Shared Space

Shared Space is a multi-disciplinary research journal addressing themes of peace, conflict, and community relations in Northern Ireland, published by the Community Relations Council. I served as guest editor for Issue 13, a special issue on the work of the Forum for Cities in Transition.


The Forum for Cities in Transition is an international network of mayors, councillors, municipal officials, business people, and representatives of the voluntary and community sector. It is an initiative of the John Joseph Moakley Chair at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Professor Padraig O’Malley.

The Forum works on the principle that cities that are in conflict or have emerged from conflict are in the best position to help other cities in the same situation.

Put another way, the Forum for Cities in Transition allows participating cities to deal with normal problems in abnormal circumstances.

One motivation for establishing such a network is that while there is an abundance of academic research and professional work at the macro level of ethno-national conflict and contested spaces, there is much less so at the micro level of the management of the delivery of public services and other practical issues by municipal government. Everyone has an opinion about how intractable their own wider conflict is, but there are many useful insights to be had from the exchanges of those who have had to actually deal with them — the mayors, councillors, municipal staff, civil society, business people.

The Forum for Cities in Transition was created by participants from four cities — Derry/Londonderry, Kirkuk, Mitrovica and Nicosia — at the end of a 2009 conference held at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Delegates signed a Call to Action document, committing them to a set of working principles and obligations, such as hosting annual gatherings and assisting each other — within and across member cities — with pledged outcome projects.

The inaugural annual meeting of the Forum for Cities in Transition was held in Mitrovica, Kosovo, from 24-28 May 2010, and hosted by the Mitrovica Forum. The participating cities were: Beirut, Derry/Londonderry, Haifa, Jerusalem, Kirkuk, Mostar, Nicosia, and Mitrovica itself.

The hosting of the second annual gathering in Derry/Londonderry was the delivery of an outcome pledged by the delegates from that city, at the previous meeting. Meanwhile, other cities’ delegations worked on and delivered further outcome projects.

The Forum’s Director, Professor Padraig O’Malley, in his co-authored contribution, sets out the wider background to the development of the Forum. He is adamant about how the implementation of city-based and city-led outcome projects is crucial to the Forum’s mission, and what is expected of participants:

“The Forum is action driven. Without cities agreeing to make commitments and then following up to ensure their implementation, the conference becomes a chattering box — much said, great ideas exchanged, some friendships made — and then home and on to the next conference. These are not the outcomes that conform to the principles drawn up by the founding cities.

“The Derry/Londonderry Forum has gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the programme you will be part of … leaves you with indelible impressions of how the communities of this city — Catholic and Protestant, pro-united Ireland and pro-United Kingdom — continue to build on the common ground they found translating peace to actions that promote the common good of both communities.

“It is for you, their sister cities, to listen, to question, to learn, to cooperate, and to work together during what I hope is an extraordinarily productive week.”

The Derry/Londonderry meeting’s first session was a discussion on the experiences of the Northern Ireland peace process. In an article co-authored by Quintin Oliver, we draw three primary themes that emerged: (1) inclusivity and equality within the peace process; (2) leadership and persistence; and (3) the promise of economic prosperity.

What was made clear throughout was that there was no suggestion that Northern Ireland has a model or template. As Angela Askin (Community Relations Officer, Derry City Council) said, “We hope that you can … avoid many of the mistakes that we have made in addressing [conflict transformation].”

We argue that achieving reconciliation requires the same ingredients as for peace, listed above. But with less pressure in the cooker, as well as the incoherency and ambiguity of Northern Ireland’s current efforts (witness the painfully slow development of its official community relations policy), there is the classic risk of squandering the current relative tranquillity.

Emanuela Del Re highlights the role of women in both peace making and reconciliation work. In her article, she argues that women need to be trained to become agents of change, not only for fellow women but also for men and wider society. Supporting this, she cites the international community’s awareness, with official UN and European Parliament resolutions.

A particular concern is that while women do participate in protest and peace movements, at crucial junctures they are explicitly excluded from the transition process (e.g. Egypt and Tunisia, but a hopeful situation in Morocco).

Her exploration of “gender mainstreaming” — purposely including women and men equally in the processes of legislation, policies and programmes in conflict or transition societies — evokes the efforts of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, which emerged with the onset of the Multi-Party Talks. The conundrum remains, as with the disappearance of the Women’s Coalition, on how this can be sustained in a democratic process. Emanuela Del Re suggests investigating the work by Miriam Agatha Chinwe Nwoye, of how African countries acknowledge the role of women in peace building and conflict resolution in their societies.

Back in Northern Ireland, one programme that provides intercommunity capacity training for women in community development is the Women’s Resource and Development Agency (, which works with women’s groups in the most severely disadvantaged communities, from all traditions and from urban and rural areas, where women are trained up to become community facilitators. The WRDA is supported by the International Fund for Ireland’s Community Bridges Programme, which is the topic of Duncan Morrow’s article.

The International Fund for Ireland was established on the back of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, with the British and Irish governments seeking international support for their new approach to conflict resolution in Northern Ireland. Their appeals were warmly received: between 1986-2010, the IFI contributed £628 million to 5,800 projects across Ireland.

By 2007, the Community Bridges Programme was providing over £3 million per annum to a very broad portfolio of community-based projects, particularly inter-community programmes. Innovative pilots included churches (Hard Gospel Project, Peace Advocates Programme), sports (Peace Players International), arts (Arts for All, Artability), history and reflection (Gaslight’s Epilogue series), broadcasting (Sesame Tree).

Thematic themes included thought leadership (Fellowship of Messines), mediation and conflict skills network (Mediation Northern Ireland), dialogue facilitation (Community Dialogue), analysing peace building practices (Community Foundation NI), and volunteering (Corrymeela and Glencree).

The list of IFI supported programmes goes on. What Duncan Morrow argues is that such support helped sustain a momentum in peace building when the political process appeared wanting at times. And with political peace, what is essential is that those most affected by the conflict believe that their futures are included in the development of official community relations and reconciliation policies.

One such group of people are young males who have had to deal with adverse circumstances of violence (themselves and/or within the family), long-term unemployment, poverty, relationship breakdown, and/or alcohol and substance abuse. That is, one’s mental health is affected by both individual and societal context, as argued by Brandon Hamber et al. in their article.

They explain how the full impact of the conflict in Northern Ireland has been neglected until recently, due to an over reliance on an individual’s capacity for personal resilience. Much of the time this resulted in people self-medicating coping mechanisms, such as taking risks and engaging in violence themselves — a vicious circle.

Instead, Hamber et al. argue that the mental health impact of the conflict needs to be mainstreamed across health, welfare, education, justice and economic development policies. Furthermore, strategies would need to incorporate the linkages between the mental health of parents and community leaders, and the manifestation of trauma in young people.

Put another way, one can make the case that for all young people in Northern Ireland to believe they are part of a better future, then the legacy of the conflict, however it manifested itself individually and collectively, needs to be part of the solution.

Or as panellist David Bolton remarked, “Don’t leave it as late as we did [in Northern Ireland].” Sooner or later, any post-conflict society will need to deal with its trauma. It’s all part of removing the perpetration and legitimisation of violence in the pursuit of goals, personal and political, throughout all of society.

The Forum for Cities in Transition is grateful to the Community Relations Council for providing an invaluable opportunity to promote the Forum’s work through this special issue of Shared Space.

The theme of the 2011 gathering of Forum members from across 12 cities was ‘Acting on Shared Experiences’, and the distribution of knowledge through the printed and online version of this Shared Space journal provides a practical realisation of that very goal.

Allan Leonard
Guest Editor

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