Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Taking next step towards peace calls for leap in logic

It is time to replace the zero sum game of victory and defeat with a discussion about how best to accommodate our different memories of conflict, writes Jacqueline Irwin

Jacqueline Irwin
Jacqueline Irwin

In a society that values freedom, any discussion on parades and protests must start by saying that violence is condemned and attacks on the police are unacceptable.

The quality of our democracy and our freedom safely to express different opinions depends, in part, on the rule of law.

Police officers, upholding the law on our behalf, should be supported by the whole community – including those who wish to have their own way in a parade, or protest.

Images of violence on the streets do not depict our whole story; they are not even the bigger part of it.

Most parades, public commemorations and protests pass off peacefully. In the same weekend that brought us the violent images from Belfast city centre, the World Police and Fire Games held its closing ceremony.

The UK City of Culture programme continued in 'Legend-Derry', with the All-Ireland Fleadh officially opened by Irish president Michael D Higgins.

These are examples of a future which could transcend the 'zero sum' model of identity that has bedevilled us.

There is useful experience here for Richard Haass to draw upon during the inter-party talks next month.

We cannot sustain peace that is built on "victory" for one side over another. Whether we live in a United Kingdom, or a united Ireland, there will need to be a place for everyone.

All sides of the constitutional debate and the cultural clashes need to demonstrate the leadership to help us grasp that point.

We could spend our lives – and those of our children – holding our ground and shouting our rights at each other.

Alternatively, we could try a positive approach; one that doesn't require others to adjudicate between us and, subsequently, get the blame for our behaviour – an approach where we take responsibility for our own actions and we consider voluntary compromise for our own sake, if not for someone else's.

Why should we do that? The answer is clear to the majority of people who live here, but take no part in the zero sum game.

It is because we have better things to do with our lives; because we are shamed by the images that we are sending around the world; because we are teaching our children to hate.

It takes a big act of self-denial to "live and let live" and not to feel that you have betrayed your dead and injured; to be beside your former enemies.

Coming out of a long history of conflict, our troubles and our grief should make it obvious that we are all different.

We have different stories and we want to remember different things. Antagonisms remain in spite of the long-established political settlement.

There is pain, grief, anger and disappointment all around us. Memories are personal, whether we respond by public acts of remembrance, or by our many quiet moments.

Our conflict was very local and often very personal and people remember.

In a small place, we live near to those who caused us hurt.

Peace is, therefore, about the constant, daily, persistent acts of self-control. It is created, day by day, by deliberate acts of forbearance and by finding positive ways of doing things differently, demonstrating to ourselves and others that we can be something new.

Fifteen years into our peace settlement, why is the discussion, at all levels, still about who's right and who's wrong, rather than about how we find these new ways to accommodate our different memories?

Nobody said that sustaining peace would be easy, or that it could be achieved by doing the same old things.

We need a period of quiet reflection to learn more about how to be at peace. It's time for us to take the next steps in our peace process.

Jacqueline Irwin is CEO of the Community Relations Council. CRC wants to encourage discussion on the way forward. E-mail your views to info@nicrc.org.uk