Building Peace in Northern Ireland by Maria Power – Book Review in Irish Literary Supplement

PowerCoverMy review of Maria Power’s Building Peace in Northern Ireland (Liverpool University Press, 2011) has been published in the latest edition of the Irish Literary Supplement (Spring 2013, V32, N2, pp. 18-19) under the headline, “Peace in the Valley.”

While encouraging you to get out and get your hands on a copy of the Irish Literary Supplement, I quote selectively from the review below:

Maria Power’s (ed), Building Peace in Northern Ireland (Liverpool University Press, 2011) evaluates the contributions of the often anonymous advocates for peace at the grassroots. It at once highlights their key role and at the same time casts a critical eye over the political and financial infrastructure in which they operate. The book constitutes a valuable contribution to scholarly debate on the role of civil society in conflict resolution, and a timely reminder that the hard work of building peace in Northern Ireland has only just begun.

Power, a lecturer in the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool, has assembled a collection of 12 chapters by scholars working in a range of disciplines, covering a suitably wide range of topics: integrated education, the churches, women’s activism, cross-border initiatives and more. In the book, peacebuilding is conceived of as a grassroots activity, defined as complementary to elite level political negotiations and compromises, such as those that produced the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 or the current governing arrangements at Stormont.

As such, the book builds on an expanding pool of scholarship that seeks to evaluate the role of civil society groups in conflict resolution – a topic of interest not just in Northern Ireland but internationally. This literature has emphasized the transformative effect that can be engendered by grassroots work:

  • helping to change previously oppositional identities,
  • facilitating intergroup cooperation through practical projects, and
  • reintegrating ex-combatants into communities, to name just some of the possibilities. …

But peacebuilding work is not without controversy and not without its critics. In her introduction, Power acknowledges that Northern Ireland’s peace and reconciliation ‘industry’ has been criticized by academics and the media, reproducing a particularly biting quote from a 2010 edition of the Belfast News Letter (p. 11):

‘Northern Ireland’s dirty little secret is that there is an entire tranche of the population, from euphemistic “community workers”, to quangocrats pocketing hundred-thousand pay packets, who rely on Northern Ireland remaining different and on the distant shadow of the gunman and the occasional bomber and riot for their livelihood.’

…. It is somewhat disappointing that Power states in the introduction that ‘this collection does not aim to quantify the impact or effectiveness of this work’ (p. 14). But evaluation is a key issue in the field, and if it is to be avoided, more care should be taken to explain why. Yes, evaluating peacebuilding is not straightforward and standardized evaluation is all but impossible, but some sort of rigorous evaluation is necessary if civil society’s potential contributions are to be maximised.

The difficulties associated with how to evaluate grassroots peacebuilding are illustrated in Power’s own chapter, ‘Providing a Prophetic Voice? Churches and Peacebuilding, 1968-2005.’

On the one hand, this chapter is a welcome corrective to much of the literature on the role of religion in Northern Ireland, which has tended to focus on Protestantism, because Power devotes much of her analysis to the role of leaders in the Catholic Church in ‘speaking out for peace.’ On the other hand, Power’s conclusions about the effectiveness of ‘speaking out’ are not always convincing. It is one thing for an academic to take seriously churches’ denominational statements about peace, it is another thing to demonstrate that the ‘people in the pews’ actually internalized these messages and, more importantly, acted on them. In fact, the weight of scholarship on the churches in Northern Ireland downplays the significance of statements by church leaders and denominations. It is a pity that Power was unable to engage with the analysis in John Brewer, Gareth Higgins and Francis Teeney’s book, Religion, Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland (Oxford University Press, 2011) – unpublished when Power’s book went to press – which concludes that the work of the institutional churches has been inadequate. While I tend to agree with Brewer, Higgins and Teeney, my wider point here is that when scholars can draw such widely divergent conclusions about the effectiveness of a particular type of grassroots peacebuilding, it is clear that evaluating such work is not a simple task.

… Of course, Northern Ireland has had the most heavily-funded peace process in the world, with its status as a region of the United Kingdom and its location in Western Europe meaning that it has drawn far more monetary resources than conflicts elsewhere (for a good comparative perspective on funding grassroots peacebuilding, see John Brewer’s Peace Processes: A Sociological Approach, Polity, 2010). In light of this, chapters by Sandra Buchanan (‘Examining the Peacebuilding Policy Framework of the Irish and British Governments), Katy Hayward, Cathal McCall and Ivo Damkat (‘Building Peace and Crossing Borders: The North/South Dimension of Reconciliation’) and Elham Atashi (‘The Role of External Aid in Peacebuilding’) make for sobering reading. As Power puts it in her introduction, the authors of these chapters agree on a fundamental finding (p. 13-14):

‘the governments (both British and Irish) lack the long-term commitment necessary to ensure that peacebuilding schemes achieve their aims and enable an improvement in relationships between communities in Northern Ireland.’

Among the specific problems identified in these chapters are that;

  • British, Irish and EU policies have been ad hoc and have lacked a wider vision about what they were trying to achieve;
  • British and Irish policy makers did not assume enough responsibility for funding this type of work, relying instead on the EU;
  • many examples of good practice are being lost as funding shrinks in the context of the ‘credit crunch’;
  • funding schemes breed competition rather than cooperation among civil society groups; and
  • the bureaucratic nature of funding schemes further marginalises groups at interfaces and benefits the middle classes, who are better able to navigate all of the proverbial red tape.

It is a credit to the editor and authors that Building Peace in Northern Ireland foregrounds these difficult issues. Hopefully, the insights of the authors will inform policies to support and enhance the grassroots peacebuilding work that, while often taken for granted, has not been insignificant.

(Unfortunately, with a list price of £65, this book like many other academic volumes – including my own Evangelicalism and Conflict in Northern Irelandis too high to reach a popular audience. If this review has sparked your interest, try asking your local library if they can procure it.)

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