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The long road to peace - Northern Ireland working towards cultural understanding

Grainne Kelly is a researcher looking at conflict resolution in Northern Ireland. In a society long divided, there have been some successful steps towards cementing a lasting peace. It has required political will, and an acceptance that there will be failures along with success stories.


12 / 2001

Grainne Kelly is a researcher in the area of conflict resolution in Northern Ireland.

According to Grainne, all individuals have the ability to communicate on a superficial level. In Northern Ireland, people talk, work, go to university and shop together all the time - no matter their political or religious affiliations. People just do not go to primary or secondary school together - which sets up a divide. In fact, only five percent of these schools in Northern Ireland are of mixed religion. In many ways therefore, it is the people that are most involved in the physical end of the conflict that are most segregated, and hence have the least amount of contact with the ’other’ community.

Like all societies in conflict, there are a number of unique aspects of Northern Ireland. Firstly, it is a very polite community, so it is unusual for people to raise difficult issues. This has both positive and negative aspects. Another unique aspect of the conflict is that unlike other divided societies, it is not possible to physically recognise which community people belong to. As a result, the way to identify the ’other’ takes on a more subtle aspect. An anthropological study found there are dozens of ways used to try and identify were people come from. Everyday basic questions such as place of schooling, your name and so on are used to identify people’s affiliations.

Therefore, it is communication on a deeper level that is difficult. There are a number of grassroots community groups in Northern Ireland that try to promote dialogue. These groups are developing materials that attempt to explore commonalties and differences, bringing the different cultures together through dialogue. These are often assisted by government funding. Despite this, deep divisions remain.

An example of such divisions is the Orange Order - which is exclusively Protestant. They have a long tradition of parading - holding up to 1, 500 parades in July alone. During the conflict, the Catholic community remained very quiet about the parades, which are incredibly divisive as they represent a celebration of Protestant military victory over Catholic forces. After the 1994 cease-fire, Catholics started to protest against the parades. People attempted to understand why this was so important to the Orange Order, who for them, is a real ’day out’ - almost taking on a carnival atmosphere. These attempts failed, and the result has been a cultural clash and incredible polarisation - particularly at the village level. In other words, the dialogue failed.

Others have tried different ways to overcome the divisiveness of such events. For example, over the last four years the Apprentice Boys have attempted to promote the parades as cultural events and promote the involvement of the Catholic Community. This has not really worked, but according to Grainne, has taken a great deal of the ’sting’ out of the events.

Another example of a failed attempt in dialogue is a program introduced in the secondary school system - education for mutual understanding. This program obliged teachers to teach cross-cultural issues and bring different children together. Grainne believes that this failed because there was no dedicated teachers, with the result being only a number of superficial exercises.

Grainne believes that to succeed in deeper dialogue, a number of fundamental changes need to occur to the processes that have been followed. Firstly, there needs to be a change in language - with mutually acceptable language used. For Grainne, the issue of language is very important, as it is very divisive. Even the terminology used to describe Northern Island is a telling factor of where your beliefs lie - that is, ’North of Island’ or ’Northern Island’. This will not change in the short-term, particularly in a polite society where you tend to use your words carefully. Secondly, there needs to be an acknowledgement there are not just two groups in Northern Ireland - there are a number of minority groups that have basically been ignored.

Another piece of work that needs to be done is cross community work to focus on a single identity. In many ways, this is basic community development. Most of the work needs to be focussed on the Protestant community, who are experiencing a loss of identity with the current changes. This is particularly important, as the Protestant community feels it is them that are making all the compromises, since they see the ’last bastion of Unionism’ disappearing. In some ways, Grainne feels that this is correct and must be addressed.

The road to peace has been a difficult one and there is a long way to go. But progress has been made. Grainne states that the early 1990s were a difficult time for Ireland. There were many deaths and tit-for-tat killings. It was a time that no progress towards peace was being made. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) was amassed in violence and it must have been acknowledged that unless a political solution was found, nothing would change. It was in this atmosphere that peace talks began to be held in secret. Firstly the Republicans announced a cease-fire, and shortly after, the Unionists followed. It was this political will that bought many of the changes, such as repealing the laws in the media, which censored the ’voice of terrorists’. Therefore according to Grainne, people must change first, and then the institutions will follow.

When postulating what brought this sudden change, Grainne believes that a number of key factors came together that took people by surprise. For the Republicans, the political change that were about to happen in British politics set a climate more likely to promote dialogue. By undertaking a cease-fire, which they were committed to, both groups opened up political possibilities.

The change of climate opened up a political space for people to discuss issues. There has been a move away from a culture of silence, to an open discussion of the impacts of the conflict. This has allowed the emergence of victims groups, grassroots organisations and reconciliation groups. This has also meant that statutory organisations have been able to acknowledge how they were also impacted - something that they have been silent about.

For Grainne, reconciliation involves dealing with the devastation of the past. A ’cost of troubles’ study looked at the impacts of the conflict. This is important because there is a need to understand what really happened and who killed whom. There are lessons in the steps taken by South Africa in such processes.

Unfortunately there remain many problems. Victims groups have not found the reconciliation that they were hoping for. In some ways, it has allowed people to show each other their wounds, which in some cases has just cemented the divide.

A debate is still raging for the need of a truth and reconciliation council. But many argue that Northern Ireland is yet to reach that point. Others argue that in a ’polite’ society, this is not appropriate. Despite this, a number of independent studies have started.

Key words

dialogue, construction of peace, cross cultural dialogue

, Ireland, Northern Ireland


In terms of people understanding each other, there is still a long way to go. For Grainne, Northern Ireland has traveled a long way, but there is even a longer way to go.


This file was made in an interview at the World Assembly, Lille, France. Interview with Grainne KELLY, Democratic Dialogue, 53 University Street, Belfast, BT9 7GA, Northern Ireland - Ph 028-90220056 -

Interview with Grainne KELLY



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