The Importance of Communication
If I've learned just one thing so far this week, it is the importance of communication. We've seen how communication - be it direct or indirect - can be forwarding the goals of peace, or serving to highten already high tensions surrounding sensitive issues. I guess, on the most basic level, I knew that already (in fact, I think I wrote my fellowship application about that very idea). However, until this week it had been just that: an idea. Today, seminar participants were afforded the unique opportunity to hear about reality from first-hand sources who have been on both sides of the peace process. As a result, the paramilitaries with whom we spoke provided unique insight into the importance of communication and compromise in finding solutions that are acceptable to all parties dealing with an issue.
Noel Large and Sean Murray are former paramilitaries (Large a loyalist, Murray a republican) who, despite their contrasting backgrounds, are both working toward a future void of violence in Belfast. Through their work with community organizations, Interaction Belfast and the Springfield Road Residents Action Group respectively, these men are both making strides to increase communication between the factions of the city - and both cite the importance of cultural understanding in making this communication possible.
It may sound quite simple and logical, but it was clear from listening to Large and Murray speak about their experiences and opinions that actualizing meaningful communication was difficult - to put it mildly. The ideas of finding mutual goals toward which to work and being patient in the peace process were emphasized. Murray called this a "generational process" and discussed the importance of institutionalizing or embedding certain community organizations so as to affect long-term change. Large, through his work with the Community Development Team of Interaction Belfast discussed common concerns of conflicting communities as a means by which to "humanize" the other side of the conflict.
It will be interesting to see how, as the week goes on, others deal with the issue of communicating with others who are unlike them. In a city where walls physically divide people of different viewpoints and backgrounds, it is easy to see how the "mental walls" can be put up as well. While I saw first-hand today that the concrete is a relatively stable structure, today's discussion has caused me to reconsider the permanence of the social divide between people here. As Large and Murray showed us in recounting their own work and experiences, it is possible to break down barriers between people - though it may take more than a bulldozer to change minds.