Translated from Hebrew by Vered Eyal-Saldinger
Empowered, hopeful and ready to work, we are back!
After five full, intensive and inspiring training days in Belfast, Northern Ireland, we returned home – Pascale Chen, Michal Katzenelson, Debi Parush, Amira Zedan, Liora Hadar and Nitzan Senior.
On July 1st 2018 we embarked on a fascinating journey led by Rev. Dr. Gary Mason, founder of Rethinking the Conflict Institute, who designed a training program tailored for Women Wage Peace. The project was enabled thanks to the support of Irish ambassador to Israel Ms. Ellison Kelly, and financed by the Irish ministry of foreign affairs. The project’s goal was to study the long violent conflict and the peace process in Northern Ireland, which concluded with the Good Friday Agreement 20 years ago.
The agreement between the Uni-onists (Protestants) and the Republicans (Catholics), did not present a solution to the debate over the governing of the north, but stated that from then on the conflict will be managed diplomatically, acknowledging that in violent encounters there are no winners.
During our five days in Belfast – whose walls bear the history with pain mixed with pride and hope – we met female leaders, politicians, activists, and bereaved families, all united by their tireless desire to end the conflict.
When we first arrived, we toured the various quarters of the city and viewed murals depicting war stories, memorial monuments commemorating the fallen from both sides, and the Uni-onists and Republicans peace wall, which plants hope for a better future, without a big dividing stone wall in the middle.
We saw Israeli and Palestinian flags on the streets, testifying the connection made by locals between our conflict and theirs. This tour put into context the past, present and future of the Irish story, and made local reality very perceptible for us.
Our second day focused on female community leaders. We met Debbie Waters – vice-chairperson of the police board of directors and co-manager of Alternatives – an organization which promotes restorative justice. We then met Avila Kilmurray and Martin O’Brien, who both run the Social Change Initiative, and discussed women as agents of change in the political and social arena. Avila is one of the founders of the Women Coalition of Northern Ireland turned the Women Party, which had two seats in the Northern Irish parliament and took an active part in designing the Good Friday Agreement.
The third day of our journey was the saddest one. We met Allen McBride, who lost his young wife and father in law in an IRA attack, and Linda Molloy, a catholic whose son was murdered by Uni-onist militia. Both of them spoke about life in the shadow of prejudice and stigma, division between communities and daily fear. Both chose to work in support of victims of the war, who they claim do not receive proper care. We saw that the pain of the bereaved is the same, and time does not ease it. Not a single eye remained dry after hearing Allen saying that his wife was present in the room while he spoke about her, and to Linda reading the last poem she wrote about her son and her bereavement. We later met members of fighting organizations of all sides, and realized that in spite of the tension which still exists between them, they understood that it is their duty to stop the mutual slaughtering, and to look after their communities in non-violent ways. “I do much more today for society, than I did when I was a fighter”, one of them said.
On our fourth day we met with Judith Thompson, a commissioner in charge of the injured and survivors of the conflict, who deals with victims’ legal, health and social issues. We then visited Belfast City Council and met with four female politicians representing the council’s four leading political parties: Mayor Deirdre Hargey from Sinn Fein, Joanne Bunting from the DUP, Sonia Copeland from the Ulster Uni-onist Party, and past mayor (until 2015) Nichola Mallon from the SDLP. We discussed common social issues such as education and health, and saw that in spite of disagreements among the politicians, it seemed that they succeed in leading the city together towards a more peaceful future.
Our last evening was dedicated to creating “Pieces for Peace” with female community leaders in Skainos – a community centre in east Belfast, which strives to provide a space of unity among different communities, leading them towards renewal and revival. We spread blank pieces of material on the table, and very quickly they became covered with positive messages of hope, growth, unity, love and peace. We engaged in fascinating conversations with the women who joined the activity and discovered again how much alike we are, in spite of “official” differences between us.
On our fifth and last day we met with 80 years old Baroness May Blood, who grew up in a working class family of seven, started her activist path as a leader in the trade uni-on, and later took part in the leading team who founded the Women Coalition. Today she claims that women-only groups are not as effective as we might think they are, as they do not really succeed in gaining influence, and that creating cooperation through gender balance are better ways of action. Even today, the baroness continues to be an inspirational figure and promotes work within the community, especially in integral education for the sake of children from both sides.
Our concluding meeting was with Peter Robinson, who served as Northern Ireland’s prime minister after the signing of the agreement, and acted as an exceptional role model for running a government in which rivals sit together. We talked about the way the state coped during the years that followed the ceasefire, the rehabilitation of damaged communities, and the challenges in creating a truly new society.
During our whole journey we constantly thought about Israel. When we heard the different voices sharing experiences, challenges and difficulties, when they shared with us their successes, their moments of breakdown and of hope, we couldn’t avoid wondering, what about us? We saw the high complexity of the conflict, a complexity which we know very well, and we identified with the high motivation, which was faced with quite a bit of fear and loss on a daily basis. But we saw that change is possible. We were impressed by the way the leaders led the long, painful, unstable process of transitioning from a state of war to a non-war one. Each and every woman did her best in her community and in her field, and displayed amazing mental strength and perseverance. We sensed their determination, understanding, containment and vision for creating a better life. The concern and responsibility for future generations were a common thread in all our encounters. The hope for a safe future was shared by everyone.
We feel a great responsibility after these five intensive training days. We are proud to bring to Israel the rich inspirational message – of powerful female activism, which is wholesome and pragmatic and enables the different voices to be heard, while striving uncompromisingly for agreement and peace. In the upcoming month we will compile a comprehensive training course for the movement’s Hundred Team, after which we hope we can progress together, step by step, towards the fulfilment of our two goals – promoting a mutual diplomatic agreement, and the inclusion of women at the negotiation table.
The Belfast training course gave us a profound understanding of the complexity of the conflict and of the peace process and its maintenance. The peace process continues after the signing of the agreement, until the personal and social transformation is completed by society as a whole.
We saw that this can happen in spite of large differences, varied backgrounds and different populations, and we returned empowered and a little more optimistic than we were before.
Yes, it is possible and only together we will succeed!
WWP Northern Ireland project team