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.