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Billy King


Nonviolence News



These are regular editorials produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent News.

Issue 158: March 2008

Return to related issue of Nonviolent News

The iNNterview:  Brendan McAllister

Nonviolent News has not previously had interviews before but we decided to add the occasional one to the mix.  Here Brendan McAllister, outgoing director of Mediation Northern Ireland (MNI), is interviewed by Rob Fairmichael -

Mediation - from margins to mainstream

Rob - You got involved in political activities in the 'seventies and the peace scene in a major way in the 1980s.  Why, and can you say something about those early days?

Brendan - I think my interest in peace always felt vocational, as a practising Catholic it felt spiritual, a spiritual imperative living in a society being wrecked by violence. So I felt a moral obligation and a spiritual pull to the field. When I got uncomfortable in party politics because of the partisan nature of its approach to peace, I was invited to get involved with Pax Christi, the Catholic peace movement, around about 1982, and I felt more at home getting involved with people working for peace in Northern Ireland but in a way that was cross-community.

Rob -You've also been involved in Corrymeela.

Brendan - Yes, I started to get involved with Corrymeela as a probation officer around about 1980-81. Elizabeth, my wife, and I had a chance to go there with prisoners' families and I was very touched by that experience because, in the early phases of my career as a probation officer, I was used to visiting the wives and families of prisoners and offenders but to actually go away to live with them was a totally different experience, a very satisfying one and an insightful one. That is what introduced me to Corrymeela. What I find interesting there is my involvement in Corrymeela came professionally, through social work, not through the peace scene.  But obviously when there with the Corrymeelians I got to start talking peace with them.

Rob - Is that a recognised adjective - 'Corrymeelians'?

Brendan - It is one Roel Kaptein used to use, he was Dutch and he got away with it.  I didn't actually join them until 1988 and the reason I joined then was my father died.  I was very close to him, we all were in my family, and it led me into a period of introspection about what I was doing with my life.  One of the things I noticed was my involvement with Pax Christi took me off to Dublin, leaving Elizabeth with small children, that kind of thing, I might as well have still been in politics. Getting involved in Corrymeela was something Elizabeth could identify with and we could do as a couple and as a family.

.Rob - You started work with what is now MNI in 1992. Mediation has moved from the margins to the mainstream in this time, both locally and further afield.  What comments would you have on that journey?

Brendan - I think that was the task, that was the strategy.

Rob - The strategy was to move to the mainstream?

Brendan - Part of the expectation would have been to mainstream mediative activity. My task, and our agency's ongoing mission, is to help develop the appetite for mediation, and the belief in it in our culture and help develop a field of practitioners to satisfy that need. That has been the long term task, and obviously still is. Implicit in that is the idea of mainstreaming an approach to conflict that sees the involvement of third party assistance as what people normally do.

Rob - How successful do you think that journeying has been by MNI and other agencies and individuals in the field?

Brendan - I think we're only at the start of it.  I would look at it in two ways. Our work became very defined by the Troubles but I have to say that is why I came into it.  There were people who were behind the development of Mediation Northern Ireland, of the mediation movement, not all of them were interested in peace as such, not all of them were particularly energised by the Troubles. There were people from a wide variety of fields and they came together in an association, the Northern Ireland Conflict and Mediation Association, because they found common cause in the potential of mediation for their respective causes. I think now we are coming out of the Troubles we in a sense come back to the future, back to the new challenge of developing mediation in normality as opposed to in abnormality.

Rob - Most of MNI's 'political' work in NI was no-publicity work, but involvement in the Drumcree dispute was part of a higher profile involvement.  Do you regret involvement with this once it became, in Ian Paisley's words, 'not just a battle for Drumcree but a battle for Ulster'?

Brendan - No, not at all, because that is how I understood it, at the time. For me the parades conflict, within which there were many parades disputes, was one of those issues that took society to the heart of the division here, occurring during the 1990s at a time of political negotiation when the future shape and nature of this society was up for grabs, and a great uncertainty hung over everyone about what kind of political agreement was going to be negotiated, and whether it would be good for one side or the other.

So I think in the parades conflict the people from the broad unionist tradition were asking the question 'Is the narrow ground of Ulster getting narrower? Is this place still identifiably British?' and the parades issue became a way of expressing that.  And for many people in the broad nationalist tradition the question was 'Is this place now a place of equality?'  So there were two fundamental questions being asked which energised both traditions in large numbers. It was one of the times when the conflict was delegated less to small numbers and large numbers were getting involved - that of course made it very dangerous.  And for an agency like ours, to have a chance to be at the centre of that was a tremendous opportunity for us as practitioners. It brought resources to the agency, it put mediation into the public mind.  I think there are downsides to it but I think we gained, and the mediation movement gained,  far more from it than we lost.

Rob - MNI chose not to get involved in work with children and young people, in general.  Was this just a pragmatic decision based on resources?

Brendan.  Yes, entirely.  There were people involved in founding the organisation whose interest was in the potential contribution to work with families. We decided in the end we just couldn't do all these things. I believe that family work, and work with children, is fundamental to peacebuilding and I regret not being able to do it, I don't regret that we decided not to, we simply couldn't do everything.

Rob - Personally I would feel that in terms of the educational system, it is failing in a divided society if young people are not leaving school with a knowledge of conflict and how to deal with conflict constructively.

Brendan - I wouldn't have such a challenging negative critique of the education system because I am more conscious of what people are achieving in it, I have to say. Maybe that's me being more of a diplomat than you.  I do believe my own involvement in the mediation field has challenged the campaigner in me to be silent, and the conciliator in me to be more to the fore. I sometimes have indulged the notion that maybe there will come a day when I can stand with a placard again and shout about what some countries are doing in parts of the world. But I remember deciding that we couldn't campaign, that it was repugnant to the mediator's persona in society that we should take a position on anything.  Therefore that attitude influences one's approach to hard issues like what is the education system doing for producing future citizens.  But I agree that it is a huge requirement, and imperative for the education system, getting into peace education for civic formation.

Rob - Going back to what you have done in MNI, once you were involved in sensitive 'political' work, MNI tended to shun publicity. However I would have been personally critical of MNI's failure, particularly as the leading and largest agency in the field, to effectively communicate to others what it has been doing. Can you comment?

Brendan - I accept the criticism.  We haven't done everything right, we haven't done enough right things. You're clearly aware, as someone 'in the family', as to why we wanted to go a bit below the radar and stop promoting awareness of our work because we didn't want to draw attention to it. Because of the sensitivity around some of the work we were doing, particularly on policing, and at times on parades, and occasional facilitation of political discussion, we got used to being private, I wouldn't say secretive, we got out of the way of looking after a mission to explain. Although part of that was also a certain inhibition that I felt we were still figuring out what mediation means. I was always wary of having to deconstruct a profile of mediation that we might no longer believe in.

I have always felt in my time here, fifteen and a half years might sound long to some people but it's not that long in the story of a movement, I have always felt we have been in the early years right up to now. Although our work has matured in a lot of ways it is still early on.  I think that that criticism, i.e. the criticism that we might fail to promote awareness and be more open with people, would be a fitting criticism in the next ten years, rather than the ones we have just come through.

Rob - MNI is now involved in a wide range of mediation and good relations work. Work place and business mediation seems to be one of the growth areas and I have heard some remarkable stories of reconciliation achieved - can you say something about that whole area and its development and potential?

Brendan - For me it's very satisfying to see it emerging and I do leave with a sense of loss in that I'm not getting to stay around to see some things come of age.  I think that business mediation is very important in two ways.  The first is, we need to pay attention to business and commerce in a way that perhaps the peace and social change tradition has not really addressed. We have tended to see business people as over there somewhere and haven't involved them enough in the task of building peace. I think that peaceful workplaces and businesses, within which there are right relationships, where people treat each other properly, are fundamentally influential to our civic integrity. So they are a right place for us to go when our attention turns to sustaining peace.

Rob - You are talking about right relationships in every aspect of an enterprise and not being a tool of the bosses -

Brendan - That's right though you're starting a big conversation. I have been conscious of more resistance to mediation from the trade union side because I think the trade union side mistrusts it; I think they view it potentially as a way of maintaining inequality. Of course that has been one of the traditional critiques of mediation, in the States as well as here, that while it might settle conflicts it still doesn't address inequality and justice issues.  I don't accept that because I believe right relationships are fundamental to justice. In a right relationship, people treat each other properly.

The other thing I would say about business, of course, is that the mediation movement has to become more sustainable and working in business enables us to create a stream of income that will become an important source of finance for those areas of work that will never pay for themselves.

Rob - One of the models MNI has worked with is taking people from the tiered triangle of work and life structures and putting people together in a different shape, a circle or forum, to get to know each other, discuss issues of importance, and be better able to move things forward. I have seen this work locally in my involvement with MNI. Has this been MNI's greatest contribution to good relations in Northern Ireland?

Brendan - I don't know the answer to that.

Rob - There have been various forums in geographical areas where this has been used as a model.

Brendan - When the Dalai Lama came two years ago, I remember at one point thinking, as I watched him over a couple of days, I noticed how he energised people, he released energy in people. I thought to myself - when we work well, that's what we do, we mediators, when we come in to a situation and release energy. Sometimes it is as simple as that. It's not as if we are going to come in with tablets of stone with great new ideas, what we do is a simple thing, where people are blocked in their relationship, or in their heads, we unblock it.

Rob - A drain clearance service!

Brendan - Sometimes maybe, there is a lot of old drudge out there.  All I am saying is, the circle and triangle, what it really refers to is the idea that people live in hierarchical worlds, in organisations and in social structures, and they live in sectoral worlds, they become fragmented. So sometimes what we try to do is join people up to each other by bringing them into a circle of communication where the human being is noticed in each other and not just the issues. And where human interaction happens, where people engage and meet each other at a deeper level, then respect gets renewed. And people draw energy from that and get excited by it and new ideas emerge.

Rob - Why did MNI get involved in work in England?

Brendan - Initially I didn't want to. I was asked over to speak at a seminar in Whitehall and they brought a fairly influential group of local government chief executives together in London to hear ideas about how to promote community cohesion. I was asked to talk about the potential of mediation and I initially said - this isn't our field and referred them to Mediation UK. But the Whitehall person said - no, mediators in England tend to work on micro disputes, there is nobody working on macro, large societal issues. And we were used to that here because that is where we chose to start, which was controversial here of course.

And then we got invited to be involved in the north-west of England, in Oldham.  I quickly saw it as an opportunity for us to learn important things about race, about ethnic conflict, that we couldn't here, with a view to the future. So why we got involved in England - No. 1 we were asked to, No. 2 it was clearly going to be a great learning experience for us and has been, and No. 3 it was a good income stream.

Rob - And the outcomes of the work in England?

Brendan - It has met all of our hopes and aspirations. The work is growing. What is interesting to note about the development of our work in England is it falls into two broad areas, one is what I call Social Cohesion.  Again here we see the requirement for us to talk about our work, to conceptualise it, in non-peacebuilding terms because this wasn't a society that saw itself at war. I have at times said to people that the difference between England and Northern Ireland is that we are seen as a divided society, we can't really argue with that, we want to stop that of course but that's where we are coming from, whereas England is a society with division.  You couldn't yet say to English people - yours is a divided society - that would be putting it too strongly. But it is a society with division that can learn something from practitioners from a divided society, I think that's clear. Social Cohesion work is trying to promote social partnership between different sectors of society, this is one area.  And the other area, which is a new area that is growing, is around gangs, guns and knives, which is justice work and work that involves policing, and that is work which we are developing in England with a view to its longer term potential for here.

Rob - Funding as we have known it in the Troubles and its aftermath will soon be disappearing, or in some cases has already. Are you glad not to have to grapple with the funding problem for mediation?

Brendan - Yes and no.  No in that, I was interested in the challenge of trying to become more of a businessman in the field, that we would have to become more entrepreneurial than we have been.

Rob - You might have to start wearing a suit and a tie!

Brendan - I think we have been wearing the suits and the ties for a while, that is another thing about our style of work, we were trying to mainstream and get into the corridors.  We have been doing that but, I think that's a new challenge.  On the other hand, yes, I am relieved, not to have to carry worry about funding jobs and our agency, I have to admit that's a burden that I feel is lifting off me. But having said that, I'm going into a role where I am going to be working with groups who do have that worry. I would like to think that because I am not that far away from it I will have some sensitivity for what the groups are struggling with.

Rob - We'll talk about your new role in a minute. But before you 'go' from MNI, what is the secret of the universe?

Brendan - John Lederach once gave me a little cartoon and it showed two people. One was a wee man with a dark suit and a preacher's hat on him and he was sitting with a book which was clearly the good book, the bible.  One says to the other - "Preacher, tell me something profound."  And in the next frame the wee man is saying, "Life is short and so am I."  And in the next frame "First you're born, and then you die."!  John Lederach gave that to me and I stuck it on the wall, and I wish I hadn't lost it, because the secret of the universe is not to take life too seriously, to realise we are only around for a short time, and we can only make a small contribution, and we don't have to achieve everything, and not to lose our capacity for joy.  Having said that, while I might think I now know that secret, doesn't mean that it makes any difference to how I live my life....

Rob - What would your wife say?!

Brendan - Exactly!

Rob - You're moving on to another challenging role, as one of four victims commissioners in Northern Ireland. Will there be a direct link or connection between the work done by this office and the outcome of the Dealing with the Past Consultative Group?

Brendan - We're due to meet the Consultative Group on the Past.  Of course I don't take up my new role until 1st May although I'm doing bits and pieces. I'm serving my notice with MNI currently. There is a clear link between the needs of victims and survivors and the need to deal with the past.  Of course dealing with the past is wider than victims and survivors but my own view is that our approach to the past should be victim-survivor focused. The past and the future are areas we will be thinking about, building the future as well.

Rob - How do you mean 'victim-survivor focused' there?

Brendan - I think an awful lot of a growing young adult generation here now, the twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings, don't carry the same burdens about the past as those of us who are aged forty and onwards, because they haven't lived with the vivid experience of it as adults. I think also among those who have there is a desire now to move on, an awful lot of ordinary people are sick of the Troubles, and sick of issues that bring it up, and aren't particularly in the humour for getting into heavy discussions and reflections on what has happened, and the tragedy of it all that we have lived through. 

However, a lot of the people who feel the need to do exactly that are those carrying the worst wounds.  Not all victims and survivors feel like this, of course, a lot of them feel - no, I'm dealing with it in my own way, I want to move on - but an awful lot more do.  The danger would be if we see the past as something that is for victims to think about, or if we approach what has happened in ways that seek sectional or partisan advantage.  If we approach the past with victims and survivors very much in our minds, we will deal with it more sensitively and appreciate that what we are talking about is human tragedy. If we keep the victims and survivors in our minds we will deal with it all more sensitively.  The challenge is to help the victims and survivors to keep up with everybody else who is looking forward but to challenge everybody who is looking forward to be sensitive the past and those who are carrying the deepest wounds from it.

Rob - What do you see as the most urgent task or tasks for the victims commissioners and what can the person in the street, and civil society groups, contribute in this area?

Brendan - I think the most urgent thing we have to do is agree a programme among the four of us. That requires consensus and that requires effort. We each are approaching the role with our own ideas. We haven't had a lot of time yet, in fairness to my colleagues I'm not there yet, I'm only half a day a week, and yet there is huge public hype and expectation on what we'll do.  Also of course there is the imminent report from the Consultative Group on the Past.  I do believe that the victims issue and dealing with the past will be the equivalent of the parades issue, the way the parades issue was the big issue of the 'nineties, dealing with the past/victims-survivors issues will be the defining factor in how our traditions relate to each other, how our people work together, for the next few years. Then that too will pass.  So I think there is a pressure on us, and an urgency, to get a work programme together and one that is based on consultation with the relevant constituencies, and all that is going to be quite a job to get done in an efficient way.

Rob - And what can the person on the street and civil society groups contribute?

Brendan - I don't have a ready made answer except to say, my hope is that each citizen will feel some sense of responsibility for making sure we learn the important lessons from the past, and infuse them into what will be a wiser society, moving on. We are in many ways civically impoverished by our experience of the Troubles but potentially humanly enriched.  I think because we have had a vivid experience of living in a conflicted society, with our population the size of a British city, like Birmingham or Glasgow, our economy the size of Leeds, this is a small place that has come through something vivid. 

It would be better, of course, if we hadn't come through it but given that we have, I think there is a duty on us now to make sure that future generations in this particular society benefit from the misery.  We will do that by being awake and having a critical awareness of where we have come from, and not escaping into evenings spent watching the Champions' League or Coronation Street, which is fine to do as well. That is one of our achievements through the Troubles that so many people stayed normal, but up ahead for every citizen, it's to feel that sense of moral obligation I think is what I would like to promote.

Rob - Thank you and I would like to wish you well on your journeying.

Mediation Northern Ireland (MNI) is based at 83 University Street, Belfast BT7 1HP, ph 028 - 9043 8614, e-mail  and web

Rob Fairmichael, who conducted the interview in early March 2008, is an Associate of Mediation Northern Ireland in a personal capacity.

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