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16 October 2014
BBC NI - Eyewitness

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Mediation is an important element in the process of peace building. Brendan McAllister, director of Mediation Northern Ireland, writes about his approach to conflict transformation Brendan McAllister

Mediation and Peacebuilding

During the summer of 2001 mediators from Mediation Northern Ireland attempted to establish a process which would enable loyalist protesters and nationalist parents at the centre of the Holy Cross school dispute to come together. One fundamental problem revolved around the agenda for talks. The parents’ group wanted to restrict discussion to matters relating to the school while the protest group wanted a broader agenda addressing the wider context within which the school dispute had emerged. Even naming the problem was a problem: from the parents’ perspective it was the Holy Cross dispute; in the view of the protesters, it was the Ardoyne Road dispute.

In the event, Mediation Northern Ireland’s process failed to get off the ground because the loyalist protesters believed they were being bounced into a situation which would not meet their needs. Within weeks the two sides were facing each other on the road with children running a gauntlet to school in front of the world’s media.

While I felt deeply frustrated by our experience in the Holy Cross dispute - feeling so near and yet so far from resolution - I think our efforts at least succeeded in helping both sides to develop a more coherent approach to a complex situation. Our engagement with them enabled each side to articulate their arguments more clearly and enabled the eventual emergence of an agenda which both sides could agree to engage together. It provides a useful insight on the use of mediation in the Northern Ireland situation: while mediation does not always fix a bad situation, it at least changes it. The intention of mediation is to effect positive change in situations of conflict.

Our experience in Northern Ireland has taught us a number of important lessons about how peace happens within deep societal conflict. We work on the premise that peace has four dimensions:

  1. The search for consensus among politicians.
  2. Agreed law and order.
  3. Social and economic progress.
  4. The work of reconciliation.

While there are many methods of reconciliation, they all revolve around the central task of building and rebuilding relationships, particularly across the divisions of a troubled society. Reconciliation does not always mean the achievement of harmony. Rather, it can work best when it enables people simply to manage their enmity.

Mediation is a tool of reconciliation. It assumes that change happens more profoundly if relationships improve. The process can involve any of the following tasks:

  • To facilitate communication.
  • To improve understandings.
  • To support creative thinking.
  • To explore accommodations.
  • To assist agreement.

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