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Northern Ireland and Its Walls of Peace

The sky is surprisingly blue yet the piercing air reminds me that it’s not an African sky. I am in Derry, or Londonderry, whichever side of the political divide has your commitment. Northern Ireland, or North of Ireland. And I am standing in the middle of a predominantly Catholic area. I know it’s Catholic because of the orange, white and green painted on the sidewalks. There are no Protestants living here. No Protestants would be welcome. Most of the schools in Derry/Londonderry are segregated – there is only one integrated school in the city. Yet children at this school are discouraged from talking about the conflict they are still living through. Peace is maintained on the play ground by focusing on the future without engaging with the past. And peace is maintained through 60 foot corrugated iron sheeting and wire mesh walls between Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods.

You would be forgiven for thinking this must be 22 October 1993, not 2007. What of the 1994 ceasefires? What of the landmark Good Friday Agreement brokered in 1998? There is political peace, perhaps, but it appears that the real peace is being brokered on a daily basis by community groups and individuals driven by a passion to improve their living conditions. Facing common enemies in poverty, skills shortages and unemployment, Catholics and Protestants can only stand to win by joining forces in the fight. And it is here that the real peacekeeping is taking place, despite the visual and geographic divisions created by the walls of peace.

The backdrop for my trip to Derry/Londonderry and Belfast was the Women Leaders Building Peace and Prosperity Programme, hosted by Vital Voices Global Partnership. I was asked to attend as one of four representatives from South Africa. The remainder of our group of 14 women was made up of Arab and Jewish women living in Israel and working in economic and peace building initiatives, from the running of integrated schools to the management of leadership programmes for Arab and Jewish women. My knowledge of the areas we visited and the country I am now fascinated by remains pedestrian. But thanks to the incredibly well organised programme, I was fortunate enough to meet academics, community workers and political leaders all willing to share their views on how far Northern Ireland has come since 1994 and how far it still has to go. It is some of these views that this article seeks to capture.

Our starting point was in Derry, or Londonderry if you follow the terminology used by the community interface worker who started to unravel the mystery of the painted sidewalks for myself and my Arab colleague. Having spent 25 years in the British army, our guide now advocates cross-community initiatives and peace brokering. He is a resource to communities and the police alike, called upon to act as a mediator when conflict is brewing. He explains that his most common exchange on entering a conflict zone is to ask the group he is going to communicate with – whether Protestant or Catholic – “Now why would you go and throw stones at an old bastard like me?”.

Our guide acts as an individual. In terms of Dr Bernard Mayer’s [1] definition, he performs the work of a conflict ally rather than an independent third party mediator. Moving from one group to another, he builds their capacity to engage positively with the conflict rather than resorting to violence. Stones give way to dialogue and so many flames die down. What is not clear is what is left smouldering and what proactive work is taking place to help with issues of reconciliation and restorative justice. While our guide consults to a number of different community based organisations, he appears to play no part in any political initiative. In fact, he claims that there is no political will driving the peace agenda forward.His sentiments are echoed by the powerful woman who runs the local community centre. Previously focused on activities for the elderly, the centre now co-ordinates numerous cross-community activities, predominately for children. While vast inroads have been made in bringing communities together, the funding prerequisites of the European Union rather than initiatives from the Northern Ireland Assembly are the key drivers. She senses a growing fear amongst her constituency that their needs will be overlooked because of the majority of Catholics in the city.

People are retreating behind the peace walls and are less inclined to participate in cross-community initiatives. Some of the challenges they face echo the situation in postapartheid South Africa where the depletion of a skills base at local council level results from upward mobility and a skills shortage.

As a result, community involvement in local government seems to be wavering, with the youth becoming more isolated from their elected representatives. Nevertheless, our guide and the many community workers in the area soldier on with a fervent zeal to address sectarianism positively. On our arrival in Belfast we had the opportunity to interact with a number of influential politicians and to participate in various panel discussions, where we benefited greatly from the wisdom of people such as Inez McCormack, former President, Irish Congress of Trade Unions; Dr Beverly Milton-Edwards; Dr Margaret O’Callaghan; Professor Adrian Guelke, Director, Centre for the Study of Ethnic Conflict and Professor of Politics, Queens University; Patricia McKeown, President, Irish Congress of Trade Unions; Avila Kilmurray, Director of the Community Foundation Northern Ireland; Geraldine McAteer; Nuala O’Loan and Baroness May Blood.

There was much discussion about the history of the conflict in Northern Ireland and the current political climate. The role of women encouraging peace at a local level came up time and time again, with a particular consideration given to the economic forces and the interests of children driving women toward collaborative initiatives between groups previously unwilling to engage positively. My colleagues from Israel were particularly interested in Dr O’Callaghan’s explanation of the external conditions which made the move toward the Belfast Agreement possible, obviously with a view to better understanding what may force a paradigm shift in their conflict at home.

On the subject of comparisons, Professor Guelke referred to General Smut’s comments to a British General during the Boer War (1899 to 1902) that if the British did not conciliate with the Boers, they may have “another Ireland on their hands”. The parallels between South Africa and the Northern Ireland process were referred to on a number of occasions. Martin McGuinness, MP, MLA, Deputy First Minister spoke fondly of his meetings with Madiba and discussions took place about demilitarisation of the paramilitaries and shared political power in Northern Ireland. A human rights group based in the Bogside involved in prosecutions for deaths caused by political violence has considered the merits of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and whether it is a system suitable to move people in Northern Ireland past the peace walls toward reconciliation. It seems that South Africa’s National Peace Accord structures should be looked at as a possible interim model where perhaps it is too soon to speak of reconciliation. Peace committees could be systematically implemented through the Northern Ireland Assembly, providing political support for the connection between peace brokering on the ground, the community interface workers and the politicians. Such structures would support the outstanding work being done by institutions such as Intercomm (Inter Community Development Project) which has dedicated community interface workers.

In shifting the conflict paradigm, Ms Kilmurray spoke of “space, perceptions and power”. In the mid 80’s women centres were created which gave people the “space” to think of things differently. She explained that the first thing that happens when you go into a conflict is that you simplify the issue and create an exclusion of the group you are opposing. After simplification comes demonisation. Perception also fuels conflict. “They are a majority and we are a minority.” But Ms Kilmurray pointed out that it depends on how the lines are drawn. Protestants are a minority in the island of Ireland. Catholics think they are a minority within Northern Ireland and Britain. People also tell different stories to reinforce their own “perceptions”. This leads to different versions of the truth. The political murals reflect the reality of a constant battle over whose version of truth will dominate. Regarding the imbalance of power at the negotiating table and the way it impacts on how negotiations take place, Ms Kilmurray suggested that those who feel they are giving up power will want to proceed with attention being given to minute detail and those allegedly gaining power will focus on the vision and then on how it will be achieved.

Driving through the neighbourhoods of northern Belfast it is hard to marry the image of Martin McGuiness and Ian Paisley shaking hands with the walls of corrugated sheeting erected to prevent the next petrol bomb being hoisted from one neighbourhood to the next. While great progress has been made at a political level, it seems the real work is still to be done. The fact that a Protestant taxi driver will not render his or her services in a Catholic neighbourhood and vice versa, or that 75% of people from Northern Ireland will not use health care services rendered by someone from a different religion is evidence of the long road towards peace that still needs to be travelled. And then there are the flags and political murals depicting various scenes from the struggle. A process of forgiveness through remembering the past or clinging to a sectarian identity?

While South Africa grapples with the socio-economic results of a system of discrimination, I walked away from Northern Ireland with a better understanding of how far we have actually come as a nation. A committed political agenda aimed at redressing the imbalances of the past provided the groundswell upon which the many other peace keeping initiatives could ride. With our employment equity legislation firmly in place, conflict management skills at the workplace have become critically important for any manager and it is here that much work is being done to encourage reconciliation and a change in peoples’ perceptions. Community projects such as Vision Hout Bay and those run by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation aim to encourage empathy through understanding, continually bringing together people of different races and classes. South Africa shared much with Northern Ireland about its transition from apartheid to democracy. South Africa can still share much with Northern Ireland as it works at reconciliation and true peace.

Copyrights vests in the author. The views expressed in this article are those of the author. No part of this work may be reproduced in any form or by any means without consent.

End Notes

1 Beyond Neutrality, Bernard S Mayer, Jossey-Bass (2004)


Gina Barbieri

Gina Barbieri is a practising attorney who started  her career in the area of human rights and  employment law and now specializes in conflict  resolution. Passionate about mediation and the  role of alternative dispute resolution in contemporary  South Africa, Gina co-founded and is currently the  Executive Director of the African… MORE >

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