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Billy King


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Readings in Nonviolence

Readings in Nonviolence' features extracts from our favourite books, pamphlets, articles or other material on nonviolence and related areas, or reviews of important works in the field (suggestions and contributions welcome)

Quaker longer term mediation experiences

The Quakers, officially known as the Religious Society of Friends, are a small group of a couple of thousand in Ireland, but have a good name largely arising from their generous and impartial contribution to famine relief at the time of An Gorta Mór (The Great Hunger) in 1846. They have also had a reputation for fair dealing. But the Quaker Peace Testimony (for which see here) a key part of their identity, has led to involvements in many situations where others may have been reluctant to be involved.

Sue and Steve Williams, who were the representatives at Quaker House in Belfast from 1987 – 1991, subsequently wrote a well researched book about “Quaker experiences of non-official political mediation”. This was a detailed reflection on generally long term involvement in conflict situations. While there are some particularities to the Quaker end of it – the Quaker name providing some entries that others might not have – the reflections relate to any mediative interventions in longer term conflicts.

What follows is a review of this book, reproduced here, slightly edited, from “Media-tion” No.4, a publication of Mediation Northern Ireland (MNI), March 2009.

About Quaker involvement in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, the book “Coming from the Silence: Quaker Peacebuilding Initiatives in Northern ireland 1969-2007”, edited by Ann Le Mare and Felicity McCartney, should still be readily available. It was first published by Williams Sessions Ltd in 2009 and subsequently in 2011 by Quaker Service in Northern Ireland. This includes the work of Quaker House where Sue and Steve Williams served for a period.

“Being in the middle by being at the edge – Quaker experience of non-official political mediation” by Sue and Steve Williams, 1994, ISBN 1 85072 139 4, 133 pages. [You should be able to pick up a second hand copy fairly easily online.]

Reviewed by Rob Fairmichael (2009)

It would be a mistake for those who are not Quakers to be put off by the title. I have a great-great-great-grandmother who was a Quaker but I’m not, though sometimes people make the assumption that being involved in the peace and nonviolence scene as I am that I must be a Friend…
It would also be a mistake for people to be put off by the ‘nonofficial political mediation’ bit because it is really an excellent guide to mediation from a relationship-building approach, and you can extrapolate what is said to more basic levels and conflicts.

All right, it won’t fit all manner of mediation scenarios but then what will? It is also instructive to read this book and apply it retrospectively to the Troubles here. Sue and Steve Williams worked at Quaker House in Belfast from 1987 – 1991 and did the research that led to this book following that stint, and subsequently lived in Norn Iron for some years. Tragically Steve died suddenly at the end of 2007 – a loss not only to his family and friends but to the wider peacemaking community. Sue is now in the USA [and at the time of writing this review in 2009 was director of the Eastern Mennonite University’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute].

This book takes as its context primarily the society-wide divisions that Quakers have been involved with in mediating and building relationships in different parts of the world. But what is written applies to any relationship-building approach to conflict and takes us through it in easy stages; Quaker principles (which should be on interest to those who are not members of the Religious Society of Friends), establishing credibility, being in the middle and questions of neutrality and impartiality, relationship and trust building, bringing sides together, and when to say ‘no’ (“I would not be party to an agreement which was unjust, or which resolved one conflict by doing harm to another party who was not present…” – Sue Williams, page 52). It then goes on to look at aspects of being a mediator, dealing with failure, confidentiality and truth and motives for working in the field. It includes definitions and references.

Anyway, to give you a flavour of what’s in the book I’ll quote some snippets – “In a wonderful, brief summary of a complex dilemma, Khalil Mahsi, headmaster of Friends School, Ramallah, said: ‘Remaining in the middle means being at the edge interms of what you believe in.’ The decision to stay in the middle, as mediators do, is not to stay on the fence. On the contrary, it means a constant testing of one’s own beliefs and actions, and the awareness of occupying a very marginal position at the fringe of a society in conflict.” (page 14)

“’But how can you talk with those mindless murderers?’ This is a question that mediators are often asked, in one form or another. It comes sometimes from opponents, who believe that the other side is inhuman, that talking with them will be futile but will give them credibility. In this case, it is important to refer again to the mediation process, and the eventual necessity of talking to, and also listening to, the other side in order to stop the killing. It will not be easy, but it will be necessary. The mediator will try to ease the process….” (page 17)

“The politicians are always aware of the possibilities for things to go wrong. They seem, as a group, more naturally cautious than optimistic. Perhaps Quakers, who come with a seemingly endless source of idealism and optimism, act as a foil, and appeal to something hidden in the politicians. But both groups recognise that politicians are at much greater risk than mediators, have to contend with more factors, and pay a higher price for a failed initiative….” (page 33)

“Mediators learn to accept the need for small increments of change, and they sustain their commitment to relationships, even when groups or individuals within them appear to have done terrible things. If initiatives fail, the mediator may be disowned; if they succeed, the mediator will not expect public credit, and will feel successful if she is no longer needed as a channel. The relationship is based on this understanding, and she will remain committed to it through any of these possibilities. And the mediator is also likely to be changed by the relationships: to put oneself in the middle is to open oneself to the possibility of transformation.” (page 40)

“Mediators need to be willing to listen empathetically to all sides, maintaining a tolerance for ambiguity in the relationships that they form….The process requires that one hold different, even contradictory, hypotheses at the same time……A quality that is related to the tolerance for ambiguity is the ability to become transparent in a relationship. This probably goes hand-in-hand with a strong ego that does not require the satisfaction of being seen as an important person in the relationship….” (page 59)

“The person in the middle is expected to behave fairly, as a minimal requirement. But mediators expect much more of themselves: to be able to understand each group’s position, to sympathise with each individual’s experience, to see how people have ended up where they are, and to glimpse intuitively where they hope to go in the best and most idealistic parts of themselves. This profound feeling of caring about all sides will then manifest itself in behaviour which is impartial, empowering, and self-effacing. The mediators will convey views and set up channels between the sides, and then get out of the way. And all of this is done by supremely ordinary, imperfect human beings, working with other imperfect (though perhaps less ordinary) human beings.” (page 63)

“Sometimes the mediator may become the scapegoat for a failed initiative, but this failure pushes one or more of the parties to try something else that proves to be more successful….A willingness to try and fail in the short-term may lead to a larger success in the long-term.” (page 87)
“..Confidentiality is a limiting of what can be revealed about meetings. In its most extreme form, it constrains parties not to say anything. But, generally, mediation is a process of communication…” (page 88)

In a section entitled “Queries” (a Quaker form of aided reflection), it warns of mediative parties to conflicts coming with hidden agendas and asks:

“1. Why do you feel led or called to undertake a mediating role in this particular conflict situation?
2. What has been your previous involvement or interest in this situation? Do you foresee any conflict of interest?
3. What benefits or rewards do you hope to gain from this activity, including spiritual, psychological, professional or material rewards?” (page 101)

“Quaker mediators have not generally been responsible for the final solution of a conflict. Their role has been to offer the hope that something other than military victory and the subjugation of losers by winners may be possible. There is a search for alternative solutions, as well as the use of an alternative process: mediation itself. One Quaker mediator says that ‘what we are trying is to find something creative – getting over a problem that each one is stating.’ The parties involved may see this problem as irreconcilable, because they state it in terms that are mutually exclusive. With the help of mediation, they are sometimes able to restate the problem and identify their needs in such a way that an alternative can be identified that would meet at least the most vital needs of all sides.” (pages 109-110)

“Unofficial mediators know that all they can do is offer possibilities. It is for someone else to decide whether and in what form to take up these possibilities. And so the process comes full circle. We began by saying that the mediator stays in the middle by being always at the edge. In this sense as well, the mediator maintains a useful role in the middle, by being willing to be left outside the inner circle. Having moved to the middle in order to build relationships, processes, and connections, the mediator then moves willingly to the edge, to allow participants to come together.” (page 114)

[The cover of the book can be seen here. ]

Copyright INNATE 2019