LEONARD Allan NIFThe primacy of dialogue: Michael Doherty
by Allan LEONARD for Forum for Cities in Transition
2 September 2016

The refurbished premise of the Holywell Trust was the venue for a lunchtime conversation about the Maiden City’s involvement with the Forum for Cities in Transition. Attending were two dozen local citizens, from all walks of life — active community workers, a retired doctor, and simply the curious.

FCT Derry-Londonderry member, Michael Doherty, began his presentation with a resume of his professional mediation experience, which includes working behind the scenes to facilitate dialogue.

He said that there is “no hierarchy of conflict”, and you need to look at each conflict situation in its own context, not your own.

One challenge for any society sorting out conflict, is that for many, they’re still living in it, Michael added.

Here in Northern Ireland, he gave examples of the continuing saliency of parading, and our lack of progress on dealing with the past.

Yet the biggest lesson that Michael has learnt from his participation in the Forum is the importance of dialogue.

He added that dialogue is only possible when you humanise each other.

Michael suggested some experiences from the Northern Ireland peace process that may, or may not, be useful for other societies emerging from conflict:

  1. How the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement was assisted through back-channel dialogue, taking place for many years beforehand
  2. How the acceptance of bringing in outsiders to the conflict (USA) helped establish the ground rules for dialogue (the Mitchell Principles)
  3. Appreciating the value of multiple forms of mediation (“the hierarchy of mediation”)
  4. How we managed to keep public and private services going throughout the conflict (water, electricity, post, milkmen) and how important this is
  5. How we are, and are not, dealing with aftermaths of our peace agreement (positively: reform of policing service; negatively: disagreement of definition of “victim”)
  6. How the significant financial support we received (especially from European Union) may be absent from other conflict peace processes
  7. While our public policy on community relations (Together: Building a United Community) may be disappointing, but as official policy is more than other societies’ government initiatives

He then described the pledged projects that the FCT Derry-Londonderry group has made over the years of its participation in the Forum:

  • Professional exchange visits and training between the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and Kosovo Police, on how to provide leadership and engage with local communities for consensual policing
  • Sending local young people to FCT Youth conference in Mitrovica
  • Sharing mediation training programmes with FCT Tripoli
  • Development of Policing and Communities in Transition (PACT) programme, mutual learning with USA police forces

Michael finished with a poignant lesson about dealing with the past: he showed a photo from a site visit to a local community in Kaduna, Nigeria, and delicately explained the sensitivities of ensuring that those who have been through traumatic events (such as the two young people in the image) were not re-traumatised through inquiries or probing by others. He emphasised that we must wholly take this point on board in our own dealings with the past here in Northern Ireland (and applicable everywhere).

The subsequent question and answer session explored various dimensions of conflict, such as criminality, feeling of community sell-out and losing out, and comparisons of other, longer-entrenched conflicts.

Yet Michael reminded all of us sitting in a large circle that even now we didn’t raise the topic of sectarianism, which underwrites much of our daily lives.

May the Forum for Cities in Transition provide an arena to have the difficult conversations that we need to have, for the sake of conflict transformation.