A man confined to a wheelchair for life after being shot by a paramilitary in Northern Ireland looking for someone else, but talking of his determination to seek “compromise” in his own feelings; widows and orphans from both sides of the ethnic divide in Sri Lanka brought together to talk despite the hatred bred by three decades of civil war. These are just two of the results of an academic project that aims to build compromise in post-conflict situations.
Sidestepping the entrenched oppositional stances of most political parties, the project uses social media not only to publicise its findings but also to create “a space within civil society where alternative voices can be given an airing”.
The five-year Compromise after Conflict programme, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, was originally based at the University of Aberdeen. However, it moved to Queen’s University Belfast in April when John Brewer, its principal investigator, was appointed the first professor of post- conflict studies at the new Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice.
The project’s focus is the development of compromise in Northern Ireland, South Africa and Sri Lanka, although linked PhDs are also examining the reintegration of girl soldiers in Sierra Leone, the role of the Catholic Church after a massacre in Colombia and a “recovered memory project” in contemporary Spain.
Much of the work explores what “compromise” means in terms of emotions, behaviours and relationships. Although the project is based on a working definition that “compromise involves hope - anticipation of the future; forgiveness - redemption for perpetrators; and forms of memory - remembrance of the conflict that transcends divided memories”, this provides only the bare bones for a much richer and deeper analysis.
When formulating the programme, Brewer was also keen to include an element of “practical peace-building” to improve the lives of victims. In Sri Lanka, for example, he had met many women, Sinhalese and Tamil, widowed during the country’s civil war, who seldom got the chance to meet and discuss common concerns.
He therefore proposed a series of “small-scale reconciliation meetings, bringing together widows and orphans at a residential site. They soon realise they face similar problems and the level of bitterness is much lower than one might expect. In all the places we have studied, victims have often proved moral beacons in their willingness to seek compromise.”
In the same spirit, the researchers decided to open up their blog to a debate on the topic of hope for the future in Northern Ireland. This was timed to start shortly before the recent visit to the country by a commission led by US diplomat Richard Haass, which is intended to resolve difficulties in the peace process and is regarded by some as likely to represent the biggest step forward for reconciliation since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
“Social media have really changed in the four years since we started the Compromise after Conflict programme,” says Brewer. “At first, we assumed we would just use our website, but with the explosion of Facebook and Twitter, we have moved into those forums while always retaining a link to the website.”
Alternative voices get a hearing
Moreover, instead of just providing a useful tool for communicating across a widely dispersed research team or disseminating findings to the public, he adds, “we have seen a need for alternative voices. The peace process is dominated by adversarial political parties, so there is no place to talk about hope, values and visions for the future. We have tried to provide a space within civil society where alternative voices can be given an airing.”
The blog campaign’s impact has far exceeded expectations. Website hits have soared from 10,123 in June (before it started) to 63,776 in July, 94,767 in August and 118,443 in September.
Meanwhile, numbers of Twitter followers (@Compromisestudy) have also jumped to well over 8,000 and include First Minister Peter Robinson, academic experts, victims’ groups, social movement groups, Barack Obama’s campaign team, political parties, non-governmental organisations and media across the world.
Nor does this reflect merely passive passing interest.
“We hoped to contribute to the debate,” explains co-investigator Francis Teeney, honorary lecturer at Queen’s School of Psychology, “and thought we would get 2,000-3,000 hits. We’ve been working in the field for many years and know all the key figures in the peace process, so the first few posted on our blog more or less as a favour to us.
“Now the party leaders are tripping over themselves to contribute because that is where people seem to be going for their information. Every single party leader has signed up - and four have already submitted a blog.”
Such has been the response that the researchers have had to impose a limit of three posts per party. When they asked for submissions from the clergy, social activists, those involved in current street disturbances, ex- members of the paramilitaries and political analysts, they were again swamped with people keen to take part.
No hate in our hearts for anyone
Some of the most powerful posts have come from victims of the conflict. Colin Parry describes how the death of his 12-year-old son Tim in the 1993 Warrington bombing led him to establish a foundation in his name.
“My politics, my race and my faith, such as it is, do not steer the direction of my foundation, which takes no side in these matters, but merely serves as best it can the cause of peace building and of improving the prospects of reconciliation between people who are deeply divided in their beliefs and their causes,” he writes.
Even more striking is the contribution of Paul Gallagher. Although confined to a wheelchair for life after he was injured in a paramilitary attack aimed at a neighbour, he has refused to give up on the need for compromise.
“Life is too short for digging your heels in (something I have found to my detriment with the recent re-occurrence of pressure sores on my feet - a side effect of paraplegia)…
“By compromise, I am not just talking about with other people. I am talking about within myself. To be able to live my life without letting the poisonous lead that ripped my body apart begin to poison my mind and spirit, I had to compromise. I had to face the reality that the gunmen would never face justice; I would never find out why and I would never walk again.
“I could only hope that others would never have to live what I and thousands of other injured people have had to endure.”
Brewer says that the academics have tried to use the blogs to shape the debate in the period leading up to the Haass-led commission, adding that “we will accept posts from everywhere, provided they don’t include hate speech”.
The strikingly enthusiastic response is “a sign of the need to move beyond adversarial point-scoring. This is a theme churches and other civil society groups could have pushed, but it seems to have been academics who have provided the space.
“We want to evaluate the experience afterwards to see if there is value in a similar sort of exercise elsewhere.”
Teeney adds: “We fully intend to expand the experiment into other areas of the world.”
Interest on Facebook and Twitter has made it clear that people in Sri Lanka, South Africa and other conflict zones are keeping a close eye on developments, he says, because Northern Ireland is widely viewed as a template for how to get over conflict.
“Despite setbacks, we don’t return to the bomb and the bullet. There is great interest in our fledgling experiment in democracy, where a coalition is forced to work together for the common good - and our blog can help spread the model to other conflict areas. We know that they are following what we are doing.”