This year, 2018, saw the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday/ Belfast Agreement – and in April, we hosted the international Peace and Beyond conference to mark that moment.
It brought voices from around the world together which included young journalists and Future News Worldwide alumni – Aine Quinn, Peter Lynch and Kristian Ross – who now on UN’s International Day of Peace, share their views and reflections from the conference.
‘The Agreement was a chance well taken'
Twenty years on from the Good Friday Agreement having been signed, I am told by older friends that the small country I have grown to call home has improved drastically from the dark days of The Troubles.
Born in England in 1994 and having only lived in Northern Ireland since 2015, I never got to experience a pre-GFA society and be reminded on the news each week that people’s lives were being torn apart by violence, sectarianism and fear.
While it may be crude to say, I am fascinated by the conflict, however having spent time with people who lost loved ones, who often were searched when travelling back and forth over the border or who spent their time queuing at the security gates around Belfast City Centre, you soon start to realise that this wasn’t just a news story, it was real people, every day, facing struggle, for nearly forty years.
The Peace and Beyond Conference was a stark reminder of this and brought it home that while Northern Ireland had its problems, other nations around the world had very similar issues. I heard from Candice Mama, whose father was killed by Eugene De Kock (a former SAP officer during the apartheid) and who shot him repeatedly before setting him alight. Candice told of us her struggle as she met Eugene in 2015 along with her family. They talked about forgiveness, the talked about the loss of her father and the meeting ended with Candice giving her father’s murderer a hug. Her bravery was not only inspiring but showed her desire to move forward with such an emotive and complex issue.
On a grey day in Belfast, I and the other delegates travel on a bus to the west of the city, along the Falls Road in an area associated predominantly with Republicanism. We are driven along the peace lines that separate the Catholic and Protestant communities, a big mass of metal wall that is said to keep tensions at a minimum. While it is of course naïve to say that the divide would be fixed overnight following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, two decades on, there is still a divide that is not only perpetuated by the striking metaphor that is a huge metal fence, but that there is still a lot of work to be done.
However, Northern Ireland’s peace process has ultimately made so many important everyday changes for the people – even the freedom to live without having to worry about travelling into town on a weekday to the shops. It was a chance taken to enable Belfast to become of one the most thriving cities in the Europe, with trendy bars and world-class tourist exhibitions, while Derry~Londonderry at the other side of the country wows the world with its incredible Halloween festival each year and its cultural ties.
A place where Games of Thrones is filmed, where the Dark Hedges is visited by tourists from around the globe and where the warm hospitable people spill out from bars, restaurants, parks and schools knowing that the past is behind them and hoping things will continue to get better. For those my age and younger, this is a chance that we would never have gotten if those in government office hadn’t set aside their differences, took a leap…. and advocated for change.
Kristian Ross, Future News Worldwide alumni
‘Opportunity to share life lessons and reflect on peace journey’
The 20-year anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement was a significant event, and as such, it had to be celebrated accordingly. That’s where British Council Northern Ireland came in with their ‘Peace and Beyond’ conference. In April 2018, Belfast played host to representatives from 28 countries around the world, including Lebanon, South Africa, Libya and Colombia.
Incorporating visits to many areas around Belfast, the conference provided a unique way to see the city. A few of the places on the long list of sites visited were Belfast City Hall, the Titanic Museum, Ulster Museum and as a special treat for sport fans among the group, one of the final sessions took place in the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park.
‘Peace and Beyond’ provided an opportunity for delegates to meet, share life-lessons and reflect on the journey that is necessary to overcome conflict and establish peace. These international peace-makers were able to participate in discussions, take part in workshops and listen to the many fascinating speakers at the conference. Every single person who spoke over the three days had an impactful story to share, although there were a few individuals that stood out.
It was only fitting that Senator George J Mitchel addressed the audience at opening plenary. He was the Former Special Envoy for Northern Ireland and chaired the peace talks, which led to the Good Friday Agreement. He recalled a time when it seemed as if a peace deal would never be agreed, however, after over 700 days of inter-party discussions, an agreement was finally reached.
George J Mitchell conveyed one main message in his speech and that was to “keep fighting for peace.” He urged young people to commit to a goal of continuing to establish peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland and said, “the most important part of conflict resolution is what’s in the hearts and minds” of young people.
On the first morning, all those at the conference had the privilege of listening to the brave Candice Mama’s story. A pin could have been heard drop in the room as Ms Mama relayed her moving and emotional experience. She recounted how her father was horrifically murdered by apartheid operatives, in Cape Town and spoke of the pain and grief she felt as a young girl. However, Ms Mama does not allow this tragedy to define her, instead allowing herself to forgive the man who took her father away from his family. She said, “There can be no true peace in the world without forgiveness.”
Another memorable individual was Monica McWilliams, who was chairing the session on ‘Engendering the Peace Process.’ Monica McWilliams – an empowered, strong feminist icon – possesses the unique ability to entirely command a room. As the co-founder of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, she was one of the only women who played any part in the talks leading up to the Good Friday Agreement.
Her main point was about the changing attitudes surrounding women in politics, in Northern Ireland. She said that the men who she joined in the peace talks once had negative opinion her. However, she has noticed a change in attitude over the past 20 years and has now become good friends with many of them.
Linda Ervine, a language rights activist and the wife of a former leader of the Progressive Unionist Party was one of the speakers at the ‘Culture Change and Reconciliation’ seminar. Coming from a Protestant Unionist background, and holding a strong belief that the Irish Language Act should be passed, Mrs Ervine believes that the Irish language does not belong to any one religion and teaches Irish to the protestant community. Although her campaign has faced much opposition from some people, she continues to promote the language as being part of the heritage of both Catholics and Protestants.
The event was declared a success by both the speakers and delegates alike. When asked whether she enjoyed the event Candice Mama said, “I loved the conference. It was the most beautifully organised and thought-provoking space I’ve had the privilege of being a part of. I feel as though I have grown tremendously through other people’s stories and solutions to world inequality and I do believe it’s a conference that will benefit others in years to come.”
From start to finish was full of opportunities to hear from interesting and inspiring individuals. To capture some of the important dialogue surrounding international peacebuilding two girls created a beautiful mural. Using their art, they were using a unique way to spread the important messages being conveyed by each of the speakers and making the audience think about what was being said.
The Peace and Beyond conference was a breath of fresh air and it was a chance for like-minded people to meet, and learn from one another. The point of the event was not simply to celebrate 20 years of the Good Friday Agreement, but to mark it and encourage people to keep striving forward with the goal of peace in mind. Although the Agreement has not fixed all of the problems it has allowed a new generation to grow up in a very different Northern Ireland, than the one before – and that is surely something to be commended.
Aine Quinn, Future News Worldwide alumni
'Peace can always conquer all'
Peace. Always a controversial topic in any part of the world, but one that resonates more in Northern Ireland than perhaps anywhere else. Or so I believed.
Born in Derry/Londonderry not long after The Troubles, my life has fortunately been void of much of the horrific, desperate and ultimately heart-breaking conflict that riddled a nation with so much promise for so long. Opportunely, the promise is still there, and hearing from the many inspirational speakers at the 2018 Peace and Beyond Conference has taught me that peace can always prevail over evil.
By uniting young leaders, academics and policy makers from 28 different countries, the three-day event aimed to encourage new thinking within the field of peacebuilding and reconciliation, and it did exactly that. Marking the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, the conference brought together similar, forward-thinking, intelligent and passionate minds from every corner of the globe, and provided those in attendance with enough incentive to provide peace that can last for a lifetime and beyond.
The location was set and ready to go for the opening of the conference, with British Council CEO Sir Ciaran Devane and Lord Mayor of Belfast Councillor Nuala McAllister opening the proceedings in the iconic City Hall, yet it was Senator George Mitchell – President Bill Clinton’s former Special Envoy for Northern Ireland – that truly captured the imagination of those in attendance.
With his infinite wisdom, Mitchell gave a detailed and emotive insight into conflict: “No two conflicts are the same. Each of you is unique, and each conflict is unique. Each requires a resolution that is unique to that conflict."
The senator then continued by appealing directly to his audience, and in particular the youth of the nation of Northern Ireland that are far too often ignored: “If there is to be an agreement, it is to be your agreement, because you are to live with the consequences.
“Give people the opportunity, and they will make the most of it. Do not, and they will disrupt society,” he continued. “The seeds of conflict can grow unexpectedly.
“There is no conflict that can’t be ended.”
It is perhaps that final statement that hits hardest for many, particularly in a nation that has struggled with conflict for too long.
Day two began in a similar light, and it was the turn of the stunning Titanic Belfast that provided the backdrop for an array of insightful discussions and powerful speeches from a range of influential figures from Northern Ireland and beyond. Lord Alderdice began by illuminating what we, as a nation, have learned from The Troubles and how we’ve moved along since those dark days, explaining that “there is not a linear movement from extreme thinking to extreme action,” and that “the way to change attitudes is often by non-verbal means,” thus alluding to the likes of music, poetry, drama and art” as we “move forward into a new, shared cultural space.”
Perhaps the most impassioned message of the day, however, was that of Candice Mama. The South African forgiveness activist and international speaker inspired a room of people on their edge of their seats as she relived the tale of forgiving the man who murdered her father.
“Forgiveness is about letting go of the emotional attachment to the incident,” explained Mama. “Although this is a part of who I am, it is not the whole narrative to my life.
“Humanising the ‘other’ is the toughest thing to do during a war,” she continued, “But there can be no true peace in the world without forgiveness.”
Her words not only inspired an entire room that day, but moreover can be used to inspire not only Northern Ireland, but an endless list of nations and indeed individuals who require that little push to choose the side of forgiveness, regardless of whatever battle they are fighting.
With the conference then split into varying sections for the remainder of day two and for day three, I was offered an insight into the roles played by cities throughout the long and arduous struggle for peace. ‘Cities in Transition’ commenced proceedings, where Dr Jo Beall, Director Education and Society for the British Council, argued that different cities play different roles within conflict, while Belfast Commissioner for Resilience Grainia Long described Belfast as a ‘city with ambition and a sense of its own future,’ and as a ‘vibrant and progressive city which has developed in spite of and in response to the conflict’ in her detailed discussion. Bilal Al Ayoubi then pointed to the similarities and differences to Belfast that his people have suffered in Tripoli in a heartfelt discussion, followed by Noelle McAlinden’s poignant tribute to the crucial role of our arts and culture in the peace process.
‘Peace, Technology and Innovation’ was another of the key topics to be discussed, and it was Managing Director of Twitter Ireland Sinead McSweeney, Build Up Programs Director, Ireland, Michaela Ledesma, Founder of PeaceTech Henry-Joseph Grant and social entrepreneur Diana Dajer who all combined to produce a fascinating discussion surrounding the positive impact technology can have in the peace process, where users can engage in storytelling to generate a united society.
Embracing Our Most Marginalised was the key topic for the final morning of the conference at the Innovation Factory, where youth workers Gerry McAllister and Sean Murray delivered an earnest approach surrounding the lack of voice within the community around significant issues, before Assistant Chief Constable of the PSNI Stephen Martin addressed the challenges of policing a post-conflict society.
As former Ulster and Ireland rugby star Trevor Ringland closed the third and final day of detailed and empowering talks in the appropriate venue of the renovated National Stadium at Windsor Park, all eyes and ears were now firmly focused on moving forward. Guests were then eager to hear from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, in a fascinating interview with international journalist Maxine Mawhinney, in what was the perfect closing plenary at Ulster University, after an exciting, challenging and thought-provoking time in the capital city of Northern Ireland.
For just three days, Belfast was transformed into an area where peace could thrive, where the past could be remembered yet transcended, and one can’t help but feel that the city could do with similar thinking at this moment in time. Love and hate both have four letters, and it’s the simple matter of choosing the right one if this nation, and indeed countless other nations all over the world, are to have any hope of moving on into a peaceful future for all.
Peter Lynch, Future News Worldwide alumni