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Nonviolence News February 2017

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Editorials: Northern Ireland political swamp, Holding the nerve

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Readings in Nonviolence: Refugee stories by Máiréad Collins

Billy King: Rites Again





Nonviolence: An Introduction
2. Nonviolence and third party intervention

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Nonviolence is partisan. It takes stands. But nonviolence provides the option that the appropriate place to be is in the middle - fostering communication and understanding, helping avoid violence or find ways out of it when it has begun. This short piece is about 'nonviolence in the middle'. This itself can be difficult given the derogatory slogans that "Bridges go over to the other side" and "People in the middle of the road get run over"; both these phrases have been used in Northern Ireland and indicate that anybody who has anything to do with 'the enemy' is suspect, probably on the side of 'the enemy', and likely to be destroyed as a result. You can even end up being attacked by both sides so don't imagine being in the middle is easy! And being a partisan activist is usually much 'sexier' than the difficult, shifting sands of not only being in the middle but trying to build something from there.

Third party intervention can include, among other possibilities:

'Facilitation' became a jargon word some years ago; chairpersons often became 'facilitators'. But the term can be useful if we understand that there are skills attached to helping people talk, debate, and decide on issues that concern them. This obviously includes meeting facilitation - and just as there are many different kinds of meetings for different purposes, so there is a need for different kinds of meeting facilitation. Ensuring democratic participation and enabling a particular meeting to travel in the direction people want is not always easy!

Facilitation, making things happen, can also be thought of as a longer term process beyond merely meeting facilitation. Behind the scenes work in this area can include education, training, helping people experience and practise group skills, exploring imaginative and exciting ways of doing things, helping people cross barriers of all kinds, introducing and exploring consensus methods for making decisions, exploring the use of drama of various kinds, etc. 'Consensus' itself is open to many different approaches but even if decision making falls short of a group's definition of full consensus, the aim of reaching consensus can be important in helping a constructive process, and equitable compromises. It is important not to spend all our time navel-gazing; it is also important to spend the time we need to work out where we, as groups and organisations, are and wish to be.

The facilitation of contact across divides is a task which will continue to be needed everywhere. There are obvious situations where this is relevant including Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and natives and immigrants in Ireland as a whole. But there can be other examples, other divides, even though in some cases what is needed is work to transform reality so that divides cease to exist (with rich and poor, for example).

A group which involves everyone, and where everyone feels they have had a hand in policy making, is likely to be much stronger than one where decisions are pushed through by a clique or elite without active participation by others. The latter is a recipe for splits, dropping out, and wasting enormous amounts of time and energy on internal power struggles. Who can say that they haven't been involved in groups where such time and energy has been wasted? Effective group work and facilitation is an essential part of any nonviolent campaigning.

Mediation is an idea whose time is coming. Hopefully in a number of years time, as a matter of course, children will learn in school how to resolve conflicts through mediation; this is the active participation of a third party in helping those in conflict to deal creatively with their disagreements. There are many different kinds of mediation - it can be face-to-face, structured or unstructured, it can be 'shuttle diplomacy' (the mediator going backwards and forwards between the parties), it can be relaxed and ongoing or tense and intensive, it can be short, medium or long term.

Central to mediation is the building up of relationship and understanding. The fears and hopes of each side have to be understood by each if there is to be success. And the mediator has to cope not only with the two - or more - sides in a dispute but with the role of mediation as well. For a particular party to become involved in a mediation process is a voluntary decision, it is not something someone can 'make' you do (although other parties can put pressure on you to be involved); and all along it remains a voluntary process. This contrasts with some kinds of 'arbitration' where a higher power may be able to push you into the process and enforce the decision which is made.

The ideal situation is where a commitment is made to resolve the conflict concerned, and people enter into a positive relationship as opposed to the previous negative one, and then imaginative solutions can be generated. Coming out with solutions too early merely adds further fuel to the fire and weapons to the battle. But even where some mistrust remains a skilled mediator can attempt to build communication and confidence so a stage is reached where real negotiation is possible, sooner or later.

So mediation is a skilled activity. But while we can learn more about it, and learn about different approaches, exploring which is best, most societies have people who are 'natural' mediators, who do it as part of what they are. Tribal chiefs in some societies fulfil a mediating role without ever learning western jargon. Indeed modern western 'classical' mediation models are built on 'traditional' society models. There is no one road to universal mediation. What works - in building relationships, trust and solutions - is what is best. The 'classical' models of mediation (bringing the parties together and going through various stages including introductions, story telling, framing issues, problem solving) may be possible in some situations. But it is more likely that you'll have to do it improvising as you go, using 'shuttle diplomacy' some of the time with occasions where you can bring the parties together.

Observing / Monitoring
'Observing' or monitoring is another idea whose time has started to arrive, whether in Northern Ireland, South Africa during the tranition from apartehid, or elsewhere. Again, there are a number of different possible models. The classical 'legal' model would be to be present to report on what happened, perhaps observing particular parties in the situation (e.g. the police and army, and/or demonstrators, and/or bystanders and local people). The primary aim would be to be able to make judgements as direct witnesses of what happened and how it happened rather than taking it second-hand through the media (election-monitoring would fit this category). Comments and suggestions might then be passed on to the responsible authorities. A subsidiary aim might be to help avoid trouble by being present as 'independent' witnesses. This model would have been used by the CAJ (Committee on the Administration of Justice) in Northern Ireland.

Another model of observing is where there is an active commitment to be seen and to try to contribute to a situation where violence will be avoided on the streets and where communication between sides becomes more possible. The presence of 'neutral', interested parties who have made a commitment to be there is usually appreciated by local people and means that all sides (which can include locals, demonstrators or marchers, and police or army) are all on their best behaviour.

The model which INNATE, the nonviolence network, was involved in developing in Northern Ireland fits in to the latter category and has been labelled as that of a 'mediator-observer'. That is, someone who acts as an observer but who will intervene between different parties where there is the risk of violence erupting, and who will take a pro-active stance in dealing with issues which may lead to violence (e.g. drawing to a particular party's attention behaviour or a stand which may antagonise other people). There is also the possibility here of moving from crisis intervention to longer term mediation. There are also other models of being present with people in a supportive role, such as those used by Peace Brigades International in Latin America, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, or the Balkan Peace Team. Some of this may entail physically shielding an endangered person by being with them.

Piggy in the Middle
Nonviolence can be partisan in the sense of taking sides. There are people who prefer not to 'take sides' in coming down on one established side or the other in a situation; they have the opportunity to make a big contribution. Who can say that they have never needed someone to intervene on their behalf or to help open up a relationship that has gone sour? Third part intervention isn't the same thing as the advocacy of a particular point of view (as with someone taking a friend's side in a dispute) but it can include helping one side which is less powerful in a dispute to put its case. This last situation is a difficult one; but if one side is powerless it may need to be built up before any meaningful negotiation takes place.

Of course there can be difficulties in being in the middle. Our stand on other issues may make us unacceptable to one side or another. Our handling of the issues may make one side feel we are more on the side of the others. It's difficult work. But not getting run over can be exciting and rewarding! Why play computer games of skill and survival when you can do the real thing!

A Personal Exercise
Where do you stand and where do you like to be? What follows is an interesting personal exercise (it can be done in a group) to look at your 'political' involvements and where they fit on a 'Partisan/Neutral' axis one way, and a 'Moral/Tactical' axis the other. In this context the most important axis is the 'Partisan/Neutral' one. 'Partisan' simply means taking a particular side in a conflict; being 'neutral' is taking a position but may mean avoiding coming down on a particular, established side; and 'not taking' a position on a question is a position in itself! A 'moral' basis is because of a deep-seated moral or religious belief; 'tactical' implies you choose it because it works or for other pragmatic reasons.

First of all, make a list of the political/voluntary/change activities you are involved in or have been involved in - this doesn't need to be an exhaustive list and can include categories ('green campaiging') as well as specific tasks or actions ('picketing'). You can, if you like, also think of other activities which other people are engaged in. Then try to fill these in on a chart. On a piece of paper, draw a cross ( + ) dividing the page into four quarters; on the horizontal axis place 'Partisan' on the left and 'Neutral' on the right, and on the vertical axis place 'Tactical' on the upper and 'Moral' on the lower. Some actions or involvements may fit in more than one place! The further from the centre you get on the hoizontal axis the more 'partisan' or 'neutral' an action or involvement is, likewise with 'moral' and 'tactical'. You may find one action or involvement fits more than one place. [A laid out sheet for using with groups is available from INNATE, for photocopying if you are going to do this with a group]

When you've filled it in, look where you find yourself. You may find yourself located in mainly one place, or in different places. What does this say about where you are, where you like to be involved and what you might get involved in in the future? If you find yourself in different positions, are there tensions involved for you? Are there other places you would like to be on this chart? And, if you're looking at other people's actions, where do you particularly identify with? We hope that doing this exercise may help you to choose where you can best get involved. Do it by yourself first if you want to use it with a group; and in this case let people share what they want to share once they have had time to fill in their sheets, and see where the discussion goes.

Questions for personal reflection or group discussion:

  1. Do I really want to be 'stuck in the middle' rather than involved on one side on particular issues?
  2. Do I have the temperament and empathy necessary to work from the middle?
  3. List both the opportunities and difficulties (in two separate columns) of working from the middle. What do these say to me about where I want to be on particular issues?

]Read on to the next chapter]

Copyright INNATE 2006