How to stop our hopes withering on the vine – by Sean Brennan

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Martii Ahtisaari

Martii Ahtisaari


Through the concept of al-mahjar, the Boston-based poet, Kahlil Gibran, reminded people that travelling into a shared space, such as a city, was viewed as a journey offering hope and prosperity for people attempting to escape poverty, conflict, religious and tribal repression.

As we begin to travel into our ‘second generation’ post-conflict peacebuilding process, through the ‘Together: Building a United Community’ (BUC) strategy, we now need to imbue our journey with this ancient Lebanese tradition, of al-mahjar, in order to create the hope and prosperity needed to make these new post-conflict peacebuilding goals both efficacious and transformative.

And yet, hope, is not enough!

While cognisant of the ‘bogus gods’ and ‘authentic mammon’ that have shaped and hindered our progress, from war to peace, so far, we now need to implement the BUC shared vision, with extreme prejudice, in order to deliver “a united community, based on equality of opportunity, the desirability of good relations and reconciliation – one which is strengthened by its diversity, where cultural expression is celebrated and embraced and where everyone can live, learn, work and socialise together, free from prejudice, hate and intolerance”.

As its authors note, making this BUC vision flesh will not happen overnight. However the time for talking about talking is at an end: and as we have learnt over the past 15 years, such strategic policy outputs cannot be delivered nor directed by our elected representatives, their SpAd’s or departments, alone.

If we are serious in moving towards a ‘second generation’ post-conflict peacebuilding programme that can tackle the underlying causes of our conflict, we all now need to begin to work collaboratively, to deliver a Tsunami of employment, youth, urban regeneration and economic development programmes, projects and processes, at the local level, over the coming days, weeks and months.

To finesse this ‘second generation’ post-conflict peacebuilding process we can draw inspiration and guidance from the former President of Finland and Nobel Peace prizewinner, Martii Ahtisaari.

In his inaugural speech at the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice, in the Queen’s University Belfast, President Ahtisaari argued, that in making this new journey, we will need to ‘move beyond understanding mediation and conflict resolution as a redistribution of political and economic power’ towards a more egalitarian vision, of a ‘fair society rather than a welfare state’.

President Ahtisaari believes such an option, of sharing political, economic and social wealth outcomes with those most in need, is achievable if we can establish an ethos of ‘responsible egalitarianism’ within and between our diverse identities, political and institutional elites, the business community and civil society.

In many regards President Ahtisaari’s promotion of ‘responsible egalitarianism’ provides us with a shared ethos, to help illuminate our path and motivate us all towards a more inclusive ‘second generation’ post-conflict peacebuilding programme that offers employment, inclusion and social well-being for all those in need.

With the BUC strategy’s shared vision, and Ahtisaari’s ethos for ‘responsible egalitarianism’ it may now be possible to deliver a new beginning, with al-mahjar, to re-energize our post-conflict peacebuilding project: to begin to address, in earnest, the underlying causes of our conflict, manifesting as competitive sectarianism, poverty, inequality, deprivation, social and cultural exclusion, low educational attainment, unemployment and a constructively ambiguous lack of truth and reconciliation from our macro, meso and micro political and institutional elites.

However, as the summer recess approaches Stormont’s Assembly, and its Executive, where the ‘bogus gods’ and ‘authentic mammon’ prepare to challenge us in the summer hum, of sectarian tension, we now need to move quickly and build momentum for delivery of the BUC strategy before our hopes are once again left to wither on the vine, post facto G8.

With reputable ‘shovel ready’ youth projects, such as Public Achievement, Springboard, Springvale Learning, St. Columbs Park House and the Inner North Belfast Youth Platform, to name but a few, OFMDFM civil servants and public institutions can immediately resource these groups and organisations to actively engage and recruit our young people into a range of skills development and capacity-building programmes, projects and processes, over the summer months.

Our mainstream media can also begin to challenge our academic institutions, business leaders, Partnership Boards and civil society organisations, to move beyond the conference halls and, through public design competitions, draft and resource local area regeneration plans for communities and contested spaces most in need.

Our local social media and film-makers can even create ‘action-development’ programmes to promote, critique and share learning, on how we can transparently succeed, and fail, in our attempts to regenerate and re-engage interface areas and marginalised communities through ‘responsible egalitarianism’.

Public broadcasters can help promote and utilize ‘best practice’ examples of physical and social regeneration, in action, and experts from other conflict and de-industrialized regeneration zones can help us transparently draft, design, develop and deliver, live on TV, post-conflict peacebuilding programmes at the local level.

This transparent, responsible, egalitarian approach, to the redistribution of political and economic power, can also help our public institutions, academics, social media, civil society and business leaders, take ownership of the BUC strategy and drive it to fruition.

Waiting for our politicians and their SpAds to design and deliver such plans are no longer a realistic option. Political institutions and civil society organisations can learn from the positive and progressive leadership provided by the PSNI and University of Ulster, through their Cardiff Initiative, and also become proactive in developing and co-producing deliverable outcomes for those survivors of conflict identified in the BUC, CSI and Agenda for Peace strategies.

If we are serious in commencing this journey, to offer hope and prosperity for people attempting to escape poverty, conflict, religious and tribal repression, then we need to follow the advice of President Ahtisaari and now move beyond understanding ‘mediation and conflict resolution as a redistribution of political and economic power’, towards the construction of a ‘fair society’ rather than a shared out sectarian welfare state.

If our political and institutional elites cannot engage our creative and constructive peace building practitioners in this ‘second generation’ post-conflict peacebuilding programme then they will ultimately be judged to have ‘passed’ the BUC: and condemn us all to an acceptable level of poverty, ill-health, unemployment, resource competition and electorally contained sectarian conflict zones.

If we can somehow overcome our political and tribal identity prejudices and engage all our people in programmes of post-conflict peacebuilding then we might yet buck the trend, in failed peace processes, and realize a post-conflict society that practices ‘responsible egalitarianism’, with al mahjar, to inspire the world.

If the BUC strategy can transform our political system, where our elected representatives, and their SpAds, re-enthuse their pax practice through the inclusive pulse taking and change making ethos of ‘responsible egalitarianism’,  we may soon begin to realize we are all now on a journey: travelling into a shared space, such as this small city-state of 1.82m human beings, to provide hope and prosperity for people attempting to escape poverty, conflict, religious and tribal repression.

Can we do this?  Al-mahjar…


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About Author

Seán Brennan is a part-time PhD candidate at the Queen’s University Belfast, School of Politics International Studies and Philosophy, researching Ulster Loyalism and the politics of Peacebuilding, Development and Security in Northern Ireland. He is a representative of the community on Belfast City Council’s Good Relations Partnership and has contributed articles for The Other View magazine, Pue’s Occurrences and Conflict Transformation Papers, Volume 9, Ethnicity and Nationalism (2005) and Volume 10, Peace by Piece (2005) and has contributed poems, The Gaza Ghetto (2008) and Belsen by the Sea (2008), for the Palestine Chronicle (16 July 2008). Seán also designs and delivers training in Community Relations, Conflict Resolution and Conflict Transformation and his Peace Building in Interface Communities programme was short-listed for the Times Higher Education Awards (2008).

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