A few weeks ago, on the eve of the Twelfth of July celebrations in Northern Ireland and the annual mayhem that accompanies them (three nights of rioting in North Belfast this year), an article appeared in a Delaware newspaper with the headline, “Wilmington project aims to heal Irish divisions“.
For nearly 40 years now, the Delaware organization Pacem in Terris has carried out its Ulster Project, which since 1976 has brought groups of 18 teenagers, both Protestants and Catholics, from Northern Ireland to Delaware during the month of July to live with local host families, experience a variety of social and spiritual activities, and participate in service projects designed to “foster firm friendships and promote tolerance, reconciliation and understanding between opposing groups in Northern Ireland.”
This is an incredibly lofty enterprise. Friendship, tolerance, reconciliation, and understanding are absolutely necessary if Northern Ireland is ever to achieve the stable, equitable peace that people across the communal divides there desire.
But here’s a sobering question to consider. Forty years on, why is there still a need for the Ulster Project? Why is there still a need for the other two dozen similar projects across the United States modeled after the one in Delaware?
Think about it. By now the original participants are old enough to have grandchildren in this most recent group coming to the states to work toward tolerance, understanding, and reconciliation. Why, after 40 years, do programs like this still exist?
Diana Chigas, of the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University provides a compelling explanation. Writing on the limitations of nongovernmental organizations as conflict managers, she argues that grassroots initiatives like the Ulster Project, which focus on changing attitudes at an individual level, fail when they assume that the impacts of their activities will automatically spill over into other areas of participants’ lives — like changing their political attitudes and activities — or trickle up from the individual to influence and change the attitudes and behaviors of others in their own community.
She argues that NGOs typically assume that what they are doing at an individual level is contributing building blocks of peace and that some day all those efforts will add up. But the reality is far different:
… programming that focuses on change at the individual/personal level … but is never linked to or translated into action at the sociopolitical level has no discernible impact on peace.
In short, the answer seems pretty simple. Healing the grassroots makes little difference when the environment itself is poisoned.
At the end of four weeks, those kids go home. They go home to segregated, poverty-ravage communities in which the “other side” is the enemy. They go home to peace walls that divide them from their neighbors in the name of security. They go home to paramilitary parades, marches, bonfires, pipe bombs, petrol bombs, painted curbstones, tribal flags flying from lampposts, sectarian graffiti, and recreational rioting.
It is clear from the events of this summer, and of last summer, the summer before that, and likely summers for a long time yet to come, that there has been little genuine movement toward broad-based tolerance, understanding, and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.
Grassroots initiatives may change individual perspectives, and they are valuable for that. But when those programs aren’t connected to or reinforced by broader changes in society and politics, they cannot but fail to deliver on the promise of peace. If things don’t change, 40 years from now Northern Irish kids will still be going on holiday to Delaware for the month of July, just as they have for the last 40 years.