More than a year ago, I was invited to Belfast, Northern Ireland to speak in a symposium-workshop on the ongoing peace-building efforts in Northern Ireland. The topic of the symposium resonates well with the Philippines, for there are striking similarities in the conflict in Northern Ireland between pro-Ireland Catholics and pro-London Protestants, to that of the conflict in Mindanao between Christians and Moslem secessionists.
The experience was a profound eye-opener for me, particularly in the light of the government’s ongoing peace efforts with the Moslem separatists in Mindanao. The quest for peace in Mindanao has been tediously challenging, and the long and difficult road ahead became even more difficult after the government grossly mishandled the Mamasapano incident a year ago. (But that’s a different story on its own.)
The symposium surfaced the fact that there remain many divisive issues in Northern Ireland that need to be constantly addressed. These concerns will need time to heal, and with that, a whole lot of patience, trust and understanding to feed on the peace dividends that have slowly been sinking in.
The process of advancing peace cannot be likened to a sprint. It is a marathon, where constant conscious efforts are made to sustain the gains. Where the gain of one will not mean a loss to the other. Where calculated, baby steps are made, ever mindful not to be overly aggressive. Where new insights from outside arbiters with no vested interests are welcome and tried.
Truth to tell, the old problems and fears continue to lurk in the shadows, ready to pounce at the slightest opportunity to foment fear and more angst between the contending groups. But there has been great progress on the ground, as more and more Protestants and Catholics are embracing the idea of living together and building meaningful relationships, as opposed to simply tolerating each other.
The symposium was organized by a bold group of peace advocates under the banner of Cooperation Ireland. Cooperation Ireland created the FACE Programme (Family and Community Engagement), bringing in a balance of practitioners and academics (pracademics, they termed it) who delved on the complexities of the peace process. This symposium was just one of the many initiatives taken by this creative group of noble-minded individuals, whose passion is to continue finding those low-lying fruits, those manageable programs in the hope of creating a better environment with which to pursue discussions on the more contentious issues.
The symposium surfaced one of the side issues that continue to fester under the wounds inflicted during ‘The Troubles‘. This pertains to the existence of numerous hidden communities, composed of individuals and groups who have no desire to be part of the bigger community. Some are recipients, while others are perpetrators of the violence; others are simply innocent onlookers who fear being called upon as potential witnesses, while still others are people who may have condoned willingly or unwillingly the violence unleashed.
Hidden communities continue to be victims of a war long over. They want to continue hiding and remain unknown to everyone else. Consequently, these communities have remained in the dark, unwittingly sentenced to a life of fear and uncertainty. Cooperation Ireland has been striving to provide justice and freedom for these hidden communities.
There have been many casualties on both sides as a result of the conflict. But the true casualties of this war are those who have survived to constantly suffer not just the physical scars but the psychological hurts brought about by the violence. Unfortunately, it is the psychological hurts that are more difficult to heal, as it will take time and a whole lot of effort to undergo a healing process, and from there, demonstrate remorse, restraint, and forgiveness.
There are those who choose not to go through this difficult process. Sadly, it is they themselves who will find that the wounds have remained fresh and painful, even as the fogs of the conflict have slowly vanished with the passage of time.
We try to give justice to the wasted lives. We try to remember those who died on both sides, for what they believed was a noble cause. We wish to learn poignant lessons in their death, in the hope that when our time comes, we can report proudly to them and say they did not die in vain.
Hence, in order to exorcise the pains of the past, responsible reporting – of truths and not of propaganda – must be heard. We must learn to hear out those voices that may not be aligned with our thoughts. We must stop and listen to the stories of our protagonists. We must tell our stories – not to cast aspersions – but to make the environment more understandable for all sides. For it is only in talking to all sides that we learn and see through the jigsaw puzzle. It is only in learning to listen that we can build understanding and peace.
It has been 18 long years since the Good Friday Agreement that finally propelled Northern Ireland to the path to peace. Admittedly, there are complexities in the conflict; and there remain issues that need to be resolved. But what is encouraging is that both sides continue to talk and listen despite some differences.
There is both a difficulty and a dignity in acknowledging the painful lessons of the past. But it is only in acknowledging, repenting and forgiving that we can truly memorialize the thousands of active protagonists and innocent bystanders who shed their lives in this senseless carnage.
(Photos courtesy of parallelversing.com, irelandincontext.wordpress.com, theguardian.com, celticthoughts.com, jezblog.com, ap photo, thejournal.ie.)
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