FCT 2014 speech by FCT Director, Professor Padraig O’Malley
Forum for Cities in Transition 5th annual gathering, Belfast, Northern Ireland
27 October 2014
On behalf of the Forum for Cities in Transition (FCT) your presence here in Belfast gives us great pleasure and we extend a warm and gracious welcome to you. Many of you had to deal with the bureaucratic travails of the Ebola crisis, and more stringent restrictions on visa applications, as a result of the global war on ISIS. We live in a time when fear often trumps reason, and all the delegates who had visas approved for the Derry~ Londonderry conference in 2012 were denied visas to the UK in 2014 for mysterious reasons that defy explanation and fall into a black hole of the inexplicable. As a result some of our most consistent attendees will not be with us, almost all Muslims – and there is no reason for me to spell out the reason why –but all express, along with their disappointment, their hopes for a successful conference and remain committed to the FCT.
The war on terror is a matter we should all take with the utmost seriousness. As part of a community of nations we must muster the strength, the profound sense of purpose and the moral stamina that is required to overcome the self described Islamic State, which uses savage brutality to trample on the tenets of a great religion whose principles it professes to uphold, displaying through social media outlet the heads of decapitated men as symbols of a new order. It is the incarnation of evil, an abomination of indescribable proportions. For some of our cities in this room that evil is at their doorstep and we must make common cause with them.
We have an opportunity to make our own stand in the face of that war and give expression to our solidarity with these cities by adhering to, and putting into action the mandate of the Call to Action, which scores of you have signed over the last five years. The Call to Action affirms your commitment to promoting human rights, the sanctity of life that throbs in the heartbeats of every human being – and your dedication to understanding and learning from each other by sharing the trials and tribulations you encounter as you make the long and arduous journey in your transitions from conflict through dialogue, holding firm to the belief that you can achieve together what you cannot achieve alone.
Belfast was consumed with endemic violence for thirty years. Yet, it has emerged, the vibrant capital of Northern Ireland, resilient and thriving, pulsating with energy, attracting inward investment, more companies from abroad doing business here, more jobs, more opportunities – – all possible because the once- upon- a time protagonists now make common cause in fostering reconciliation and providing the public space for collective healing and recovery in the full knowledge that if they forget where they once were they will can easily slip back to the abyss of a cataclysmic implosion once again.
Which is why we put such emphasis at every conference on the modalities of the Northern Ireland Peace Process (NIPP) because it provides an extraordinary example of what can be achieved when the guns fall silent.
Not that it is without flaws or that it resulted in perfect agreements, not that on occasion it takes a step backwards and stumbles, but such fluctuating political gyrations are part of the transition process itself, and communities on both sides of the divide continue to work through their problems, difficult as they are, because there is a commitment on the part of all that “never again” means just that, “never again.”
In the coming days you will have ample opportunities to question and dissect every aspect of the NIPP and to judge for yourself whether it is succeeding in its vision to create a common future for all the citizens of Belfast, or whether it is falling short; whether you have something to learn from it; whether you have suggestions that might improve its efficacy or whether the reconciliation it professes to have achieved has been translated into reconciliation at the grass roots.
But learning and sharing is not enough. The Call for Action emphasizes action, which is why cities participating in each year’s annual conference are reminded that the FCT only works if the conferees carry out the commitments they make at the close of the previous year’s conference.
All conferences we have held to date, in Boston in 2009, Mitrovice in 2010, Derry -Londonderry in 2011, Kirkuk in 2012 and Kaduna in 2013 are interlinked, an organic whole, part of an ongoing process, not stand- alone events. But unless member cities meet their commitments – and I stress this at every conference – and I must say some of my colleagues would rather that I not repeat it – the FCT is a failure.
Meeting those commitments is proof that the FCT is a living process, one that is dynamic and ongoing, not a once in- a- lifetime experience.
The Belfast Forum has put together a program that reflects the extraordinary lengths it has gone to in order to ensure a feast for dialogue. Much of the program reflects the unique attributes of Belfast as the epicenter of the conflict in Northern Ireland, a conflict that brought death to thousands, suffering to all, pain that continues to cripple, and many grievances that still linger.
It has successfully surmounted some of its problems; others remain contentious. It will share with you its narrative of the past, where it now is, what issues are presently particularly difficult ones to resolve, and how it is trying to resolve them.
You will see that Belfast has achieved an awful lot during the different stages of a transition now in its fourteenth year, but you will also see that like all transitions much still needs to be done.
True reconciliation – that is reconciliation that is generational – is not miraculously achieved in a decade or two. Healing the divisions of the past takes courage, the investment of enormous amounts of time and effort, a commitment on all sides that without that effort the future you leave your children and your children’s children will continue to be divisive and stunt their growth and your city’s future. Reconciliation must be nurtured on a continuing basis.
The truth, Oscar Wilde, one of Ireland’s most illustrious writers, is rarely pure and never simple. The quest for truth must be balanced against demands for justice – a very difficult balance on which to achieve consensus, but ultimately the key to unlocking the door to real reconciliation.
Together your collective wisdom can help Belfast, and Belfast, in return, can help you achieve the level of transition that Belfast now enjoys.
You are in for an unforgettable experience, thanks to the tireless efforts of the Belfast Forum which extended itself in every direction possible, worked relentlessly, squeezed money out of the most unlikely sources, and brought imagination and creativity to its efforts to create a four day extravaganza enveloped in a searing account of what is euphemistically called “The Troubles.”
It will share with you how it is going about the process of healing, of making whole a city once divided by ethnic and religious in a conflict once called intractable.
It is for you, sister cities in the FCT, to listen, question, learn, cooperate and work together. The FCT is, after all, your forum and it is up to all cities to meet the obligations active membership entails.
Finally, let me say this: If the participating cities do not follow through on the commitments they make, the conference becomes a chattering box – much said, great ideas exchanged, some friendships made, great site visits, some fun, shopping and sightseeing and then home, and on to the next conference.
The FCT/ Belfast Forum had to raise over $300, 000 to make this conference possible and it cannot afford to give you, its member cities, a free ride. You must keep your end of the bargain. You have an obligation to be accountable.
On this we can work together because there is no way forward unless we see ourselves as a family of cities committed to a common endeavor, unless you – delegates from the 14 cities gathered here assume full ownership of the Forum.