Building a United Community: Community Relations Week 2014

This morning I attended the launch of Community Relations Week @The Mac, Belfast. It was one of the most encouraging and positive events I have attended in a while. Peter Osborne’s chairmanship of the Community Relations Council and of the event this morning was a lesson in how to be both inspirational and realistic. In Biblical terms, I was among, ‘a great cloud of witnesses.’

In her commentary at the beginning of the published programme the Chief Executive, Jacqueline Irwin, writes:


“The theme of this year’s Community Relations Week is Building a United Community, Building a united community is as urgent now as it was when the peace agreement was signed in 1998. We have plenty of examples of our capacity to slip back into animo sit and old ways of thinking. There is no room for complacency. … Community Relations Week is packed with great examples of the united community that is being built all around us right now.”


Time and again we are discouraged by what seems to be intractable problems and challenges. Community Relations Week provides an opportunity for us to open ourselves to new inspiration and hopefulness as we see and hear what is already going on to build united community. Our participation and consequent inspiration could help unlock many of the problems. 

Community Relations Week runs across Northern Ireland from 16-22 June and you can find the programme at


Compassion: hope for a new morality

On this day in 1981 I was 18, studying for my A-levels. My MP had died. For weeks the tension in the air had been palpable. Would he choose to die? Would the government let him die? What would happen next? I remember the pause in English class as our teacher mused on the uneasy atmosphere.
I still keep a poster of Bobby Sands, taken from a lamppost outside our house. It’s not that I supported what he was doing. As I saw it, it was an unnecessary death, a terrible waste of life, a family left grieving no matter what the political story around it all was. I couldn’t understand why there was no way found to resolve matters. Weren’t governments meant to protect life? I keep the poster not because of my political views, but because it reminds me of that time in our history when there was little in the way of compassion. Desperate things happened and desperate consequences ensued. If only that had been the end of it, but it wasn’t.
These last few months have reminded me of that time, this last week more so. The uneasy air. The awful human suffering obscured by ‘digging in’ against each other. The dead ends that open up when we start talking about suffering. We seem to get nowhere. It’s wearying and if it’s wearying for me then it’s more than wearying for those who, behind their own front doors, are in shock, their grief deepened and hope trumped by what goes on outside their own front door. Of course no one has a monopoly on shock and the impact of another’s behaviour. To list off what has happened these last few months is to take a bird’s eye view of behaviours that are impacting on people at their most vulnerable human levels. It is to see that when it comes to how we damage each other it is our behaviour, not our words, that really matters.

Republican Parade in Castlederg
Haass/O’Sullivan talks
On the Runs revelations
McGurk’s Bar suspect released
Innocent Victims call on political parties to sign 10 point contract
Ballymurphy families denied review panel
La Mon families informed there will be no review
DUP release key policy commitments to victims
Controversial Maze Report released
Gerry Adams arrested
The McConville family speak out
365 Royal Prerogatives of Mercy announced and more to come when the files are found
Innocent Victims release their 10 point contract as public petition
Gerry Adams released with files being sent to the PPS

Have I missed things out or mixed up the order? I’m sure I have because the edginess coalesces events and facts into a cloud of disquiet, a blur of feelings. We have come through worse. But every time we come through turbulence we lose more of our souls to the tyranny of a past which continues to hurt us and with which we hurt each other.
There is nothing more cruel than knowing what damaged someone in the past and then using the same tactic over and over again, deepening the damage. And that’s what’s happening. By our words, our political codes, our connections to our own past, our carelessness of each others suffering, our will to resist our own defeat, we continue the dynamic of damage to one another. We refuse to look each other in the eye or to offer explanation to each other. Without that attempt at explanation we render each other invisible, worthless. There is a dearth of compassion. In the end of the day, words count for nothing. It’s behaviour that matters. Behaviours change how we feel and the realities we live with.
It’s time to get human, to find compassion. It won’t be easy. It hurts to raise the bar on your own behaviour and it hurts to be honest. It hurts to admit that we are doing what we have always done and that we are continuing to hurt each other.
No one, in any part of our society, is going to get all that they want and some will probably not get all that they need. But if we are human with each other, if we change our behaviour towards each other and find some compassion for each other, we can help each other out. We can choose a different pattern for the future, one in which we make each other human by the way behave. It’s the only hope we have. Without compassion for each other, and indeed for ourselves, the future is bleak, just more of the same.

“Compassion is the basis of morality.”
Arthur Schopenhauer


Bethlehem Diary 3: The problem of clashing narratives

Day 3 part 1: Narrative theme

The themes emerging about Israeli Palestinian conflict resonate with those of our Troubles in NI. ‘Narrative’ is one of those themes. Not everyone in NI likes the idea of ‘narrative’. For me it means the story we tell ourselves, sometimes about ourselves and sometimes about others, and that story helps to make us who we are. Salim Munayer provided some thinking about the function of narratives. They provide personal and collective identity, they give legitimacy to a community’s self-understanding and behaviour and they are selective about truth, choosing aspects of history that support identity.

When narratives clash, with a consequent clash of identities, each is adopting narrative to support their own truth and portray it as the truth. This a zero sum game. Narratives are thus employed to motivate and recruit, sustaining separated communities and resisting new information.

Munayer suggested four responses to move to a deeper and more shared truth:

Listen to each other’s narratives.
Recognise each other’s narratives.
Identify the weaknesses in our own narrative.
Critically assess our own narrative.

What I liked about this is that it focusses on ourselves. In the end of the day we may hope that others will change but the only person we have any real influence over is ourselves.

I was reminded of Vamik Volkan’s thinking about chosen glories and chosen traumas. Volkan argues that communities choose stories, some of glory and some of trauma, to sustain them over and against others. The difficulty is that these glories and traumas collide, each excluding the other. But traumas in particular have another quality to them. Munayer spoke of how our wounds become part of our identity and we embrace victimisation as a means of constructing and sustaining ourselves. While it is the case that wounds are inflicted by different events, the chosen traumas that are remembered and taken into ourselves, it is also true that the results of those traumas, the wounding, is no different for one side or the other. The glorious and traumatic events we choose to remember influence how we deal, or don’t deal, with our neighbours. The shared experience of woundedness provides a different opportunity for how we deal with and understand each other.

All of this presents us with a problem. If we are speak our narrative to those whom we want to hear it and if we listen to the narrative of others then a process of deconstruction begins. We leave our identity open to that of the other and it can feel very uncertain. It can feel like the familiar is slipping away and we wonder how we will survive it because we have become so tied up with the identity we have owned for so long. We wonder who we are and we wonder how we can survive it.

When it comes to who we are I have found it helpful to hold on to the belief that we are always more than we ever think we are at any one time. The New Testament writer speaks about putting off the old and putting on the new. There is always a new us up ahead. That new ‘me’ is more than I can yet describe but if I am willing to subject myself to the journey of deconstructing and reconstructing identity in light of new understanding and information then there is something new at the end of it. More than I can imagine.

When it comes to how we survive this process the best that I can say is that we can’t do this alone, In the process of resolving conflict and difference each party to the conflict needs the other to make the same journey. We need to draw on the shared woundedness and allow it to become part of us for the sake of the other. We are travelling people, people under reconstruction. We need each other – friends need each other, enemies need each other, divided communities need each other. Without each other the process of reconstruction becomes well nigh impossible.

So there is new light for me on the gospel teaching about loving enemies and praying for those who persecute us. This is not just a command to be fulfilled nor only a lifestyle to aspire to. This is about the necessity for survival as people who share the world. We have a choice to either carve the world up so that we don’t encounter each other or to live in the enrichment of meeting and getting to know one another, together living through the deconstruction and the reconstruction so that something new and not yet seen comes to pass. And isn’ that what faith is all about – believing in things not yet seen?

* Salim Munayer is a member of faculty at Bethlehem Bible College, founder of Musalaha Reconciliation Ministries for Israel and Palestine and writer on subjects such as Palestinian identity and Israeli/Palestinian conflict.


Bethlehem Diary 2: From suspicion to partnership for peace

Day 2: Suspicion sets in

Day 2 provided a pre-conference opportunity to listen to a lecture setting out a Palestinian perspective on history and experience. The welcome was warm and the lecture was delivered with clarity and good humour. The stories told invoked a certain understanding of the world which drew from me a feeling of suspicion. Whether this is a good or a bad thing remains to be seen. The experience took me back to my attendances at the West Belfast Festival. There, as an Ulster Prod, I found myself sitting in a story which I did not share. But it was always, and it is still so, a story that elicited the sympathy of the world. In that sense the Festival has always had a seductive character to it. I contrast it to my experience among loyalists and unionists when the talk is often more desolate. The contrast is between optimism and despair, between a sense of people being on the same page or people being divided as to the way forward. So in Bethlehem I was glad of the difficult person in the audience who challenged the speaker and took him to task. That person was treated with the greatest respect but I still wondered if that came from a deep sense of the Palestinian perspective being the right perspective.
All of that said there are things happening here, and I write as a learning outsider, which are quite staggering in their capacity to diminish human beings – the loss of land and the building of walls inside the agreed line thus depriving Palestinians of land they were supposed to have, the checkpoints that treat people inhumanely at times, the number of people leaving Palestinian communities to go somewhere where there is greater opportunity, the delays in issuing permits which leave Palestinians uncertain about travel and so much more. I am reminded that unless people can look into each other’s human experience and see it for how it is experienced then there is little chance of embedded peace sustained into the future.
The history is bloody and filled with loss. Whether it be the 1948 catastrophe, the 1967 six-day war, the first or second Intifada, or the 2009 Gaza War or Massacre, there is little to be proud of, it seems to me. I am reminded again that there are no glories in violence. In Northern Ireland we sometimes speak of the rewards for violence and how abhorrent they are, even if they are made in order to achieve peace. But even with that there are no glories in violence. There may be moments that are used to craft a story of identity and success that communicates the lie that these glorious moments give glory to violence. Years on the continuing loss, injury, psychological suffering, community breakdown and dehumanising behaviour speak loudly in voices that tell us there are no glories in violence. Yet we can continue to believe the lie. Hence I have become suspicious of any history or any telling of history which is not significantly critical of violence as a means to achieve an end or of any telling of history that entices outsiders onto one side or the other. And that is not to deny the facts that go with those histories, they have to be respected along with the human stories.
Vera Baboun, the first woman to hold the office of Mayor of Bethlehem, spoke proudly and well about peace. Peace, peace, peace. All that we do has to be about peace. Tell the world Israel has a partner for making peace. Here she took the words of Rabin who, at the signing of the negotiations surrounding the Oslo Accords, said that there was no partner for making peace. Baboun speaks out to grasp the opportunity for making a new history. She invites a response to the call.
Baboun’s call is a reminder that none of us can make peace on our own. Peace is made with enemies and perhaps that is why I am uncomfortable with one history being told. Unless the enemy is present and willing to make peace, unless we are present as an enemy in other stories and willing to make peace there, then peace is not possible. Peace is always made when enemies are willing to partner one another and disrupt one another’s suspicions.



I saw this picture at the Forthspring 5 Decades Exhibition showing in the City Hall, Belfast. It is thought-provoking, punchy and heart-rending. I was reminded of pictures I had seen in Rwanda and of people I had met. So many people determined that what happened in Rwanda in 1994 would not happen again. 10 people were killed every minute. 10 000 people were killed every day. Over 1 million people were killed in 100 days. Staggering. Ethnic division and demonisation preparing the way for extermination.

In a recent Panel Discussion held by the United Nations to Mark 20 years after the Rwandan Genocide, the Deputy Secretary General of the UN, Jan Eliasson, said that when we continue to speak of ‘never again’ we are expressing continuing failure. I think I would prefer to say that we are admitting we have not yet got it right and there is much work to be done.
So how might we know that we have not yet got it right? Beyond the continuing need to speak of ‘never again’ how might we know?
General Romeo Dallaire was the Force Commander UN Mission to Rwanda at the time of the genocide. There was no one who had given more stark and clear warnings to the International Community of what lay ahead for that country. His warnings went unheeded until it was too late, until, in the words of Eugenie Mukeshimana of the Genocide Survivors Network, the crime was ‘too great to punish.’ These days Dallaire works to prevent conflict and expends his energies in defining warning signs. The clearest warning sign, says Dallaire, is the use of children and young people as the instruments of war to acheive the ends of adults who are intent on destroying one another. He speaks of child soldiers, of youth used to provide the supports needed for conflict, of young lives dehumanised and the debasing of all humanity as long as conflict continues. He does not shirk the failures of the International Community – ‘and we watched.’ Those words become all the more moving when set alongside the words of Eugenie Mukeshimana, ‘we waited and nobody came.’
All of this got me thinking about our situation in Northern Ireland. We spend so much time thinking about young people but do we take it seriously when we hear that paramilitary groupings are recruiting young people? Do we take it seriously when we hear that young people who were moving away from being ‘at risk’ are being pulled back into the types of crime that will generate income for those paramilitary groupings? Do we take it seriously when children and young people are found in the vanguard of protests and violence? Or are we inclined to say that’s only to be expected in certain areas or certain communities?
Dallaire would argue that the flagrant use of youth as the weapons of conflict should be viewed as a warning that must not be ignored. In his own words, you, ‘don’t neutralise a weapon by picking up the pieces afterwards.’


Never Again: what will it take?


Conflicts, problems and the future

How we approach the issues that confront us will determine the outcome. Whether it be flags, parades, dealing with the past or one of the many other contested issues if we approach these matters as sites of conflict then we are not likely to get very far. Contested matters have long been thought of as sites of the conflict telling us that the troubles of the past are not gone. The old allegiances live on in every unresolved issue and the problem confronting Drs Haass and O’Sullivan present an opportunity to reach only measured compromise. 

But what if we were to change the approach?

What if, across the board, political and civic leaders, members of civil society, victims and survivors, those aligned with ‘State forces’, former paramilitaries, everyone, were to decide that we have a problem to be solved?

The trouble is that we have got stuck. If we come to our difficulties hoping to win a conflict then we are likely to remain stuck.
If we were to agree that we genuinely don’t want to return to the old conflicts and were to focus on the future, then we can begin to approach the outstanding matters from the past as a problem to be solved – a common problem. The common problem is that the outstanding matters from the past are stalling the building of a shared, equitable, more reconciled future. Common willingness to address a common problem allows us to come to the issues with the possibility of it being in everyone’s interests to resolve matters is. No one is granted a veto and everyone is granted possibility.
To approach the situation as a common problem is to address ourselves to the painstaking task of embedding a more peaceful future in which what happened in the past is less likely to happen all over again. It is also a way of lessening the feeling many have that they will not be considered. This problem belongs to everyone and when laid out in all its aspects will see what matters to everyone. But with this common problem the best that can be done will be done, for everyone will apply themselves to resolution rather than to winning or protecting themselves.
In a problem solving approach the morality of what is done is upheld. It is morally right to apply ourselves to doing what we can to provide a society in which everyone can feel they have a part and are given the respect and consideration they deserve, whether that be the opportunity for employment or the opportunity of health services and recognition of injury, to name but two. It is morally right to build a society which enables rather than traps, a society driven by care for the vulnerable and the opportunity for everyone to achieve their potential. That morality is shackled when individuals and groups are focussed only on themselves, setting up a conflict dynamic. A problem solving approach also removes the chance for each to use the other as excuse or even veto on the process of moving away from conflict. The debate becomes focussed on what serves us all best rather than on what others permit or do not permit us to do.
Will everything turn out perfectly if a problem solving approach is adopted? That is unlikely. We have lived through a depth of turmoil so dark and murky that categories of perfection are unlikely to apply for a very long time to come. It takes a while to ‘clean up our act’. In my view we have to be honest about that. What a problem solving approach offers is the opportunity for everyone to play their part in making the future that we persistently talk about – a future in which we are not dominated or threatened by the past but making a future in which our children and our children’s children will have no fear of violence, terror, domination, sectarianism and all the ensuing implications.