The primacy of dialogue: Michael DOHERTY

The primacy of dialogue: Michael Doherty
by Allan LEONARD for Forum for Cities in Transition
2 September 2016

The refurbished premise of the Holywell Trust was the venue for a lunchtime conversation about the Maiden City’s involvement with the Forum for Cities in Transition. Attending were two dozen local citizens, from all walks of life — active community workers, a retired doctor, and simply the curious.

FCT Derry-Londonderry member, Michael Doherty, began his presentation with a resume of his professional mediation experience, which includes working behind the scenes to facilitate dialogue.

He said that there is “no hierarchy of conflict”, and you need to look at each conflict situation in its own context, not your own.

One challenge for any society sorting out conflict, is that for many, they’re still living in it, Michael added.

Here in Northern Ireland, he gave examples of the continuing saliency of parading, and our lack of progress on dealing with the past.

Yet the biggest lesson that Michael has learnt from his participation in the Forum is the importance of dialogue.

He added that dialogue is only possible when you humanise each other.

Michael suggested some experiences from the Northern Ireland peace process that may, or may not, be useful for other societies emerging from conflict:

  1. How the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement was assisted through back-channel dialogue, taking place for many years beforehand
  2. How the acceptance of bringing in outsiders to the conflict (USA) helped establish the ground rules for dialogue (the Mitchell Principles)
  3. Appreciating the value of multiple forms of mediation (“the hierarchy of mediation”)
  4. How we managed to keep public and private services going throughout the conflict (water, electricity, post, milkmen) and how important this is
  5. How we are, and are not, dealing with aftermaths of our peace agreement (positively: reform of policing service; negatively: disagreement of definition of “victim”)
  6. How the significant financial support we received (especially from European Union) may be absent from other conflict peace processes
  7. While our public policy on community relations (Together: Building a United Community) may be disappointing, but as official policy is more than other societies’ government initiatives

He then described the pledged projects that the FCT Derry-Londonderry group has made over the years of its participation in the Forum:

  • Professional exchange visits and training between the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and Kosovo Police, on how to provide leadership and engage with local communities for consensual policing
  • Sending local young people to FCT Youth conference in Mitrovica
  • Sharing mediation training programmes with FCT Tripoli
  • Development of Policing and Communities in Transition (PACT) programme, mutual learning with USA police forces

Michael finished with a poignant lesson about dealing with the past: he showed a photo from a site visit to a local community in Kaduna, Nigeria, and delicately explained the sensitivities of ensuring that those who have been through traumatic events (such as the two young people in the image) were not re-traumatised through inquiries or probing by others. He emphasised that we must wholly take this point on board in our own dealings with the past here in Northern Ireland (and applicable everywhere).

The subsequent question and answer session explored various dimensions of conflict, such as criminality, feeling of community sell-out and losing out, and comparisons of other, longer-entrenched conflicts.

Yet Michael reminded all of us sitting in a large circle that even now we didn’t raise the topic of sectarianism, which underwrites much of our daily lives.

May the Forum for Cities in Transition provide an arena to have the difficult conversations that we need to have, for the sake of conflict transformation.


Hope must lie with the children of Israel/Palestine


Hope must lie with the children of Israel/Palestine: Professor Padraig O’Malley talk at Queen’s University Belfast
by Allan LEONARD for Northern Ireland Foundation
21 October 2015

Professor Padraig O’Malley gave a bleak prognosis of the Israel/Palestine peace negotiations, calling the two-state proposal ‘delusional’.

At an event hosted by the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice (ISCTSJ) at Queen’s University Belfast, Prof. O’Malley shared his insights into the psychological and structural complexities of peace making in that part of the Middle East, to an audience of 50 in the Old Staff Common Room.

Drawing upon his research for his recently published book, The Two-State Delusion: Israel and Palestine — A Tale of Two Narratives, Prof. O’Malley made his case under five headings:

  1. The passage of time (since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and even before)
  2. The facts on the ground
  3. The facts in the minds
  4. A new set of demographic changes
  5. The changed geopolitical landscape in the Middle East

Yet he said that the biggest obstacle to peace is that neither side had educated or united its community, to what a peace deal would entail.

Prof. O’Malley also mentioned the lack of transformative leadership within Israel/Palestine — the inability for current leadership to be responsive to changing demands as negotiations progress.

An even deeper problem is psychological: polls show an ever decreasing public belief in a future of Israelis and Palestinians even being able to live besides one another.

Prof. O’Malley describes how this abetted by a cyclical addition to war, which begets failure, which begets further grievances, which begets more war.

He called for inclusive negotiations, with Hamas, and for the Israeli Government to drop its insistence for decommissioning as a prerequisite for negotiations.

Prof. O’Malley explained how this precondition is a nonsense, with there being no one able to verify the quantity of arms held or their decommissioning, unlike the way this issue was managed in Northern Ireland.

Anyway, he continued, Hamas (or any other Palestinian group) could reacquire a large amount of significant weaponry almost immediately.

Within Palestinian politics, Prof. O’Malley described the relationship between the more theologically-driven Hamas block and the secular-oriented Fatah group (which is currently in power and feted by the international community).

“The reality is that they are rivals,” said Prof. O’Malley, giving examples of and inter- and intra-group contests for power.

The Israeli Government’s complete lack of trust was explained with a quotation from a high-ranking official: “They have to convince us that they are not a threat to our existence.”

Furthermore, Prof. O’Malley gave two challenges for peace:

  1. Young Israelis moving farther to the right, e.g. many preferring to be more ‘Jewish’ than ‘democratic’
  2. An agreement on settlements would be very difficult to implement, with Israel Defence Forces being called upon to physically remove their own citizens (Prof. O’Malley compared the 1914 Curragh incident in Ireland, when the British Government contemplated using force against those (especially Ulster Volunteer Force) who would not implement the Home Rule agreement; the British Army threatened mutiny, prompting the Government to consider (and implement) the geopolitical partitioning of Ireland).

Prof. O’Malley’s blunt conclusion is that currently there is neither the will nor adequate leadership to negotiate for peace.

For him, the situation is so bleak that even pacifist groups — both Palestinian and Israeli — have told him that perhaps only a large scale war will provoke a serious intervention by the international community.

Prof. O’Malley also described the systematic humiliation that ordinary Palestinians suffer from Israeli police and security forces, and a consequential belief that Israel won’t change its mindset until they feel the pain that Palestinians have felt.

But both societies are living in a state of trauma — he explained — with Israeli Jews crystallising their identity from the Holocaust, and Palestinians from the 1948 Nakba; both sources of identity are loss.

Professor O’Malley finished with some personal remarks:

“My sympathies are on both sides.

“My belief is that the occupation must end.

“Palestinians want their dignity back; their humiliation must stop.

“That demand for dignity has to find an outlet, at some point. And this is how a suicide bomber justifies killing himself, as an act of affirming humanity.”

During the subsequent question and answer session, Prof. Monica McWilliams replied to the pacifists’ apparent call for war, with a quotation that violence is the absence of creativity.

She agreed with Prof. O’Malley on the point that the international community has been collectively woeful in regards to Israel/Palestine, but highlighted the symbolic value that the Palestinian State has at the United Nations, as well as private efforts, such as the BDS movement (boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel).

Prof. O’Malley acknowledged that the boycott movement was very effective in ending Apartheid in South Africa, but Israel has an alternative of approaching Russia for increased trade.

We worked hard to end the session with a message of hope.

Prof. O’Malley’s initial response to this question was hope with a lot of pain:

“Hope lies in the fact that in the near future, the situation will become explosive.

“And when that happens, don’t go back to the two-state proposal, but start from where you will be.”

The cliché, “hope lies with the children”, was suggested.

But here, Prof. O’Malley suggested changing the school textbooks in Israel/Palestine: “The books are getting worse not better!”

He described the work of a group of Israeli and Palestinian teachers, who came together in 2000 to try to ‘disarm’ the teaching of the Middle East; the result is a ‘dual narrative’ history, Side by Side.

So while the current form of negotiations may be delusional — the repeat pursuit of a failed predefined outcome — starting a conversation with children (and their parents) may be a more peaceful path to peace.


Professor Padraig O’Malley thanks ISCTSJ and Queen’s University Belfast for the organisation and opportunity provided by the event.


Professor Padraig O’Malley is the John Joseph Moakley Chair of Peace and Reconciliation at the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

The Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice was established in 2012, to facilitate sustained interdisciplinary collaboration in research and teaching and to provide strategic focus to support world class research.

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Art opens up community imagination

Art opens up community imagination
Peacebuilding and the Arts: An Imagine Belfast Festival discussion
by Allan LEONARD
11 March 2015

As part of the Imagine Belfast Festival, the Northern Ireland Foundation and Forum for Cities in Transition hosted a discussion event, “Peacebuilding and the Arts”, which explored how art has progressed peace in Northern Ireland.