23 September 2012

Facing History

This has been a very full week, and I will do my best to synthesize all the thoughts running around in my head into one semi-coherent thought!

With Amanda at
First things first: last Tuesday, I had my first visitors! OK, so Amanda was really in Ireland to visit her family, but I was totally the beneficiary of this trip when they came to Belfast on my day off and I was able to go do "touristy" things with them. I was particularly excited to take the bus tour, hoping to receive new insights on the murals which Doug had only touched on in passing during orientation. As it turns out, Doug is such a fantastic tour guide that he gave us more information in passing throughout the city than the fellow whose job it is to provide this service! Hooray for Doug!

It was interesting, however, to see the murals through a different lens. I've begun to see how people can quickly categorize others around here, as the perspective of this nameless tour bus driver was quite different from those I've experienced... so my first thought was automatically, "I wonder if he grew up in a Nationalist neighborhood?"

On Wednesday, Anna, David and I went to an event hosted by David's placement site, the WAVE Trauma Centre (introduced here). As part of their week-long Autumn Seminar Series, they hosted a night exploring the use of comedy as a peace-building tool. It was an interesting insight into a coping mechanism of those living in Belfast at the height of the Troubles.

The following night, WAVE hosted a discussion of the film Judgment at Nuremburg as an example of their Facing History series. Clips from the video were shown interspersed with discussion about the psychiatry of compliance and conformity of the German population. Of course, for an Anthro/Soc nerd like me, it was a blast hearing Durkheim's collective consciousness discussed in casual conversation... but the heart of the conversation seemed to carry through my experiences for the rest of the week. Essentially about what it meant, both in Nazi Germany and Belfast at the height of the Troubles, to be an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances, and individual complicity therein. How do we move past this to rebuild a healthy society?

On Friday, my coworkers from Fortwilliam and Macrory went to the old Crumlin Gaol (jail) for the unveiling of a report given for Bridge of Hope, a program of the local Ashton Community Trust, entitled Transitional Justice: Grassroots Engagement. I was intrigued by this model, exploring the place where conflict ends and rebuilding begins. Much like the discussion on Thursday night, there was a focus on the high costs related to the "survival skill" of moving forward from conflict without looking back and recognizing where you've been.

Transitional Justice launch
at Crumlin Gaol
The goal of this report was to look at the past and to have those difficult conversations, in an attempt to show the young people in their communities that they are committed to moving forward and ensuring a future that is peaceful and prosperous for future generations. 

The Transitional Justice model has five key pillars: 
  1. Truth-seeking and fact-finding
  2. Trials / criminal accountability
  3. Reparations
  4. Institutional reform
  5. Memorialization and collective memory
In essence, as a trust-building measure each party must be willing to listen to the other about their disparate experiences related to the same conflict. Different neighborhoods in Belfast have different experiences of the Troubles, which highlights a deep divide in this society. Much like the Judgement at Nuremburg film, it is important to face the truth of our past to help the survivors of this conflict, to recognize that harm has been done or trust has been broken, and to step up to the responsibilities of individual needs that arise from this. It is important to recognize where mistakes were made or systems were flawed in order to move forward efficiently, but it would be a disservice to those who have been affected by past injustices to move forward without recognizing the realities of this past.

The very location of the event was meaningful in that the jail is where many political prisoners were held during the Troubles until the building was decommissioned in 1996. For reference: the report states that 30,000 people spent time in prison due to the conflict. Many of these former prisoners have been internationally recognized as playing a positive and critical role in conflict transformation. A few of these were instrumental in this project, and in attendance at this event, which made me wonder what it would be like to go back in such a different time - facades repaired, cells repainted... completely whitewashed for public consumption.

    Original cells in unfinished side                                          Refurbished cells for public tours
      Dirty, peeling paint and general disrepair                      What a difference a fresh coat of paint makes!

In the spirit of looking back, next weekend is the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant. This document essentially stated at the time that the undersigned would like to remain loyal to King George (and by extension remain a part of the United Kingdom), and is still very important to many people in this community. The key phrase included, however, is "...defending,... using all means which may be found necessary...", which has been used by some as a rallying cry for violence. With this important anniversary approaching, as well as the recent uproar over parades, much of the city is bracing itself for potential unrest to occur over the next few weeks. It remains to be seen whether this concern will be valid. 

I realize that this post has expanded to record length, so I will leave you with words from my supervisor at Fortwilliam & Macrory, the imitable Reverend Lesley Carroll:

"In the short-term we face a parade on September 29th with the potential to have civil unrest around it. In the longer-term we face the challenge of how to live with each other even after all these years. We face the challenge of how to let each other off hooks, how to do things that will help the other side to trust us and step out on new roads of relationship. We face the challenge of building and not tearing down, of offering hope to young people who as things stand right now don’t even have the hope of a job, at least not many of them. We face the challenge of working out what mutual respect actually means and looks like in society. We face the challenge of what to do about the truths yet to be revealed and we kid ourselves that a good dose of some truths will put things back the way they should be with the good people looking after the governance and the bad people either shamed or in jail. It simply won’t work. In the longer-term there is much to be faced."

(I encourage you to visit this page and read the rest of her post on transitional justice.)


  1. Tricia, this is an excellent post. After reading that it's hard to believe you have only been here for a month You communicated the 'spirit of Belfast and transition' really well! Kudos!

  2. Thanks, Jonny - I've had some good teachers!

    So much more to learn...