Bear witness for peace: International Peace Day 2018
by Allan LEONARD
21 September 2018
In support for International Peace Day and in conjunction with Good Relations Week and Culture Night Belfast, Belfast City Council hosted an event that featured a keynote speech by Rev. Trevor Williams, addresses by Councillor Tim Attwood, Susan Picken, Jennifer Skillen, and Lord Mayor Deirdre Hargey, and a music performance by Ciaran Lavery.
Councillor Attwood, who is vice chair of the council’s Shared City Partnership, welcomed all. He mentioned how the previous evening he attended a cross-community service of reflection at All Souls Church, where the names of all those who died during the Troubles were read out, alphabetically and without comment. The reading lasted four hours.
Attwood also told the audience of the late peacebuilder, Reverend Joe Parker, whose 14-year-old son was one of nine people killed during the Bloody Friday attacks in 1972. That November, Rev. Parker planted 436 white crosses in the grounds of city hall, each representing someone who had been killed to that date. Attwood paid tribute to Rev. Parker’s peace and reconciliation work, especially through Witness for Peace.
He finished by referencing this year’s 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, quoting the civil rights leader on the futility and immorality of violence:
“Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones … It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than convert … Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. Indeed, it is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it.”
Susan Picken (Cathedral Quarter Trust) spoke next, taking time out from setting up stalls outside for the evening’s Culture Night events. She explained that this year’s theme is love, which motivated them to create a large peace symbol, made of rope. It covered the whole left lawn of city hall. Picken encouraged us to go there and take a selfie and send it out. To spread the peace, “something that can be created by all of us”.
Julianne Skillen (Community Arts Partnership) explained the creation of the “Wishing on a Star” installation in the reception lobby. It consists of 280 stars created by 128 participants: “Each star is unique, just like our citizens.” She introduced the project artist, Tracy, who spoke about the participatory process. They soon discovered that making origami stars was difficult, so rather than try to replicate a single version, they went for a wide variety. Yet, she said, “We’re united by all of us having wishes and dreams and desires.”
Nicola Lane (Good Relations Officer, Belfast City Council) gave the audience of practitioners and guests a briefing on the council’s good relations strategy. She described good relations as being for everyone, “where everyone is working for the betterment of all in the city”. In their preparatory work on the strategy, an emerging issue is “What is the common good for all of Belfast, to make us resilient?”. Lane gave us a heads up on the consultation exercise, which will be launched this December and available at http://yoursay.belfastcity.gov.uk
The keynote speech was by Reverend Trevor Williams, who is familiar to many in Northern Ireland for his Sunday Sequence radio programme in the 1980s. A retired Church of Ireland Bishop of Limerick, he is also known for his former leadership position at Corrymeela, an organisation committed to conflict transformation.
Williams began with his frustration at the current state of politics in Northern Ireland. Instead of using the structures of the Good Friday Agreement to facilitate inclusive government, we found ways to shut down Stormont altogether: “We don’t lack adequate structures and regulations for our politics; we lack good relationships that would make it work.”
Or as Williams put it, “We still haven’t figured out how to live well together.”
He described our “them-and-us” life in Northern Ireland, with little “common sense” between the two sides:
“Each side claims to know the ‘true facts’ of any situation. At the same time nobody can agree on what are the ‘true facts’. Two histories exist, two sets of attitudes and prejudices, two loyalties, two cultures, two sets of tradition. The common factor is a deep-rooted fear of ‘the other’. Education and employment become battle grounds for ‘our rights’. Religious and cultural symbols can become badges of identity of who belongs to us and who belongs to the enemy. The differences between the two traditions are symbols of threat.
“The story of them-and-us has not served us well. The deaths, the victims, and the continuing legacy of our violence past still plague us … The ultimate outcome of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ is paralysis and deadlock, and wounds that refuse to heal.”
Williams quoted Nigerian author, Ben Okri, who wrote in A Way of Being Free:
“Nations and peoples are largely the stories they feed themselves. If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they will suffer the future consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths, they will free their histories for future flowerings.”
Williams mooted, “What stories are we telling ourselves? What stories do we live by?”
He cited Professor John Brewer’s recent participation on the Sunday Sequence programme, where he made the point that victims should be central to the Northern Ireland peace process. For Brewer, victims are “moral beacons”, yet the voices of the majority of victims are never heard (we are more likely to hear those whose stories have been politicised):
He said that Brewer’s conclusions concurs with the experience of the work of Corrymeela, which he then gave the audience a brief history. He described a purpose of Corrymeela’s centre in Ballycastle as a safe space for sharing stories honestly and openly — “these encounters that cross the boundaries of difference”.
Williams shared some of these moving stories with us.
One was about a woman who asked the group to pray for a man who was in prison: “He is worried and his wife and children are worried too, because tomorrow he returns to court to receive his sentence.” The group of Protestants and Catholics prayed for the man. Afterwards, a volunteer asked her who that man was. She replied, “He is the man who murdered my father.”
Williams continued with a proposal for a journey of reconciliation:
“Reconciliation is a path, it’s a walk, a journey that needs to be undertaken by all of us, from politicians, community groups, families, individuals — each of us has our journey to make.
“We need to prioritise meeting across all divides of difference. We need to listen to those different stories, and courageously share our own story. There is something about the vulnerability of that genuine meeting that creates new possibilities and relationships, not erasing difference, but revealing new ways of living well together.
“What stories are we going to live by? ‘Them-and-Us’ or ‘Reconciled Diversity’?”
Rev. Trevor Williams said that for him, the only way forward is the journey to reconciliation.
The Lord Mayor of Belfast, Councillor Deirdre Hargey, spoke about the need to keep conversing, to build relationships and trust:
“Belfast is a city emerging from conflict. We need conversations in order to fill political vacuums. Give civil society a voice, so that gaps are not filled by other means [paramilitarism].”
She cited the United Nation’s sustainable development goals, arguing that a peaceful world is bound up in such goals in poverty, health, education, gender equality, environmental issues, and social justice: “Peace will enable a sustainable environment to take shape and a sustainable environment will enable peace to flourish.”
The mayor also made reference to the theme of this year’s International Day of Peace, which is the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She declared that these universal rights are as relevant today as when the declaration was made, while also stating that rights can be defined to a particular place and circumstances. Councillor Hargey is defining her term as Lord Mayor as one of a charter of rights for Belfast.
Singer and songwriter Ciaran Lavery explained how music was an escape from the confusion of everyday life in Northern Ireland. Music enabled him to take “time out from the noise”. He confessed that this was his first time in City Hall, “a strange gig; there’s usually six drunk people in front of me”. Lavery grew up in a village, where he learned from his gran that “it costs nothing to be nice to people”. He said that he took this with him when he meets people from around the world: “It’s a wonderful thing.”
Lavery played his rendition of “This Land Is My Land”, by Woody Guthrie. A well-known American folk song, listening to the lyrics in a contested space makes you reflect:
As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
Councillor Attwood closed the event by telling us, “We can all be witnesses for peace, in our streets and in our communities.” Go forth and be a witness for peace.