Peace history: piecing it together
The concept of ‘peace journalism’ is now quite well established; this has an orientation towards avoiding stereotypes, sharing different perspectives, being critical of all sides as appropriate, analysing power relationships, working not to make situations worse, and exploring positive possibilities. But what is ‘peace history’? This editorial will try to explore some aspects of what ‘peace history’ should be in the Irish context although most of this is directly transferable to other situations.
‘Peace history’, while similar in some ways to ‘peace journalism’, has its own story and as a concept can perhaps be seen to have emerged in the period between the two 20th century World Wars. It has included analysis of citizen campaigning, women’s movements, and other aspects of life beyond the old and outdated concept and cliches of history as the story of wars and rulers. To a considerable extent it can be said that the norms of historical research have changed to include much more the stories of citizens, civilians and civil society movements.
In simple terms, perhaps the coverage of peace history could be divided into three parts. The first is simply the story of people working for peace for whom this is the primary commitment – avowedly peace groups and activists. The second would be those who work for peace as part of a broader commitment in politics and civic life (think John Hume in Northern Ireland, for example). These first two groups ‘run into each other’ and overlap. The third part, and this is somewhat different, would be analysis from a peace perspective of what others are doing, and this would be, naturally, rather more critical. It is not that peace history should be uncritical of those who explicitly declared themselves working for peace (John Hume supported Raytheon coming to Derry) but that they are more likely to be in accord with peaceful ideals than those who called for, or fomented, war and violence or were simply unconcerned.
Peace history is not explicitly ‘dealing with the past’ – although some aspects of it can be so. Dealing with the past is about processing, in multiple ways, the violence, death and injustice which has been perpetrated. ‘Dealing with the past’ can be a collective process but it is concerned with what has been done to individuals as well as groups. It can include formal or informal truth recovery as well as judicial processes to decide on guilt and innocence and also reparations and other means of helping people move on.
Peace history is about understanding who did what to try to avoid violence and move towards peace and reconciliation, the positive contributions that were made by diverse people to make a peaceful settlement possible. On the negative side it is also about understanding what factors exacerbated situations, leading to further violence and bloodshed, or further injustice.
INNATE has an online, downloadable, poster worded “The past is not water under the bridge. It is water filling a reservoir’. (see under ’Dealing with the past’ at https://innatenonviolence.org/wp/posters/ ). This is primarily about dealing with the past. The past is very much present in violent or conflicted situations, and an understanding of the past is crucial to being able to move forward. But that quote can also be understood in a positive way; we may or may not stand on the shoulders of giants but we walk in the footsteps of those who have gone before us.
Much of the work on the ‘Decade of Centenaries’ in Ireland (2012+), a decade now drawing to a close, could be said to fit the ‘peace history’ model. Attempts to understand and fairly portray all sides, and inclusive coverage of all victims no matter who they were in terms of class, gender or religion, and what side they supported, is a very close fit.
But there are, even more pertinently, conflicted narratives about the relatively recent Troubles in Northern Ireland.
INNATE has a – not very successful – ‘Civil society and the Troubles’ project to record the initiatives which peace groups and civil society in all its guises undertook to deal with Troubles issues. Emily Stanton’s summary of Belfast peacebuilding history in the Troubles in the shape of a tour https://www.flickr.com/photos/innateireland/43899692560/in/album-72157676326740807/ is an important example of showing what was being done by a wide variety of civil society actors, not just those who had an explicit peace label.
Some of the contents of INNATE’s Flickr photo site https://www.flickr.com/photos/innateireland is also part of this story. All of this provides a counter to pro-paramilitary and pro-state narratives on the North. Violence did not need to happen. It did happen. Why did it happen? What would need to have taken place for violence not to have developed? How can we never arrive to be in the same position again?
More generally on the island of Ireland we are approaching – within a few years – the bicentenary of the foundation of the Hibernian Peace Society in 1824, arguably the first focused body on international peace in Ireland. It is well covered in Richard Harrison’s (out of print) 1986 book “Irish Anti-War Movements 1824-1974” https://www.flickr.com/photos/innateireland/20852875816/in/photolist-2kYs6km-xLGrtE Intriguingly, the FOR/Fellowship of Reconciliation had an active presence in Dublin in the period 1915-21, working on anti-militarism and conscientious objection support, also as detailed in Richard Harrison’s book. The FOR took off again in 1949 in the North and was involved in innovative cross-border conferences along with the Irish Pacifist Movement in the 1950s. Mediation is now an established methodology of conflict resolution, in most aspects of life in Ireland, which will continue indefinitely, and even grow; however at the turn of the 1980s it was virtually invisible and it has emerged and become mainstream in just a few decades – a remarkable achievement which should give us hope.
The size, durability and modus operandi of of different groups and organisations has varied enormously. During the Troubles, some groups in the North were extinct before they got their constitution together. The Irish Pacifist Movement ran for over thirty years, the Fellowship of Reconciliation almost fifty. The Peace People began big and became smaller. Corrymeela continues to work as an organisation devoted to reconciliation and a meeting place after five and a half decades. While numerous groups have had paid staff, most have depended, at least in part, on volunteers and many have been solely dependant on the latter. However the withdrawal of funding from some Northern groups following the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 led or contributed to their demise.
One of the features of socio-political movements is the phenomenon of peaks and troughs; sometimes such movements are sailing along with strong winds of public opinion, and engagement, behind them while at other times the going can be tough. The nuclear disarmament movement (CND), for example, fits this pattern, with at least a couple of peaks since it began at the end of the 1950s. However one of the features of Richard Harrison’s 1986 book is the implicit advice “don’t worry if one group dies, another will come along soon”. Of course if we can keep going when that going is tough, then there may be greater preparedness for when the cause becomes more popular again. There are no easy answers and discernment is required as to where we should put our efforts.
There are also many honourable examples in mainstream Irish history of action for peace. Northerner Sean Lester was the last general secretary of the League of Nations. Eamon de Valera was President of the League of Nations. Ireland was prominent in the movement for nuclear non-proliferation and opposition to military blocs. More recently Ireland played an honourable role in banning landmines and cluster munitions. However it is clear, from an understanding of which way the wind is blowing for anyone who has an eye for history and an ear to the ground, that the EU is hell bent on developing into a military empire itself.
This direction has been, and is, consistently denied by the political elite in the Republic (and the EU), despite or perhaps because of the popularity of the Republic’s neutrality; slowly, slowly, steps are taken to undermine that neutrality until complete participation in EU militarism is on the cards and possibly even membership of NATO. This direction is clear and the Irish public have their hearts in neutrality but their heads in the sand.
As mentioned in the news section previously, INNATE intends to have an online seminar on Irish peace history in the autumn, probably November. This will focus on peace groups and activists, both regarding international peace issues and work in and on Northern Ireland issues. Some supporting material will be produced to put the seminar into context and the INNATE photo and documentary site continues to add items from peace movement history. The seminar process will attempt to pull together some existing material and to point to areas where further research and study might be valuable – however the seminar itself is likely to be mainly the sharing of personal experiences of involvement.
You can argue for a long time about who first stated something to the effect that those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it. This is a truism although not necessarily in a simplistic sense. The fact is that a certain amount of history is cyclical. Nonviolence, however, is about stepping in to cycles and orientations to violence and dealing with them, or preventing them developing in the first place.
And similar situations may require different nonviolent responses at different times. Just as military generals have a tendency, to their cost, to fight the last war (look at the ridiculous and very violent British and French attachment to nuclear weapons which is more about self image than practical reality, even within militarist thinking), so we can feel something that worked last time will indeed work again. It might and it might not, and other factors may have changed. We need all the imagination and creativity we can gather if we are to build a more peaceful world.
It was Tony Blair’s strong backing for the Iraq War of 2003 which, disastrously, brought about UK involvement. In the lead up to war, one meeting was arranged at No.10 Downing Street with Middle Eastern historians. They warned that (their analysis of history showed) it was easy to go in (to war and the invasion of Iraq) but very difficult to get out. One historian reported, however, that the only question which Tony Blair wanted answered in this meeting was whether Saddam Hussein was uniquely evil. If Blair had been listening to what was being said, rather than looking for points of self-justification, then the outcome might have been different. Iraq and the whole region is still in a violent mess because of USA and British war-making; Saddam Hussein at that stage was still a brutal dictator, if somewhat constrained, but US-British action made a bad situation far worse.
To learn from history we have to ask the right questions and listen to answers, even when they are ones we may not agree or be comfortable with. But we can also take inspiration from our foremothers and forefathers who have struggled for peace, many in situations very much more difficult and dangerous than our own. In building the future we use foundations from the past. Some of those foundations are the hardcore rubble of past violence, some are positive and enduring structures we have inherited.
Of course peace movement history has not always been plain sailing or easy going. We have to critique our own work and, with humility and empathy, that of other peace activists, preferably through dialogue, but offering solidarity where we can. This is where, going forward, we need a broad understanding of peace to include participative decision making and mediative techniques so that when things go awry we have mechanisms to deal with it in accord with our principles. Here too we can learn from peace movement history. We may not be saints or indeed scholars but, building on the work of our peace activist predecessors, we can try to reach further towards a peaceful and just future which takes care of all people in all parts of our globe, not just being a part of a selfish and highly armed fortress in a sea of violence and inequality which is where it looks like we are currently headed.
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