Cities that experience prolonged years of armed conflict struggle to reel back from the damage and destruction wrought on their communities and spaces. In a post-Troubles Northern Ireland, rubble was redacted from city streets and storefronts were fixed in an attempt to push cities in the region into the ‘post-conflict’ era. To commemorate the passing of 20 years since the Troubles came to and end, the British Council, in partnership with Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University, held a conference titled “Peace and Beyond” between the 10th and 12th of April in Belfast.
Today, residents of Northern Ireland still deal with the trauma and daunting memory of the armed conflict daily, even though the Good Friday Agreement was signed and (para) military guns were lowered 20 years ago.
The Good Friday Agreement, which was signed in 1998, ended 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland. As far as the country has come in fostering political peace between warring ethno-religious factions, there remain multiple disconnects that continue to stifle people in the country’s capital, Belfast, and other cities from living in “real peace.”
As a tribute to the Good Friday Agreement, the British Council’s Peace and Beyond also brought together the leaders that made the Agreement possible, including former U.S. President Bill Clinton.
Leading the conference panels were individuals and organizations working to help Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland move past the Troubles. They were joined by architects, artists, policy-makers, advocates, and others in a variety of fields from as far as Bogotá to Manila, sharing their stories of resilience, peace-building, and post-conflict reconciliation.
A series of panels and roundtables were held in venues across Belfast, including City Hall, Ulster Museum, The Titanic Hotel, Ulster University, and The National Football Stadium at Windsor Park, among others. The locations were selected to show the resilience of cities that have experienced war and armed conflict and have, despite the damage, survived.
The conference opened with a series of talks, including one by Candice Mama, a South African Reconciliation Ambassador, who told a moving story of how she forgave her father’s killer – a man named Eugene de Kock who burned her father to death. She quoted Nelson Mandela, noting that “forgiveness liberates the soul.”
Culture, Technology, Innovation: Peace and Beyond
The sessions that extended over two days of Peace and Beyond included discussions of leadership and resilience; when and how third parties can impact conflicts; arts in the aftermath of conflict; peace, technology and innovation in post-conflict cities; culture, change, and reconciliation; and mental health, among others.
Among the sessions was a panel titled “Cities in Transition: Leadership and Resilience,” which delved into how three cities – Derry and Belfast in Northern Ireland and Tripoli in Lebanon – are working to help people overcome the aftermath of conflict.
The panel’s keynote speaker, Grainia Long, Belfast’s Commissioner for Resilience, spoke of the hurdles that Belfast needs to jump before moving closer towards real peace on the ground. “Empathetic listening,” she said, is key to ensuring that all parties involved in conflict understand each other, to make the peace process more inclusive and equitable. Long believes that just like Belfast was able to rise from the rubble and debris of warfare, so can its people.
Lebanese-native Bilal Al Ayoubi, Senior Researcher at The Forum for Cities in Transition: Tripoli, spoke about the numerous projects that have taken flight post-2008, when armed conflict erupted in the Northern Lebanese City of Tripoli and dragged on for six gruesome years.
“It’s easier for us to start a new round of clashes than to leave our houses,” Al Ayoubi said as a Tripoli resident on the fragility of post-war society in Tripoli. Al Ayoubi primarily works on regenerating areas of the city that have fallen into disrepair or neglect due to the fighting and, in some parts, helped to transform them into social enterprise hubs.
One these initiatives is a project that aims to create communal housing for traditionally hostile Sunni and Alawite communities in Tripoli, while another tries to bring together individuals that have been disabled due to the fighting.
The City of Derry, also known as Londonderry, depending on who you ask, is another city marked by its history with conflict. Derry is naturally bisected by the River Foyle, dividing the city along the river’s Eastern and Western Banks. The Protestant population of the city is mostly concentrated along the West Bank of the river while the Catholic is along the Eastern Bank. At the start of the Troubles, there were about 71,000 Protestants living in Derry, concentrated mostly in the Waterside area of the city. As of 2011, there were less than 3,200 across Derry.
One of the panelists, Noelle McAlinden of The Education Authority, Western Region, Northern Ireland, raised an inquisitive point in nodding to the fear – which is almost taboo-like – that the people of Derry have of discussing the conflict. “How do you pull people together when they know certain problems but don’t do anything about [them],” McAlinden said.
In 2013, the city unveiled the “Peace Bridge,” a pedestrian bridge across the River Foyle, to encourage the people of Derry to take peace-making into their own hands. She added that, in following with the Peace Bridge as a channel for communication, Derry residents must recognize each side’s pain and take control of it to move forward with reconciliation.
“A marker for the peace process,” McAlinden said, “is when contestation moves from identity to policy,” explaining that, once the people of Northern Ireland cease to question each other’s identities and begin to focus on policies that further segregate the two communities, they will advance one step closer to reconciliation.
Another Peace and Beyond session, titled “Arts in the Aftermath of War,” looked at the role of the arts in reconciliation in post-conflict cities.
The panel’s keynote speaker, Lebanon’s Mona El Hallak Ghalbeh, who is known for her work as the director of the Neighborhood Initiative, but also for being the reason why the Beit Beirut building is still standing today. Ghalbeh spoke about the importance of Beit Beirut both as an urban cultural center, but also as a museum in a city like Beirut.
Beit Beirut, originally called the Barakat Building, is a landmark building situated near the Green Line that was used extensively by snipers of different warring factions. Despite being significantly damaged during the Lebanese Civil War, it still stands today. As a museum and cultural center, Beit Beirut is a living memory of the damage that the 15-year-long Civil War wrought on the city’s spaces.
Paula McFetridge, Artistic Director of the Belfast-based theater troup Kabosh, curates and directs theatrical and other artistic performances and installations along themes relating to Belfast’s past with conflict. At the panel, McFetridge spoke of the importance of recognizing events of the past when revisiting spaces or individuals.
She also spoke of how critical it is to understand that those who live through conflict experience it differently, meaning that their accounts of events are very different and should be addressed as such. McFetridge’s site-specific approach attempts to understand people’s relationship with spaces and with one another. All the while, it is also a means to understand the negative experiences people had with cities during armed conflict, which, although it has ended, has not quite left people yet.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article mistakenly quoted Ciaran Murray instead of Noelle McAlinden of The Education Authority, Western Region, Northern Ireland. The article was updated on 23 April, 2018.