November 29, 1999
Volume 52, No. 13
Beth Corrie asks: What does reconciliation require?
Last May, I participated in the Emory "Journeys of Reconciliation" program by traveling to Northern Ireland with several students, faculty and staff. On this journey, we talked with and listened to politicians, community activists, religious leaders, paramilitary soldiers and "regular" residents of Northern Ireland from all sides of the political spectrum. We asked our hosts to comment on the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement, an agreement intended to facilitate the peaceful transfer of power from the British Parliament to a cross-community, power-sharing government in Belfast.
We heard a variety of reactions toward the peace agreement and toward the impasse currently blocking its fulfillment. Out of these conversations, a few common themes emerged concerning the issue of reconciliation. I have compiled these themes from my reflections on these and subsequent conversations. Although neither comprehensive nor final, this list contributes to a discussion vital to our own context as well as that of Northern Ireland. What, then, does reconciliation require?
Resistance to oversimplification of the problem. Growing up, I saw television footage of burning cars and bomb debris on the streets of West Belfast, and I was told that in Ireland the Catholics and the Protestants are fighting each other over religion. Of course, religion plays a significant role, not only in the contemporary situation but also throughout Irish history, and many of the people I met saw the conflict in these terms.
But this was not the only explanation I received. Ireland's centuries-long history of English colonization remains in the forefront of its residents' memories and conversations. From the history comes the politics. The factions seen in political terms are labeled "nationalists" and "unionists," or "republicans" and "loyalists," and these markers are identical neither to each other nor to the labels "Catholic" and "Protestant."
These subtle distinctions reflect another equally subtle factor: identity. No two Northern Irish residents identified themselves in quite the same way. An individual's self-identification involves a complex linking of politics, history, ethnicity, culture and religion, all of which elude clean categorization. To complicate analysis further, economic factors cut across all the other lines, calling to our attention the commonality between the divided working classes while separating supposedly "unified" parties. This irreducibly complex set of factors requires us to rethink not only our understanding of the problem, but also our efforts at addressing it.
Contact with the Other Side(s). Again and again, I heard stories about the transformation many paramilitary men experienced while imprisoned with each other. Forced to coexist, many republicans and loyalists began to talk with "the enemy," learning their names and backgrounds and seeing each other as individual human beings. Over time, reflection upon these interactions changed the perspectives of people at one time committed to violence. Experiences such as these are part of what fueled the peace movement, and this model of small-group, integrated interaction forms the basis of much of the reconciliation work now taking place in Northern Ireland.
Meaningful Conversation. By this I mean open, honest and respectful interchange between partners willing to concede that people can change. What must this level of conversation include? Above all, a mutual commitment to dialogue itself. This basic faith in the efficacy of peace talks may be a source of the trust needed to encourage vulnerability and honesty-the trust that does not initially exist between enemies but which may grow out of a commonly held trust in the process itself.
This kind of conversation must be dialogical--equal parts listening and talking. All the voices must speak with integrity, and they must be listened to with equal integrity. To do this, interlocutors must empathize with each other and believe that people can change. The people talking today are not the people who refused to talk to each other for decades, nor are they the people who will be talking to each other tomorrow. This is because transformation occurs. Belief in this possibility fosters hope, and this too is essential to meaningful conversation.
Cooperation between local communities and leaders. All of this conversation requires seemingly unlimited patience. The Good Friday Peace Agreement itself came out of more than a year's worth of talks. Although the time lag in implementing the agreement has been both disheartening and frustrating, it is not fruitless. As one politician explained to me, the time spent in negotiations is itself trust-building. If the leaders themselves need this much time to regain trust in each other, their constituents need at least this much time and more.
Peace cannot come about simply by a decree handed down and forced upon local communities; the people themselves must participate in the peace process through frequent communication (talking and listening) between leaders and constituents. This activity undoubtedly slows the process down. Nevertheless, it lays the foundation for a lasting peace.
Confession and Forgiveness. Nearly every person we spoke to, regardless of affiliation, explicitly stated his or her desire to hear the other side acknowledge its role in the conflict. What we may at times forget is that confession is at least as important for the one confessing as it is for the one hearing the confession. Confession includes not only the need to hear truth, but also the need to speak it. Forgiveness follows confession and, like confession, benefits the forgiver as much as the forgiven. After 30 years of violence, many may find this action intolerable. However, a move in this direction-as the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission has insisted-may be indispensable to peace.
What became most clear to me during my visit to Northern Ireland was the importance of reconciliation to resolving some of our own conflicts in the United States. We have discrimination and violence, and these also come out of a complex web of history, ethnicity, religion, culture and economics. Do we oversimplify our problems? How often do we interact with those different from us? How deep and honest is our level of conversation? How involved are local communities with the political process, and do our leaders take the time to listen to their constituents? Do we have the courage to confess and forgive past wrongs?
In order to address our conflicts seriously, we must get serious about our reconciliation.
Elizabeth Corrie is a graduate student in religion.