On Sunday morning, four South African participants disembarked their plane sporting beaded pins displaying their colorful national flag. Exuberant about South Africa’s victory at the World Cup rugby final just hours earlier, the participants happily chided the passport control officer about the British team’s defeat. Importantly, the same excitement the participants demonstrated about South Africa’s rugby victory, they also shared in anticipation of our upcoming program on conflict resolution and reconciliation.
The participants immediately boarded a bus for Derry, the historic and picturesque walled city north of Belfast. We began our journey in Northern Ireland on a bus, driving through luscious green countryside. As we reached the highest point in Northern Ireland, we looked backward to view the booming city of Belfast from afar nestled in a valley among rolling hills that are home to dairy farms, stone churches, and quaint towns with the windows uniformly shuttered in observance of the weekly day of rest and religious observance.
After catching up and settling in, our attention turned to our lively and opinionated bus driver Des. Eager to share his perspective, he offered insights on his country’s history, environment, economy, and challenges. Des, who proudly grew up and raised his family in Northern Ireland, lives in a small town outside of Belfast. Having lived in Northern Ireland for his entire life, the sixty-four year old bus driver shared his thoughts on topics as varied as political artwork to sky-rocketing mortgage costs to the loss of the walking lifestyle in the Northern Irish countryside. On the legacy of conflict and prospects for ongoing peace, Des took the participants by surprise with his pessimism. Many see Northern Ireland as a beacon of hope for societies in conflict. The formation of a power-sharing government, and its survival for nearly a decade, is a benchmark for many in the field of conflict resolution. According to Des, conflict is inevitable in Northern Ireland. He believes strongly that the tensions between Catholics and Protestants persist despite what he acknowledges was a meaningful change of course when the Good Friday Peace Agreement passed. “It may be ten years, one hundred years, or three hundred and fifty years down, but there will be conflict again,” he adamantly predicted.
Admittedly, I held my breath as Des divulged his perspective. However, the participants engaged him, questioning and exploring the issues he highlighted. Taken aback, but breathing fairly regularly, I listened intently. Are there differences of opinion among age groups? “No,” Des stated. Has there been greater integration? “No, all of these communities remain segregated,” he explained as he pointed out that we had just passed from a Catholic area to a Protestant one. What has changed? “There has been change,” Des admitted. What are the opportunities for change? Des finally turned a corner. “Working with parents, teaching them to care for their children respectfully so that the children grow up respecting adults and others who differ from them.” My impression was that Des firmly believed that parents hold the power to mold a peaceful generation, he just had not yet gained confidence that parents were adequately focused and equipped to accomplish this feat.
Leaving the bus, I was struck by the participants’ sound observations about Des’ opinions. One participant noted, “This is the common perspective of the older generation.” Another participant expressed that individuals with difficult, nuanced opinions are the most critical to understand, and ultimately to reach, if genuine progress is to be made in divided societies. And then I exhaled, knowing that the participants’ wisdom and skills would undoubtedly further the meaning and purpose of the program that had only just begun. To think this was merely the first lesson of a five day intensive program, and it emerged within the first few hours. So I took a deep breath, held it in, and enjoyed my own excitement for the upcoming week and the lessons still yet to come.