Billy Mitchell and Conflict Transformation in Northern Ireland

The process of conflict transformation has become central to the successful termination of armed conflicts and the rebuilding of relationships between warring factions lost in the ‘fog of war’. I learned this first-hand from the senior PUP strategist Billy Mitchell, who engaged with a range of people across the political spectrum in Northern Ireland in his peace-building work. This was also recognised by those who worked closely with Billy on his many conflict transformation and community relations initiatives. At Billy’s funeral in July 2006, his friend Liam Maskey told those gathered (a congregation that included people from all backgrounds in Northern Ireland and beyond):

“Billy was a man before his time. He was a visionary and passionately longed for peace between our two communities. But he wasn’t just a visionary. He was a doer. Billy was a true leader in every sense of the word and a man who people found it easy to follow but hard to live up to. Not only did he walk the talk he demanded that everyone walk with him. While in that lonely position of leadership he was always at the forefront of guiding and directing people and events.”

I wrote the following article in 2007, a year on from Billy’s death, as a way of explaining the practical advantages that could be accrued by people who wished to pursue the cause of peace across the barricades in Northern Ireland. The ideas I describe also drew directly on my own personal experience as a community relations facilitator (I had gained invaluable practical experience working alongside Billy Mitchell in the years prior to his death and was subsequently formally trained by the staff of the Peace and Reconciliation Group in Derry/Londonderry over the course of 10 weeks in 2007), working alongside community leaders in Belfast and Derry in 2007-08.

In the Journey’s Out project I coordinated for INCORE we worked closely with over 40 community leaders from across Belfast and Derry/Londonderry on the issue of ‘dealing with the past’. This was, of course, a time of real hope, when the DUP and Sinn Fein had just agreed a power-sharing deal. However, the peace process was not solely attributable to political leaders sitting down together at Stormont. In my experience it was ultimately dependent on those at the grassroots, who risked a considerable amount by engaging in the conflict transformation process.

Building Relationships in the Conflict Transformation Process

By Aaron Edwards

Since the 1980s the scholar and conflict mediation expert John Paul Lederach has been using the term ‘conflict transformation’ to describe his own unique approach to understanding the peace-building process. Lederach envisions ‘peace building’ as ‘a comprehensive concept that encompasses, generates, and sustains the full array of processes, approaches, and stages needed to transform conflict toward more sustainable peaceful relationships’.

At the heart of Lederach’s particular approach is the notion that conflict arises when relationships between parties in conflict become fractured or suffer fluctuations. Therefore, the key to transforming an environment beyond violence is to intervene and attempt to rebuild these relationships.

In Lederach’s opinion, peace processes emerge and are cemented by the actions and interactions of three distinct groups of people. He organises them by importance in terms of a pyramid. At the base of the pyramid (and constituting the vast majority of people) are grass-roots leaders – those who belong to indigenous NGOs, community leaders and those at the sharp end of the conflict. At the middle-range level are leaders in civil society, such as clergy, academics and professionals. At the narrower top-level of the pyramid are the political elites – politicians, diplomats and statesmen.

In the context of the Northern Ireland conflict, it is not difficult to see how these levels interacted to produce the peace process. Arguably, grass-roots and middle-range leaders brokered the 1994 cease-fires, which, therefore, enabled politicians to enter the negotiation process in the mid-1990s that eventually culminated in the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998.

Nevertheless, these changes could only come about in concert with a shift in the wider strategic environment, which enabled these leaders to reach accommodation. It was a commonly-held view among the ‘two communities’ that a military stalemate had been reached between the British security forces and the main paramilitary groupings.

There is much to agree with Lederach’s view that the conflict transformation process is about striking up relationships with both one’s friends and opponents and thereby opening up channels of dialogue in deeply divided societies. It is about confronting these issues and diffusing tensions within and between groups. However, little is actually known about how building relationships makes a difference amongst the grass-roots

Often practitioners of conflict transformation act out of gut instinct and conviction, rather than any commitment to a theoretical tradition or ideology. Personally speaking, in my own involvement in the East Antrim Conflict Transformation Forum (EACTF) as a ‘critical friend’, it has always been important to leave academic baggage behind and get mucked into the hard routine of peace-building. In other words, to support the grass-roots conflict transformers by highlighting their day-to-day activities in terms of how they fit into the overall political and peace processes.

My introduction to the process came initially in my professional and personal friendship with one of the founding editors of The Other View. Billy Mitchell was a conflict transformation practitioner, working largely in single-identity and inter-community work in North Belfast; however, his influence extended across Northern Ireland. One of Billy’s passions was redressing the legacies of the conflict and we often talked about the practicalities of doing this within what he termed ‘the progressive loyalist constituency’, a grouping which consisted of those individuals and groups closely associated with the PUP and UVF-RHC.

Recognising the need to document the tireless work of peace-builders ‘on the ground’, Billy edited 12 Conflict Transformation pamphlets – published by LINC Resource Centre between 2002 and 2005 – which had the explicit aim of breaking down stereotypes, increasing dialogue across the academic-practitioner interface and facilitating intellectual exchanges between loyalists and republicans.

This series (to which I contributed two co-authored pamphlets) was an important exercise in the day-to-day programme of activities Billy co-ordinated. In the last pamphlet Democratising the Peace Process in Northern Ireland: Progressive Loyalists and the Politics of Conflict Transformation, Stephen Bloomer and I recorded the ongoing work undertaken by progressive loyalists at the sharp end of antagonism in the province; a constituency Billy himself represented and sought to transform.

In essence we captured the early preparatory work undertaken by Billy and those community activists who congregated under the EACTF umbrella. The EACTF remains a test-case for what could be accomplished by loyalist grass-roots leaders who chose to tackle the legacies of past conflict in conjunction with ‘critical friends’ in civil society. One of the main aims of the initiative is to lay the groundwork for the ongoing civilianisation of the UVF and RHC and a rebuilding of intra-community relationships. The EACTF epitomises Billy’s approach to peace-building and conflict transformation and in many ways it is his legacy.

Billy believed passionately in the application of the tools for conflict transformation in a practical manner. He had the particular foresight and moral imagination to diagnose and suggest remedies for grass-roots activists from within his own community and for peace-builders more broadly.

In honour of Billy’s work the PUP created the Billy Mitchell Conflict Transformation Award. At the PUP’s annual conference on 13 October 2007 it was awarded to Northern Ireland Alternatives in recognition of the organisation’s tireless work in the field of restorative justice. Accepting the award on behalf of Alternatives, Billy Drummond said that “the greatest tribute we could pay Billy Mitchell is to ensure that his legacy is carried on”.

As a practitioner of conflict transformation Billy Mitchell was instrumental in the construction of initiatives like Alternatives because he viewed them as a way to transform his community beyond violence. By building relationships within and between communities, Billy Mitchell proved that conflict transformation was the art of the possible.

This article was originally published in the Autumn 2007 issue of The Other View magazine.

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About aaronedwards2012

Historian, Writer, Academic. Views all my own.
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