UMass Boston professor Padraig O’Malley laid a wreath today at the site of a bombing in Iraq that killed at least 72 people last month which appeared to be aimed at fomenting ethnic tensions in the volatile Kirkuk region.
Kirkuk is one of five “divided” cities participating in a peace forum established in Boston by O’Malley this past April. Elected representatives from Kirkuk visited Massachusetts this past April to learn about how Boston had overcome violence and division during the busing crisis of the 1970s.
The group toured Boston neighborhoods that had been impacted by violence, led by Robert Lewis Jr., the Boston Foundation’s vice president, whose home was fire-bombed in 1976, presumably because his family were the first blacks to move into a white housing project in Maverick.
Other participants included representatives from Mitrovica, a city divided between Kosovo and Serbia; Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, claimed by both Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities; and Derry/Londonderry and Belfast, in Northern Ireland.
After the meeting in Boston, the group pledged to meet annually and share experiences.
O’Malley traveled to Kirkuk after a series of deadly bombings to read a letter of condolence to Kirkuk’s Provincial Council from the group.
“When one of you dies, all of us die a little, too,” he said. “We stand with you in resolute solidarity.”
Stratagem Iraqi delegation By Allan Leonard for Forum for Cities in Transition 15 May 2009
Last week, Stratagem (NI) Ltd hosted a delegation of representatives from Kirkuk, Iraq (and some for other places), for a week-long series of meetings and seminars. Programme was under a United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) contract. Topics included:
an overview of the Northern Ireland peace process
internal governance of Northern Ireland
its constitutional relationships with the rest of the United Kingdom and with the Republic of Ireland
There was also an excursion to Derry/Londonderry (with a mayoral reception, Tower Museum as well as Apprentice Boys visit, finished with a welcome by deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
I enjoyed tagging along, being an impromptu technical assistant, notetaker, and photographer.
One afternoon there was an organised tour through north and west Belfast. Think not “black taxi” but “big white coach” tour! I was impressed what narrow streets the drive managed to get us through.
During this tour, narrated by mural expert Bill Rolston, we stopped at a number of sites, including the new 180-foot work on Cupar Way, which is part of the Greater Shankill Partnership’s “If Walls Could Talk” project. There are individual panels for Israel, Palestine, Shanill, Falls, Nicosia, Baghdad, and Berlin. Poetically ironic were photographs the Iraqi delegates were taking of themselves standing in front of the Baghdad section.
On Thursday, I helped out setting up portable headsets. This “Infoport system”, made by Sennheiser, is a clever, portable, convenient method for interpreters, who can whisper the language translation so as not to disturb the original presenter.
One of the sessions was on financing of a devolved, regional government. This was held at the Northern Ireland Audit Office. There were informative presentations by John Dowdall (NI Comptroller & Auditor General), Sir Nigel Hamilton (former Head, NI Civil Service), and by Brandon McMaster (NI Assembly Public Account Committee).
Lord John Alderdice made an impromtu appearance, arriving from presenting a report by the Independent Monitoring Commission. Lord Alderdice emphasised what he described as the crucial role that public civil servants in Northern Ireland played in realising what was agreed under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. He described how the political party dimension in Northern Ireland complicated this work, presenting Sir Nigel as an example of how his commitment made such an important, positive contribution to creating a working Northern Ireland government.
Lord Alderdice added that even where the international community wants to help in conflict situations, and where the local politicians also aspire to progress conflict management/resolution, if there is an insufficient civil service to keep the process of government going, then it won’t work. Here, he cited the current poor situation in Nepal. He also described the shortcomings in the Middle East process, where a one-off meeting can be organised, but there is no systematic continuity.
The next stop for the delegates was Groundwork, where they heard alternative perspectives of the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, from previous Assembly Junior Minister, Dermot Nesbitt (UUP), and former Assembly Minister for Finance and Personnel, Sean Farren (SDLP).
Friday was full of events in Derry/Londonderry. Quintin wanted to present Mayor Gerard Diver with a poster from a recent conference in Boston (that several of us attended), so I duly drove out from Belfast, with poster in the back seat.
After the Mayor provided us with a tasty lunch, he provided a tour of the Guild Hall, which is still under repair. The delegates then got an escourted tour through the Tower Museum before walking on the city’s famous Walls. With clear views of the Bogside, I trust the flying Palestinian flags weren’t raised especially for our Palestinian delegate!
The final session of the day was a programme summary, which was interrupted by another impromptu visit, this time by deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness. The delegates were suitably impressed and all wanted their photographs with this man who encouraged them to exercise leadership. Here, I suddenly became the club photographer, taking snaps from the dozen cameras strapped to my wrists! I managed to get a colleague to take one with yours truly in the frame.
Mr McGuinness left, and the programme lesson review continued at St Columbs House. Meanwhile, I left with programme organiser, Andrew Gilmour (UNAMI), whom I drove back to Belfast City Airport to catch his flight. We talked a bit of shop, but also about some return tourism suggestions.
On a serious note, by all accounts, the programme was a worthwhile and noteworthy success. From what I witnessed, the delegates certainly paid attention, as their quetions to the presenters got ever more specific during the course of the week. I look forward to some of the follow up work.
Robert Lewis Jr., who lived through Boston’s court-ordered school busing as a black student at East Boston High School in the mid-1970s, had no trouble summoning memories of those tumultuous days for a busload of out-of-town visitors.
“Picture it the way it was then,” he said the other day, as the bus pulled up in front of South Boston High School, where black students were first bused in from Roxbury in September 1974. “Folks are coming and tipping the buses. The street is filled with police.”
And when the tour reached the new sports fields at Charlestown High School, Lewis, now an executive at the Boston Foundation, drew a lesson of hope from the ethnic mix of athletes playing there. “See that diversity that’s on that field? That could never have happened before busing.”
Lewis’s audience on the unusual tour had no difficulty conjuring images of strife of the streets, for these visitors had come from divided cities across the globe, places where physical or psychological barriers have kept or still keep people of different backgrounds ruthlessly apart.
They were here at the invitation of Padraig O’Malley, a lanky Irishman, professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, and specialist in mediation with a track record of peacemaking from South Africa to Iraq. He created the “Forum for Cities in Transition” to let rivals from five divided communities meet in a neutral, unthreatening setting, and let them learn from others who are confronting similar tensions. The three-day gathering ended yesterday. He wants it to be an annual forum for officials from the five cities.
The 30 delegates came from Belfast and Derry/Londonderry in Northern Ireland; Nicosia in Cyprus; Mitrovica in Kosovo; Kirkuk in Iraq. The tour of landmarks in Boston’s years of court-ordered integration was O’Malley’s way of giving the visiting officials a glimpse of the city’s steps toward reconciliation, as well as the continuing fallout from mistakes and lost opportunities.
At a panel discussion at UMass before the bus tour, some of the key players from the busing era spelled out how high the costs became for blacks and whites alike, and how, in the midst of crisis, opportunities for creative solutions are often sadly missed.
Hubie Jones, a lifelong civil rights campaigner and educator, said the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, despite a pledge not to allow its schools to become a haven for fleeing whites, expanded significantly. “The irony is that segregation saved the Catholic school system,” he said.
What was missed was a chance to envision a broader solution to the school desegregation issue that could have made suburban school systems part of the remedy. “We had one fleeting moment to think about metropolitan education, to bring suburbs into the mix to solve the segregation problem,” Jones said. “This program has never been creatively used to go to the next step.”
Al Holland, a black teacher at South Boston High at the time, said the greatest disappointment was that “adults – the political leadership in Boston – never stood up and said ‘we have to make this work for the safety of our youngsters.’ Both black kids and white kids were used as pawns.”
The visiting foreign officials found the lessons to be provocative, if not always directly relevant.
Mark Hamilton, a police officer in Belfast, said the busing story resonated because he had dealt with a situation in 2001 in which children were attacked while trying to go to school. The incident “has had an untold influence upon community relations, which went beyond the children,” he said. “Involving children always increases the emotions and has the potential for long-range damage to communities.”
A Serbian from Mitrovica, Momcilo Arlov, noted a distinction between Boston and his home: the United States has a single Constitution that is the ultimate arbiter and that all sides respect. For divided cities elsewhere, national loyalties are often split – in his city’s case between Kosovar Serbs and Kosovar Albanians, and there’s no shared mandate.
But he said the forum had achieved one breakthrough: the participants from Mitrovica had needed to travel 7,000 miles to be able to speak with one another freely about municipal services. A river splits the Serb and Albanian sections of the city of 85,000, and few people ever cross the single bridge.
“This was really a key opportunity for us to meet in a relaxed setting, and to deal with the technical issues that are about improving everyday life,” Arlov said.
A Kurdish delegate from Kirkuk, Awad Mohamed Ameen, said the discussions among Kurds and Arabs from Kirkuk had achieved “a sort of psychological diminishing of our differences. And there is a qualitative change in our attitude when we see how Boston has confronted these issues and when we see in practice how democracy works in a modern society.”