Perceptions of Northern Ireland: A community relations perspective
by H. Eilish BOSCHERT
30 June 2017

Northern Ireland is used as a case study for peacebuilding across the globe, attracting the attention and scrutiny of mediators, researchers, politicians, and students, like myself; however, learning about Northern Ireland is nothing compared to engaging with it, and engaging with Northern Ireland is a learning experience in and of itself.

Many refer to Northern Ireland as a post-conflict society, but I wonder if ‘post-conflict’ really suits the tenor of life here, where nearly everything, public and private, has socio-political implications. Instead, ‘transitional’ seems to suit the current state of affairs. Transitional implies a continuing effort toward transformation — which is what I have witnessed during my time in Belfast. Nineteen years following the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland is leaps and bounds ahead of the violence of the Troubles, but seems to have adopted a cold hostility — a state of division that reifies tribalistic sentiments.

Ultimately, I’ve discovered that the prevailing conflict in Northern Ireland is anything but simple: it is a multidimensional issue in which factors — such as socio-economic disenfranchisement and political tribalism — not only contribute to division in their own ways, but intermingle to the point of co-dependency. This complicates peacebuilding efforts that can realistically address only one issue at a time.

I am currently an intern for the Northern Ireland Foundation, a nonprofit NGO that promotes an engaged and shared Northern Ireland. I report on cross-community events including, but not limited to, workshops, lectures, film screenings, and political debates. The Foundation’s ‘Shared Future’ initiative seeks to promote dialogue concerning the current state of community affairs in Northern Ireland. By engaging with the community, the organisation aims to support a cohesive society.

Clichéd, but true: ‘ignorance is bliss’ speaks to the parts of us that want to remain within our respective bubbles. It is easy to accept the familiarity of a single narrative status quo. My time at the Northern Ireland Foundation is about fostering a public voice; hearing, and being heard; developing conversations between communities after years of divisive conflict and trauma. Unlike the ease of homogeneity, attempting to create a diverse, multi-vocal space in the aftermath of armed conflict is neither comfortable, nor easy, but it is important.

With that being said, space needs to be reserved for situations and dialogue that make people feel uncomfortable and vulnerable. Part of integration is recognising your own role in society and taking responsibility for it — erasure of past injustices does not bode well for a unified future. Therefore, promoting open and honest dialogue is vital to the transformation of a society plagued by the living history of the Troubles. Addressing (and readdressing) Northern Ireland’s conflicted past is the first of many steps toward a strong and lasting peace.

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Originally published at Community Relations Council (Northern Ireland) eNews bulletin on 30 June 2017.

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