying to chase the provisional IRA through my house. I just thought, there's got to be a better way. I was without the Internet those days, but I assiduously looked at all university libraries and et cetera to find out as much as I could about conflict resolution, which was just about beginning. Subsequently, I set up the first courses in conflict resolution in both universities in Northern Ireland. The field was so new that people turning up for mediation thought they were turning up for meditation. A couple of things happened from that.

I set up the mediation network in 1988. In 1986, jumping back a bit, I wrote a report for the government which basically said it's not enough just to use the army to try to stop this conflict. I looked at the proportion of money spent on military containment as opposed to conflict resolution, suggested that it should be somewhat turned around,and at the same time I began to develop a lot of work in training.

We'd had a very bad experience in training in the early mid-70s in Northern Ireland, where a couple of groups had come over from the United States, I'm afraid. They are very intense, very difficult groups with a lot of the community folk in Northern Ireland. They left without debriefing and left a lot of sorrow behind, a lot of distrust about group techniques. It was basically using a tavis doc technique, people couldn't really understand large group stuff, and that in a way put people off group work.

When I came I was very interested because of my own previous work in groups, so I began to write a training book, which could be used particularly in the conflict in Northern Ireland, called Community Conflict Skills. That came out in 1988. It's subsequently been translated into Indonesian, Serbo-Croatian, and a whole variety of other languages. It's actually going to its sixth edition. It's known in the local areas of Northern Ireland, it's what they call "the bible"; it is used by all the ex-paramilitaries, the prisoners, the community groups, etc. It basically gives about 56 different structured ways of looking at issues of justice, political choices, and bridge building, etc, etc. So all of this was happening in parallel and then the government asked me to do this paper which looked at the almost non-existence of conflict resolution almost, and turned around and set up an agency which I subsequently became the chief executive of.

Q: Which was what?

A: They set up two agencies, one within the government, which we'd suggested, to look at issues of conflict resolution. The other was independent of the government, which was the Community Relations Council, which was funded by both British funds and European funds., but it was independent so we could make choices about what we wanted to fund and decisions, etc. I went through the usual processes and became the first chief executive of that.

For seven years I worked on that, working with trade unions, local community groups, working with public bodies, farmers, police, army, working with politicians, looking at basically their responsibility in terms of their contribution to conflict resolution. Putting all the pieces of the jigsaw in place, so that what the army did in one area didn't create problems for the bridge building, so that the bridge building began to lead into politics, so the economic development was done taking into account how do you unite people rather than divide them.

Q: A certain amount of coordination.

A: Yes, there was a lot. We had a list in our offices of all the groups we needed to affect change, whether it was the sports council, basically there's a lot of sectarianism in sport, whether it was the arts council, which had huge potential but weren't developing community drama, community art, etc. So yes, we worked with dozens and dozens of different agencies at different times. It was not easy. We often had to work with them from a distance. I sometimes track the difference between first conversation and first action on their part. The minimum was often two years because the work was just so difficult. Some organizations took up to five years before they actually began.

For instance, the sports council then began to implement programs on sectarianism in sport and football and uniting sport and things like that. Believe it or not, actually, the army came on board fairly quickly, the police came on board, then gradually over the years, etc. In a way it was a multi-problemed approach and that was all the time creating the infrastructure, we called it "sub-political work", that would make it easier for these sort of political agreements to happen. Some people call it pre-political work, so that eventually when it came to getting the politicians together we had the preliminary information. First of all a lot of society had already been changed, which made it a bit easier for them to move.

Secondly, a lot of the people who'd been involved in the bridge building work were actually moving into politics, particularly the young loyalists and the women's coalition, etc. So we had entrism, as it were, into the whole political thing. It was still quite difficult to get a political agreement, but at least the back had been broken on a lot of the work.

So then the ceasefire started in 1994. A lot of the other work we did was recognizing. We have this mantra: Conflicts don't end, they just change, and the change we're looking for is from violence into politics.The big problem we faced was what do we do with the paramilitaries, most of the men who got great meaning, great excitement out of being paramilitaries. My own doctorate work had looked at the whole phenomenon of paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, so I knew many of them.

We spent some time then, this was slightly informal, outside of the organization, putting in place a lot of programs for paramilitaries so they would learn about politics and they would learn how to gain power through politics, rather than just feeling they had to go back to the gun to keep power. If you actually track where they've got to, the loyalist groups that took on the political role successfully and gained seats in a way maintained the ceasefires. The loyalist groups who didn't gain seats didn't maintain the ceasefires and until just this year have continued to be a bit of a problem. That's what I call the left over testosterone problem, particularly for the men.

Q: Because they felt excluded from political power?

A: They had no power, they had no more power because the power was shifting and changing. There were fascinating conversations with many of these groups where they were very explicitly saying, can you guarantee we will gain power through the vote? If not, we'll just go back to violence. This was the smaller loyalist group. So, there was a lot of work that needed to be done like that, and indeed a lot of work needed to be done in retraining paramilitaries and reintegrating them into communities, etc., afterward.

Then all the dominoes began to fall and it was fairly clear that peace was coming, albeit fairly slowly, to Northern Ireland. But it always does come like this, and I always say conflicts end not with a bang but a whimper after whimper after whimper.And now we eventually got the agreement ceasefire. Ceasefires in '74 broke down, that's not uncommon.. We eventually got a labor party that was quite brave. We got the agreement in '98 and now we're five years on and just about dribbling into the ends of the problems. So by and large most people will be on board with policing probably by the end of this year. The leftover troubles at the cold face, which are really partly loyalists who did not have places in the new scheme of things, they're easing up a little. I suspect that they will disappear fairly quickly within this year, and we think even Parades is probably going to be finished by this year or next year.

There's a good lesson there, is that it does take time, there's rarely a moment when you say I remember having a celebration party after the ceasefires were called, and that was actually '94, '95. I said, "Look, I know we're going to have a difficult time, but let's just celebrate this moment." You've got to realize that the work certainly does continue on after that.