25 January 2006

Reconciliation needs to include everyone


(Breidge Gadd, Irish News)

Even though there will be groans at the very idea, I want to suggest a new form of reconciliation. I know we have been at it for 30-plus years now and if research and surveys are to be believed we are less reconciled than ever. It is hard work getting people who have nothing much in common and who are suspicious of each other to bridge and bond.

It all started in Corrymeela and places like that. Well meaning people scared at the intensity, the anger and hatred behind the growing conflict came together and agreed that it might help to talk about and understand the difference in expectation between Catholics and Protestants here. Talking and listening to each other's stories would help to build bridges of friendship and it is much harder to kill your new friend than your unknown enemy. It wasn't long before these good, but largely middle-class, people arrived at the conclusion that it was indeed great to talk. But perhaps the people who needed to be in the room were those doing or prepared to do the fighting and the killing.

So, the concept of reconciliation shifted in focus to the most troubled areas; to those who never met through work or play. Money poured in to aid us in our search for peace and reconciliation. The vast bulk of this money was deliberately targeted at the areas of greatest social need, areas of high unemployment and areas that also bore the brunt of the civil unrest. So it should be.

There have been a myriad of schemes focussing on either a broad or narrow definition of reconciliation. There have been single identity programmes for those people who it was felt didn't have the confidence (yet) to meet the other side and there have been sophisticated multifaceted reconciliation projects leaving participants in the level of experience and skill acquired unrivalled in conflict resolution field anywhere in the world.

My concern is not about assessing effectiveness or whether money was well spent. What is clear is that only people from poor areas are expected to deliver on reconciliation outcomes. If you are middle-class with a good job, nice house and reasonable expendable income, either it is assumed you have bonded already with the other side or else it is believed that you don't need to.

This ignoring of a large section of the population in the reconciliation agenda was a mistake. Reconciliation needs to be not just between Catholic and Protestant working-class people. I believe that we need to turn our attention now to reconciliation work, single identity if necessary, between middle and working-class people in Northern Ireland. We need to get far away from the simplistic notion that the Troubles were the fault of people from deprived areas and that they and only they must redeem themselves and bond in friendship together in order to bring about a peaceful future. Because one of the unintended consequences of all the peace money being predicated on disadvantage is that those parts of our communities who are considered to be better off are not required to be reconciled and therefore it is too easy for them to opt out of responsibility for solving current problems.

A society that tries to design a future where the most advantaged are excluded or exclude themselves is not a healthy society. We need to start work at once to reconcile those with education, skills, jobs, much success and positive futures with those without such self-esteeming characteristics. Many working-class communities, struggling to rid themselves of the grip of sectarianism and racism feel particularly ignored and neglected by their better-off fellow believers.

The old adage that the middle-class went off to play golf in 1970 and haven't come back yet still rankles. Perhaps the Community Relations Council or a similar body could try a pilot project focussing on how people from these different social strata of society might enjoin in reconciliation and find ways to help their less well off neighbours.

One thing for sure is that the poorest, least resourced areas cannot deliver reconciliation all on their own.

All layers of society need to be involved.

January 25, 2006

This article appeared first in the January 24, 2006 edition of the Irish News.

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