Engaging with the Violent Past to Motivate and Direct Conflict Resolution Practice in Northern Ireland

Published date01 December 2017
Date01 December 2017
C R Q, vol. 35, no. 2, Winter 2017 197
© 2017 Association for Con ict Resolution and Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
Published online in Wiley Online Library (wileyonlinelibrary.com) • DOI: 10.1002/crq.21204
Engaging with the Violent Past to Motivate
and Direct Con ict Resolution Practice in
Northern Ireland
R achel Rafferty
Collective memories can form a barrier to con ict resolution in societies
a ected by violent con ict. Although engaging with con ict history is an
important aspect of con ict resolution practice, it is not fully understood
how to achieve this in these complex and emotive environments.  is
article presents the case of local grassroots con ict resolution practitio-
ners in Northern Ireland who have developed an alternative narrative
about the violent past that they draw on to motivate and direct their
practice. It provides insights into how con ict resolution practitioners
in intractable con icts can engage with the violent past in ways that
support increased understanding between identity groups.
N orthern Ireland is the site of a long-running social and political con-
ict that between 1969 and 1998 escalated into sustained and severe
violence. Although violence has greatly deescalated in Northern Ireland
over the last two decades, political enmity and social division continue,
suggesting that the society shares many features common to intractable
con icts (Aiken 2013 ; Mac Ginty, Muldoon, and Ferguson 2007 ). In par-
ticular, opposing collective memories regarding the past violence present a
barrier to a more comprehensive resolution to the con ict (Aiken 2013 ).
In societies a ected by intractable con ict, such as Northern Ireland,
collective memories of the past can do much to prevent con ict resolution
in the present (Arai 2015 ; Bar-Tal 2007 ; Tint 2010 ). Intractable con icts
are long running, di cult to resolve, and often involve a repeated cycle
of violence (Bar-Tal 2007 ). ese con icts often re ect underlying issues
such as unmet human needs, sacred values, and oppositional group identi-
ties (Azar 1991 ; Burton 1990 ; Kelman 2010 ). is is often re ected in a
C R Q • DOI: 10.1002/crq
confrontational political environment where there is little motivation to
compromise or cooperate between groups.
Despite the su ering caused by con ict, shared sociopsychological fea-
tures including collective narratives about the past reduce the willingness
of those living in the society to pursue a peaceful resolution to the con ict
(Bar-Tal 2007 ). In such con icts, the groups involved develop di erent nar-
ratives about the history of the con ict and this provides an additional barrier
to developing a cooperative approach to resolving the con ict (Tint 2010 ).
ese narratives about the past are often intimately connected to
oppositional understandings of group identity (Bikmen 2013 ; Hammack
2011 ). ey can be used to justify aggressive actions against opponents of
the group, and questioning these group narratives can be seen as an act
of betrayal by other group members (Bar-Tal 2007 ). Moreover, collective
emotional responses to past violent events in the con ict can cause con ict
resolution processes based on rational discussion to fail (Bar-Tal, Halperin,
and De Rivera 2007 ; Retzinger and Sche 2000 ). How members of the
society understand the past, then, does much to determine whether a reso-
lution to the con ict can be envisioned and achieved.
As a result, attempts at con ict resolution in such societies can be
strengthened by actively engaging with how individuals understand and
interpret the past (Psaltis 2016 ; Tint 2010 ). Dialoguing about the past can
help groups to recognize the existence of di erent narratives, which has
the potential to increase understanding of opponents’ perspectives (Arai
2015 ; Shea 2010 ). In particular, developing shared or inclusive historical
narratives may support con ict resolution and reconciliation (Barton and
McCully 2003 ; Korostelina 2012 ).
However, any attempt to build a shared understanding of the past needs
to avoid marginalizing the counterhistories of oppressed groups (Rolston
2010 ; Wing 2010 ). ere is also the risk that opening up discussion of the
violent past in societies a ected by intractable con ict can deepen divisions
if not handled sensitively (Bland 2002 ). Engaging with the violent past in
intractable con icts, then, is an aspect of con ict resolution practice that
needs to be carried out with care and with a clear understanding of what
the work is aiming to achieve.
Given that, at present, there is only a limited understanding of how to
engage with the past in ways that will support con ict resolution and rec-
onciliation (Arai 2015 ; Tint 2010 ), there is scope for learning from cases
of successful practice in this area. Con ict resolution practitioners (CRPs)
who live in societies a ected by violent con ict have found creative ways

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