The Process of Humanising Political Relationships: The Glencree Experience – MII Conference


Address by Pat Hynes, Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation
At The Mediators Institute of Ireland Annual Conference, October 14th 2022

Ladies and Gentlemen, distinguished guests and colleagues, let me begin by expressing my thanks to the Institute for inviting me to participate in your event here today and to share some of my experiences as both a participant and a practitioner working in this field for almost 30 years.

I might begin with the concept of the Glencree Centre and how it came about as an idea and ultimately a physical place. The late 1960’s early 70’s saw a re-ignition of age-old enmities and tensions between Nationalists and Unionists in Northern Ireland - one community seeing itself trapped as a minority within a state, while the other ever vigilant never to be a minority community trapped within what they saw as a hostile island.

On the 21st of July 1972 the ferocity of the violence reached an almost unimaginable zenith when 26 separate bomb explosions claimed the lives of nine people and injured over 130. The reaction was shock, and here in Dublin a small group of people including Una O’Higgins O’Malley, Lady Eleanor Wicklow, John Kelly and Frank Purcell formed a group that would be the nucleus of the Glencree Idea. As 1973 gave way to 1974, political initiatives failed, the death toll continued to climb, and Una O’Higgins - who was the daughter of the assassinated Free State Minister for Justice Kevin O’Higgins - approached the then Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Garrett Fitzgerald for help in finding some OPW sites for use for both respite and dialogue. In 1974, the old British Army Barracks on the Military Road over the Featherbeds Co. Wicklow was chosen as the place for the work. From 1976 to 1994, the Centre was engaged in dialogue around the outworking of the violence and how communities were being impacted by an ever-worsening security situation.

In August 1994 the then Provisional IRA leadership called a cessation of all military operations. This decision was followed in October of the same year by the three main Loyalist organisations who in turn ended their campaign. In October of 1994, as a 24-year-old member of the Fianna Fáil National Executive, I was asked by my party to attend a “Political Dialogue Workshop” at the Glencree Centre. The request had come from younger Ulster Unionist Party advisors and officers seeking Glencree to reach out to Fianna Fáil for a dialogue with this UUP group. That weekend of the 23rd of October 1994 would mark the first anniversary of the Shankill Road Bomb in which 10 people died, including the bomber, unleashing a spiral of reprisals against the Catholic community across Northern Ireland. Twelve months later, I’m sitting in what was a disused 18th century British army barracks in Co. Wicklow to discuss future constitutional and institutional possibilities with Ulster Unionists who were seeking to hear more of our southern perspectives; what a difference a year had made.

That weekend was to have a profound impact on my thinking: firstly, as to how we should discuss that which divided us all on the island of Ireland and secondly, how we should inch our way towards a shared analysis of what the needs were in any solution. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the answer was of course a process of sustained dialogue involving the maximum degree of opinion, including from the island of Great Britain who were after all the party exercising sovereignty over Northern Ireland. And so, for the next twelve years under the facilitation of Geoffrey Corry and the Executive Leadership of Ian White, Glencree became the place that I would return to month after month to meet with politicians, advisors, officials, civic leaders, church leaders, diplomats and paramilitaries from across the islands of Great Britain and Ireland.

Dialogue is not negotiation, there are no interests traded or transacted, ...

What follows are some examples of the lessons I learned and experiences I shared over those twelve years between late 1994 and early 2007. I do not propose to go through a chronology of events as they have rolled out over the past twenty-nine or so years rather, I want to focus on some of the key themes which have informed my approach to Political Dialogue born out of my Glencree and other experiences.

The first key lesson I learned in the field of political mediation is the need to create as inclusive a space and process as is possible. This won’t result in everybody turning up on day one, in fact one of the things I discovered early on is that when mediators attempt to bring together those groups or individuals who have practiced undemocratic methods prior to their entry into processes, most democrats head for the nearest door! This serves to illustrate the enormous amount of time required in the process prior to the parties entering the room. This process includes managing expectations of who will be there and, in some cases, an outline of the general topics to be discussed at the outset.

The role of political parties and governments in these processes tended to be at track 1.5, although there were occasions when senior political leaders took part in our work in order to underscore the value that they felt was required around some of the discussions. So, a balance had to be found around the principle of maximum inclusion vs self-exclusion because of actions or an unwillingness by participants to accept ground rules.

This brings me to the concept I learned when there is a critical number of actors in each party or grouping willing to participate in an ongoing process of dialogue designed to humanise relationships. Dialogue is not negotiation, there are no interests traded or transacted, in my experience in the 1990’s the people and groups I encountered had never met before and had never conceded that there was anything to discuss in terms of the fundamental positions they held to. And so, each month, or sometimes every two weeks, groups would come down over the Featherbeds with party colleagues and associates to discuss the state of the peace process at that point in time. We would arrive and have a light meal in the Glencree kitchen and then into the sitting room with a large open fire where we would gather.

A fundamental rule at the outset was that participants controlled the agenda while Glencree controlled the process of engagement between participants. This meant that we employed dynamic dialogue where we followed the issues, not set-piece speeches, around the room where everyone received their 10 minutes to elaborate on their latest grievance about the other side of the room. Dynamic dialogue is challenging because it allows for all of the emotions to become real in the moments where dialogue is most tense between participants. I was asked once what was dynamic dialogue and I said that it was akin to bringing your own pick-axe handle and laying it down by the chair you sat in, you probably won’t need to use it but authenticity of expression including anger and frustration were things that the facilitators were prepared to allow and deal with. This principle was of course moderated by a fundamental ground rule that you treat those in the room with respect, despite the frustration felt by whatever position was being advanced.

... there is a fundamental need as human beings to have our expressed identity acknowledged and validated.

I learned in the workshops of those early years that there is a fundamental need as human beings to have our expressed identity acknowledged and validated. Nothing seemed more disrespectful to participants than to be told who you should be or how invalid was the identity that you express during the course of discussions. The facilitators had to regularly check in to conversations asking, have you heard the anger, can you acknowledge how your remarks have created this response.

Political dialogue is probably not all that different to some of the work that many of you have been involved in over your careers however there is little doubt that some of the stakes are a little higher not least when you are dealing with violent organisations who were trying to transition their movements into a political arena. This takes me into to the area of confidentiality and how any process or facilitator wishing to engage in this work must take the responsibility to ensure that those who are coming into workshops like Glencree are not placed at any additional physical risk as a result of their participation. In our work many of these people had to go back home to uncertain communities scared about what the future held. Strict secrecy and confidentiality were our world over much of those twelve years. Unfortunately, we did experience the loss of one participant to paramilitary violence, but not as a consequence of any failure on the part Glencree or the participants in our process, nevertheless it served to illustrate how fragile and dangerous it was for people travelling from Northern Ireland to the south for discussion and then returning home to tense environments.

Another key principle in how to go about organising a political dialogue was the principle of “no surprises”. Everybody knew in advance about who was going to be in the room or at a minimum what parties were either invited or were confirmed as participating. Nothing would drain the confidence of participants faster than if they walked into a dialogue expecting to have a confirmed number of actors and parties in front of them only to be blindsided by individuals or groups to which they had no prior warning. This damaged the credibility of the dialogue, the facilitator and the organisation. A key lesson over these years and one I continue to employ today is to prepare, prepare and prepare more even more. So many dialogues even at the highest political level went wrong or produced inadequate outcomes due to lack of preparation. Today in my work I will still undertake two or possibly four pre-meetings with participants prior to a full dialogue between participants in dispute. I like to think of it as the process of shutting down potential points of failure before I get into the room where the stakes usually are much higher.

Building capacity in the relationships. The conflict in Ireland and more broadly with our nearest neighbours in Great Britain was essentially, at its heart, a set of broken relationships; broken within Northern Ireland, giving rise to the most recent conflict, broken relationships between North and South following Partition and the age-old enmity which characterised the relationship with our nearest neighbour. Our task as participants, and today as practitioners, was to build some deep and long lasting resilience into the relationships between participants from across the islands and to create the humanising moments when party, or national or other labels, were traded for an acceptance that we shared a home and a place that we called home and that our common interests required us to make that home safe regardless of how we seen our individual identities.

In a lot of political peace processes around the world the accepted wisdom was that you could reach an agreement if a list of preconditional requirements were met, including for example cease-fires, disposal of weapons, rehabilitation of former combatants, release of prisoners etc. The difference we discovered through our work in the centre is that peace processes are not a set of pre-conditional check boxes running vertically 1 to 10, it is rather messier than that. Our approach in Glencree was to take that vertical process and turn it 90 degrees horizontally and between each of the challenges to would build capacity in the relationships between participants. Even in circumstances where the issues were not fully resolved, people knew each other better and understood the constraints they and the other had as well as the need to achieve certain levels of progress and why. This was vitally important because when things go wrong like when the cease-fire broke down in February 1996, participants continued to attend the workshops seeking ways towards a restoration of the cease-fire. In other words, because we had humanised the relationships, we didn’t go back to zero, but one or two steps maybe, but we simply worked even harder to restore the sense of purpose in ending the violence and returning to dialogue as the means of achieving and agreement.

The renowned American political author and biographer Robert A. Caro once said that “power reveals”. I would offer that in a more nuanced way, dialogue reveals. It often reveals heretofore unseen qualities and attributes of participants who come into a room either seeking to defend or advance a set of ideas or in some cases vital interests. As I learned over the years in dialogue it was not the obvious statements of position that could be read or observed in the media that created the opportunities for forward movement. All be told I could have read these statements and positions in any number of sources including policy statements, briefing documents or the media, however through careful and tenacious dialogue it was possible to see what lay behind the public pronouncements including the vulnerability of participants in terms of the room to manoeuvre on issues. These are the moments when rather than exploiting a revealed weakness in your interlocutor’s position you seek to shore up and assist them in order to give them the maneuverability to stay in the process and assure their community who looked to them for progress. We all won when we helped each other at critical moments and at times of maximum uncertainty among those who were most frightened about the future.

Hospitality is often overlooked as an element involved in creating the right atmosphere for a dialogue. In Glencree we were and continue to be fortunate to have a suite of rooms as well as common areas where participants shared meals, relaxed over tea and coffee and of course could walk in the natural environment of the Wicklow National Park. Participants would stay at the centre during the 1990’s and 2000's in relative obscurity. Eating meals and sharing accommodation in an environment like Glencree made it somewhat easier for participants to develop relationships particularly when they returned throughout the process. There were of course the occasional libations consumed following long days of discussion and I’m glad to report that these occasions only served to ease any residual tensions that may have arisen during the preceding days dialogue sessions.

So in the final analysis, what did I fundamentally learn over all of these years? In a divided society, violence only makes the divisions deeper and puts off the moment when dialogue can start. In contested spaces like ours, where divisions are deep like fault lines running back centuries, complexity is actually the friend of peace-building. If people and communities can detach from their binary sense of self, we come to see we are outcomes of all the elements that have shaped us, not just the labels we have chosen to adopt or that have been ascribed to us by others.

Finally, I want to quote the former Taoiseach and Foreign Minister Brian Cowen when he said that 'peace-making is a Journey, don’t frontload the destination in the first few steps, start the journey and let the destination take care of itself'. In this way as participants take each step, they develop the trust, strengthen the relationship and ultimately deepen their shared sense of reconciliation.

Thank you.

Pictured with Pat Hynes, Community & Political Dialogue Manager, Glencree were: Terri O’Brien, Community and Political Dialogue Programme, Glencree Centre, Ber Barry Murphy, President, Mediators Institute of Ireland, Valerie Ringrose Fitzsimons, Communications Manager, Glencree Centre and Geoffrey Corry, Mediators Institute of Ireland and Glencree Centre.


For media queries, please contact: Valerie Ringrose Fitzsimons - 086 3771020 |