Posted by: promiseofpeaceni | June 20, 2014

A View from the post-Agreement Generation: Amy Black, BSc Sociology, University of Ulster


Ending a year-long series of seminars and workshops, the Promise of Peace team culminated their project with their much anticipated conference hosted at the Ulster Museum in Belfast. Sponsored by the British Academy and Leverhulme Trust, this climatic event brought together speakers from across a wide expanse of locations and disciplines to share their expertise on the topic of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement: its promise of peace, the objectives, the incurring challenges, and the implications of the Agreement for future generations.

The Northern Ireland Conflict: Did Political Violence Work?

Keynote speaker, Prof Richard English, opened the conference with an address on the effectiveness of political violence in the Northern Ireland conflict. English asserted that there is great difficulty and importance in the study of political violence in Northern Ireland; central themes of his address posed the questions: Did political violence work in Northern Ireland? For whom? Will the future involve violence?

English highlighted the commonality in contemporary world politics to consider non-violent politics as most effective. To test this hypothesis, English used the example of the violence exhibited by the IRA during the Northern Ireland conflict. He proposed a four-tiered systematic framework of how the efficaciousness of political violence may be measured, this included: the strategic success of political violence, the partial strategic success, the tactical success and the inherent reward of the struggle itself. English argued that as we move through the phases of this model, we can gather more evidence as to the effectiveness of political violence. English concludes that the political violence of the IRA has had decaffeinated success post-ceasefire, as although they did not achieve their main objective of a united Ireland, they did achieve some of their secondary goals.

English stated that while this framework can be useful; with regard to Northern Ireland, a more intricate approach, spanning over a longer time frame, which encompasses the future and the past, needs to be employed in order to accurately reflect on the peace process; goals and aims may change over time, the end result may not reflect the initial aim, therefore, according to English, 2014 is not the final place to assess the peace process.

Dealing with the Legacies of the Past

Dr Fidelma Ashe opened the first panel session of the day with a presentation on women, post-conflict societies and the future. Ashe gave a critical analysis of the gendered nature of Northern Irish politics, arguing that since the Good Friday Agreement, there has been little progress on this issue, as women continue to be absent from major political negotiations e.g. the Haass proposals. In address to the past Ashe argued, women’s groups, civic groups and social groups must infiltrate into negotiations, so as some recognition may be found in a more neutral arena, otherwise we risk re-enacting the past in the future. Ashe concluded that it is doubtful the Northern Ireland peace process demonstrates an international model for transformation as gender is not substantially or representatively featured in peace negotiations.

Prof Graham Dawson spoke next on the designed futures and cultural dimensions of conflict transformation. He argued that it is not so much the Good Friday Agreement itself that has an impact, but rather the grassroots activity of storytelling, listening, breaking the culture of silence and embedding the culture of human rights, that serves a wider social purpose, has meaning and can generate an understanding of the past. He concluded that there is a suggestion that the forging of a relationship between the past and present will solve something or bring closure, but actually, this is problematic as it may only serve to open issues further.

On dealing with the legacies of the past, Dr Eamonn Hughes emphasised culture and education, and how these have been addressed following the Good Friday Agreement. He pointed to the use of language and imagery, and how they influence our conceptualisations of peace, culture and the city. He argued that the re-imaging of Belfast through media constructs has been economically motivated to boost tourism and capital; it is obscuring the reminders of cultural disparity and conflict e.g. peacewalls and murals. Hughes asserted that “culture is where we turn away from neo-liberal capitalist consumer drones; it is where we can explore ourselves”, in order to do so, he argued, we must have an initial political and social understanding of our own culture that is explained and not simply inherited.

Closing the first panel session, Prof John Brewer presented a sociology of peace processes; he argued that a peace process is fundamentally fragile as it always emerges from ‘messy’ negotiations, but often an ‘imperfect peace’ is preferable to the continuance of conflict. In Northern Ireland, he argued, “the past has become the arbiter of the future”. Brewer stressed the need for a moral recalibration and recommitment to peace, an erosion of the hierarchy of victimhood, and a collective engagement with the past, so as we may create a shared future not by forgetting the cultural disparity of the past, but by remembering the past in a positive light.

Institutional Transformation

Opening the second panel of the day, Dr Eamonn O’Kane provided an assessment on how the Good Friday Agreement led us to being where we are now and why, and gave exploration into the chances of institutional change in Northern Ireland. He argued that while the Good Friday Agreement did bring an end to violence; during negotiations, institutional structure was not thoroughly addressed as each party only brought what they considered to be most important. This, O’Kane argues, explains to some extent how the institutional structures of society have come to take their current form. O’Kane is critical of the potential for institutional reform in Northern Ireland as institutional structures have become entrenched, and in his closing arguments, left us with these questions: Where is the impetus for institutional reform coming from, Britain or Ireland? Is change realistic? Are we in crisis or consensus?

Prof Arthur Aughey gave a critical engagement of peace versus good governance. He argued that the Northern Ireland predicament is largely over simplified; the history, architecture and practice of governance are in fact very complex and unfixed in political reality. The foundation upon which the institutional structures are built is in itself inherently flawed; Aughey argued that the cornerstone of peace in Northern Ireland is built on the notion of a shared future, a ‘new beginning’, but this notion is a myth. So what does that mean for institutional transformation in Northern Ireland? Aughey concluded that no single institutional reform exists to solve all problems.

Dr Sara McDowell gave a presentation on her research into violence, space and memory in Northern Ireland. McDowell argued that the reality of our physical geography, memory and commemoration have implications for our surrounding institutions. McDowell found that the potency and ramifications of post-conflict commemorative violence has a significant spatial, social and institutional impact on Northern Ireland as a society in transition. In her research, McDowell discovered that there is a considerable lack of trust in the capability of the public sphere to adequately mediate past and present issues, and a total lack of cohesion between institutions as to how to deal with these issues; these findings, McDowell suggested, impede institutional progress and restrict the opportunity for reform.

Ending the second panel session, Prof Robert Galavan gave a critical analysis of the business response to strategizing and shaping the future of institutions. He claimed that institutions can work to normalise our lives and shape our interpretations of what our organisational structures are and should be, so that while we may feel we are free-thinking individuals, our decisions are in-fact being moulded by wider social structures. Galavan argued that, in Northern Ireland, while the underlying religious-politico agenda of institutions can limit cross-institutional change; in business, attention must be paid to the foundational structures of society in designing strategy.

Plenary Discussion

To end the conference, the floor was opened to a plenary discussion of the day’s topics. In regard to institutional transformation, Prof Colin Harvey asked how might we invoke institutional change to create a more balanced inclusion of human rights, social mobility and social justice? What features can we take from ‘successfully integrated’ institutions? How can we implicate these features in other institutions? Is it realistic these comparable features are inter-relatable between institutions? Do we need to reconfigure our thinking of the Northern Ireland conflict to consider it in the context of conflict within a global framework?

Attention was given to the importance of the intergenerational implications of the past: the reproduction of fear in ‘safe space’ and ‘unsafe space’ can cause transgenerational trauma; and the absence of youth in political, social and cultural discussion, aids and abets the transmission of ethno-national prejudices. McDowell highlighted the trend for young people to disengage from the peace process as being attributed to the fact that they have no first-hand experience of the Troubles; McDowell argued that intergenerational communication, space and experience, all impact young peoples’ attitude towards the Northern Ireland peace process.

It was argued that how we conceptualise peace comes hand in hand with how we got here and where we are going; what peace looks like, whether that be negative or positive peace, comes down to personal perceptions of peace. It was argued that segregation has been normalised, the result of which meaning that many perceive segregation as peace.

Dawson observed that absences in political, social and even academic debate can be explained by the tendency for heavily reported issues in the news to dominate discussion. He argued that we are struggling with the hegemonic, singular narratives of the past and asked, “How can we overturn this and discover, explore and discuss hidden narratives?” Brewer argued that the diffusion of conflict and the consolidation of peace is a gradual process; the politicisation of the past taints our perspective on what has been achieved and inhibits the potential for a shared future.

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