When I mention that I work at the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, many people say they have never heard of us. This is not surprising considering that, out of necessity, so much of our practical peacebuilding work over the last almost 50 years has taken place out of the public eye. Others express surprise as to why such a place would still be needed nearly 25 years after the Belfast Agreement.
Founded in 1974 as a response to the conflict in Northern Ireland, Glencree is based on a belief that there is a better way than violence to resolve conflict. As an independent, not-for-profit secular organisation, mediation and facilitated dialogue underpin our work. We share the experience of the Northern Ireland peace process with those experiencing conflict across the world and learn from them in turn.
In recent years, in our engagement with other international peacebuilding organisations, we raised concerns that while Europe was then largely peaceful, we were becoming complacent about dangerous fractures within societies and between states considered developed democracies. We are experiencing the results of those fractures today.
As the Republic of Ireland’s only dedicated peace centre, we offer a safe, confidential space, nestled in the Wicklow Mountains, where people can come together to work out the most challenging and sensitive obstacles to lasting peace. Understanding can be developed, and relationships formed that lead to compromises and breaking deadlocks.
While peace processes and agreements are monumental achievements, much of the hard work lies in their implementation. Dealing with legacy and the plight of victims and survivors of conflict cannot be underestimated. Peace is not just the absence of violence. Constant attention is required for peace to remain strong enough to withstand the vicissitudes of time.
The rumble of bombs and bullets is, for many, though not all, a distant memory in Northern Ireland but, despite significant gains, it remains a deeply contested space, where the issue of identity pervades.
One community recalls a deep sense of grievance, loss and exclusion felt by their forefathers, dating back 400 years. Another community, with its own losses and grievances dating from the Troubles, now faces uncertainty in its future, including the possibility it may become a minority in a united Ireland.
What are we doing to build relationships and understanding to facilitate all traditions as we constructively challenge each other’s thinking? Or are we sleepwalking into more conflict and possible violence?
A growing “middle ground” wishes to be free of the weight of the past and find a better way forward together. It includes migrants, young people and those who see themselves outside of the traditional denominations of Orange and Green.
The decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union has had a profound impact on the peace process. It has not only forced governments and political parties to re-examine their interests, but has also in some cases fuelled estrangement, scepticism and frustration.
Changing demographics bring the perception that constitutional change in Northern Ireland is imminent. Yet what expectations do we have of each other on the island and our shared future within its shores? Do we respect or understand each other’s beliefs and traditions? If there was to be some form of an “agreed Ireland”, are we content to accept the consequences of leaving some unionists politically homeless?
What are we doing to build relationships and understanding to facilitate all traditions as we constructively challenge each other’s thinking? Or are we sleepwalking into more conflict and possible violence? At Glencree, we do not believe constitutional change is predetermined, but rather we must work together to allow people to find a way forward together to a future where no one is left behind.
There is an urgent need to invest in the training and support of our young people as they take up the mantle as the next generation of peacebuilders. Glencree is seeking to build on our practical peacebuilding history and is at planning stage for a centre of excellence in practical peacebuilding and learning exchanges for local European and international conflict prevention and transformation. Here we will aim to pass on the benefit of the experience of those who drove the Northern Ireland peace process in a safe, creative space.
Through investing in human relationships and constructive, respectful discourse, mediation and negotiation skills, this new generation can build on the work that has been done, engage as respected equals and chart a new way forward.
Our challenges today are political, and not politically violent, in character. Yet 25 years on since the guns fell silent, we must remain vigilant. Peace is fragile, and history can repeat itself if the conditions are created where people feel they cannot effect political change through dialogue and diplomacy.
Is there still a need for organisations like Glencree? We certainly believe so.
Naoimh McNamee is chief executive at the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation.