Despite numbering less than 800 in Northern Ireland, Quakers often played important roles in peacebuilding throughout the Troubles and up until the present day. The contributions of Quakers are chronicled in a recent book, edited by Ann Le Mare and Felicity McCartney, Coming from the Silence: Quaker Peacebuilding Initiatives in Northern Ireland 1969-2007 (The Ebor Press, 2009).
The bulk of the book is made up of descriptions of various Quaker projects, such as Ulster Quaker Service, the Centre for Neighbourhood Development, Quaker House Belfast, and the Quaker Peace Education Project. These accounts are based on the Quakers’ own meticulous records, and many of the chapters are written by Quakers who were themselves involved in the work or close to it.
At the same time, the authors ground their descriptions of the Quakers’ work by conveying to readers the core ideas behind their approach to peacebuilding. As Felicity McCartney explains in the introduction (p. 1-2):
The central tenet of Quaker belief is that there is ‘that of God’ in every person, leading to a belief both in the importance of spiritual experience and of a divine presence in all aspects of life and relationships.
In Quaker parlance, ‘that of God’ is also sometimes referred to as ‘the inward light’ or ‘the Christ within.’
In practical terms, that means that no one was off limits as a conversation partner. In a society in which unionist and nationalist politicians at one time would not sit in the same television studio together, that was an important witness.
In his book, Give a Boy a Gun, former UVF man Alistair Little describes how the Quakers he encountered during his time in prison were among the few people who he felt treated him and his fellow prisoners as human beings.
So I read with particular interest the accounts of how the Quakers became involved in prison work during the Troubles. Several of the chapters touch on this aspect of the work, and what becomes clear is that Quakers were among the first to identify undesirable practices in the prisons, and take practical steps to alleviate them.
If there is one thing that is missing from the accounts of the various projects, it is the human voices of the people who participated in the work, whether as the Quakers providing services, or those who interacted with them – like Alistair Little.
There are a few quotes from interviews or old evaluations of projects, and where these are included they add depth to the book. For example, this from the wife of a prisoner in 1993 (p. 45):
There came a bad time at my husband’s review when he got sent back for a few more years. To me it was the start of his sentence all over again. When I got the news on our visit, I was close to ending my life. The only thing I had going through my head was to get out to the [Quaker-run] Visitors’ Centre. When I did get out and told them the news, they hurt as much as I did, but they gave me their support in every way.
The final two chapters of the book locate the Quakers’ work in wider practices of conflict transformation, and evaluate its effectiveness. Here, the authors recognise the some of the limitations of their work:
- the Quaker practice of consensus decision-making could be slow and cumbersome,
- as their organisations grew and responded to external demands for professionalization there was a danger that the Quaker ethos could be lost,
- it is difficult to evaluate their small group’s particular contribution to conflict transformation, because it operated within a context in which cooperation with others was paramount, and
- the work was itself very draining, resulting in two representatives (directors) of Quaker House Belfast falling ill through over-work and stress
Clem McCartney, who wrote the concluding chapter, ‘The Social Witness of a Peculiar People,’ is keen to emphasise that the qualities that seemed to set Quakers apart in Northern Ireland are not exclusive to Quakers.
On the other hand, he argues that the Quakers were seen as impartial by ‘both sides’, something that is linked to the Quakers’ historical pacifist testimony worldwide. He shares some of the feedback they received (p. 165):
Another comment was that Quakers were acceptable to all sides because Protestants thought they belonged to their tradition and Catholics knew they did not.
Of course not all groups in Northern Ireland could draw on the neutral, historical peace witness of the Quakers. But I agree with the wider point that Clem McCartney and the other authors of this book are trying to get across:
Peacebuilders everywhere can learn from the way that the Quakers treated everyone with equality and respect, rejected violence, and kept on working with joyful hope in the face of adversity.