Barbara Walshe: ‘Power of dialogue to heal bitter divisions on these islands as important now as ever’


“At a time of “attack and defend” politics in Europe and North America, and the polarisation between people that has resulted, what we have learned at Glencree from over 40 years of dealing with conflict is the importance of dialogue, listening to understand the underlying issues that cause fear, anger and anxiety, and working to address them.

As we in Ireland have discovered to our cost, a sustained ignorance of fundamental issues of concern leads in only one direction: towards conflict and violence.

The current stasis in Northern politics means that a lack of a collective vision for the common good across all identities is neglected at a time when communities need it most.

Brexit has opened old wounds that were beginning to heal – all of a sudden, the air is full of hard Borders and threats to peace. The prospect of Irish unity continues to be seen by some as a weapon and by others as a threat.

Many young people continue to be manipulated by an older generation in both the North and the Republic, exaggerating stories of past “glories”, inciting people to a cause that no longer exists in reality. This was most tragically visible in the recent killing of journalist Lyra McKee in Derry.

The young often carry a deep, misplaced sense of responsibility to right past wrongs, and some experience a deep sense of guilt if they do not. It is sobering that more young people have died by suicide since the peace agreement was signed 21 years ago than died during the conflict. This young generation, particularly in communities that have experienced most of the violence, need permission to be liberated from the baggage of the past, regardless of the losses incurred, free to pursue their own dreams, whether that is a good job or access to quality education and training, something that many see is “for others, not for them”.

Despite the fractures caused by Brexit, the relationship between our two countries remains – and will remain – of paramount importance. We need to remember that the 21 years of relative peace we have enjoyed since the Good Friday Agreement represents a very short period when it comes to the difficult process of bedding down a lasting peace in Ireland; and that this peace process was led by the governments in Ireland and Britain, along with a supportive government in Washington.

Whatever the historical and political past, Ireland and Britain today remain socially, economically, politically and culturally entwined. Standing today in the Glencree valley reminds us that different identities can co-exist, be reconciled and have much to offer each other. However, there is no room for complacency.

For nearly five decades, Glencree has worked to bring warring sides together. It has worked with groups and individuals who have been traumatised by the violence of the Troubles, losing loved ones. It is estimated that there were around 40,000 violent incidents in the North during the period 1968-1998.

Glencree’s work today – in its community and political dialogue work, its legacy, inter-cultural, women’s and young leaders’ programmes – has one thread running through it: the need for dialogue and peace education in everything we do.

We continue to work hard behind the scenes to initiate and maintain dialogue between the two Northern communities and their political representatives, and to build north-south relationships.

We stress the importance of working with women. Conflict and violence impacts differently on gender, therefore we believe that with support women’s voices can become a powerful and positive force to help combat the culture of silence and fear that is so prevalent in the wake of the conflict. In the words of the poet Moya Cannon, they are more likely to believe in the “nobility of compromise”.

We have provided peace education courses to school and university students all over Ireland, teaching them about working to overcome conflict, exploring identities and diversity, and developing leadership skills. We have promoted the integration into Irish society of refugees and other vulnerable migrants through a programme of inter-cultural dialogue that listens to their largely unheard voices and combats racism and xenophobia.

We have worked with young Muslims in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe, many of whom have been largely abandoned by their host societies, to provide them with opportunities to give purpose to their lives by actively contributing to those societies.

Glencree continues to share what we have learned from the Irish peace process with people in war-torn countries all over the world: from Israel/Palestine to Colombia, Sri Lanka to Liberia, Afghanistan to Haiti. It has brought volunteers from more than 40 countries to Ireland to learn about creating and sustaining peace.

From this small island, with its global renown for words and conversations, we in Glencree believe that words and conversations hold the key to peace in the face of violence and conflict. And Glencree stands ready to share our experience of the healing power of conversations, to offer words of hope and to offer a place of peace where war-torn communities across the globe can take tentative steps on their journey of reconciliation.”

Barbara Walshe is chair of the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation board