A different look at conflict resolution.
On Wednesday 1 March 2017, Lord John Alderdice came to The Perse to deliver the second lecture in our Community Lecture Series.
Lord John Alderdice came to politics through the rather unconventional route of medicine and psychiatry. However, it was politics that motivated him to pursue a medical career in the first place. Growing up in the 1960s, the global political backdrop to his teenage years included the civil rights movement, and closer to home growing violence in Northern Ireland. As he puts it “in the USA the colour issue was black and white, at home it was green and orange”. Voters in Northern Ireland cast their ballots according to their cultural and religious groups, which had led to sixty years of what was effectively one-party rule. People were not voting on social and political issues, and when some sectors of the community began to push for social change, others became fearful. This fear bred escalating violence: “someone would respond to an argument with a fist, someone else would use a stick, then another would take out a gun, then a bomb, and the whole debate descended into violence”. Violence completely changes the nature of debate. Rather than focusing on the issue being discussed, the question becomes about where the blame for violence lies and people become most concerned with whose side they are on. Once this happens, society becomes polarized.
While Lord Alderdice’s career has focused on spanning the political and religious divide, his own background is Protestant and his father was a Presbyterian minister. A chief advantage of this was having the opportunity to meet missionaries and ministers from all over the world, who were often guests of the family. Alderdice was struck by the fact that many of these people lived in much poorer places than Northern Ireland, but their societies were not beset with violence and divisions. Why were the people in his own society behaving in way that contradicted their own rational self-interest? The teenage Alderdice wanted to understand this in a different kind of way, so decided to study psychiatry to investigate what made individual people do self-destructive things.
When he entered politics, Alderdice chose the Alliance Party, which included members from both Unionist and Republican communities, as he wanted to be able to reach both sides. In psychiatry, he had observed that the identified patient was often not the source of the problem, which may lie in their relationship with someone else. This was also the case for the society of Northern Ireland, which was profoundly influenced by its relationships with the British and Irish governments, as well as their relationships with one another. Fortunately, in an aspect of their relationship that has renewed relevance in light of Brexit, both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland joined the EEC on 1 January 1973. This meant that their leaders met frequently and, because they were often the only English speakers in the room, they developed strong relationships, paving the way for the peace process.
Alderdice sees politics as the equivalent of therapy for communities and the peace process was like engaging the patient in a prolonged conversation. Initially, this conversation did not include Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin. The rationale behind this was that an agreement would be established at the centre ground, rendering the extremes irrelevant. The problem was that in practice “it didn’t work – the extremists literally blew it apart”. At this point John Hume of the SDLP said that he needed to engage with Sinn Féin. Alderdice recalls how Jim Molyneux of the UUP “went white” at this suggestion, seeing it as the end of peace talks. Alderdice was equally sceptical about the possibility of power-sharing with Sinn Féin, but took a different approach, deciding that the only way forward was to “test the idea to destruction”. As part of these early talks, the IRA were asked which was more important, their cause or their tactics. Unsurprisingly, they said their cause, a united Ireland. When they were presented with a map of Ireland as one single island, and told that in this sense it was already united, they immediately pointed out the border. But the border was only there because people could not agree how to share the land – it only exists in people’s minds and relationships, not on the island itself.
To illustrate this point, Alderdice told us the story of Paddy and Billy, who both worked in a Belfast ship yard. Paddy was a Catholic and Billy was a Protestant. One day, when work was a little slow, they decided to build a rocket to go to the Moon. They succeeded, and when they landed Billy tumbled out of the rocket first and started to walk on the Moon’s surface, dragging his foot along the dusty ground. “Are you hurt?” asked Paddy, seeing Billy limping. “No!” Billy replied, as he continued to leave a trail in the lunar soil, “I’m drawing the border!”
Developmental psychology can help us to understand how these mental and emotional borders become so entrenched. When we are born, we have no sense of ourselves. We do not know that we are a different person from our mother, so feel as if a part of ourselves is missing when she leaves us. We also have no sense of time, so we do not realise that our mother has left us in the past, but she came back and everything was well again, so now it is most likely that she will return in the near future. In adult life, if the boundaries between self and other or past and present become blurred this can lead to disorders such as schizophrenia, when patients can feel that their thoughts come from outside themselves, or post-traumatic stress disorder, when distressing events in the past seem to the patient like they are still happening in the present. In terms of large groups of people, societies in conflict have a heightened awareness of identity, of who is within the group and who is ‘other’. They can also experience a conflated sense of time. For instance, Alderdice recalls a BBC reporter in Northern Ireland asking a Protestant Orangeman why he was marching. “See that river?” the marcher replied. “The Catholics drowned 51 Protestants in that river.” The reporter was taken aback. “When did that happen?” “1640.” In a high-pressured and conflicted society an event in the seventeenth century can still be highly politically relevant, whereas the Gunpowder Plot in England, an attempted terrorist attack on Parliament, is now so uncontroversial that it is a light-hearted festival.
People in these stressful situations actually use a different part of their brain to think about political issues. They are dealing with “sacred values”, things of such importance that they go beyond material or rational self-interest. All of us have these values, for instance our love for our family, but in conflicts political questions can take on this significance. For example, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the Palestinians were offered money instead of right of return and responded with anger. Therefore, the negotiators offered even more money, which was met with even more anger. If someone had offered an apology for the Palestinians’ suffering they could start a conversation, whereas offering them money for what they believed to be their land made them feel like most of us would if someone offered us money for our child.
However, just because people think in an extreme way does not mean that they will act in an extreme way. Many of us hold views that others would see as irrational, but that doesn’t mean we automatically act on them – we may genuinely believe in heaven, but we don’t take steps to go there today. Alderdice sees this as a major flaw in the government’s latest anti-terrorism measure of tackling “fundamentalism” to counter violent extremism. Most people fighting have no idea about theology, and it would be mistake to imagine that the conflict in Northern Ireland was a disagreement about transubstantiation. What is important is how people feel about their community and themselves. Alderdice identified three ways in which disturbed feelings and relationships in communities can lead to conflict. Firstly, when an individual feels disrespected and humiliated they will remember it for years, but when a whole community feels this way it can last for hundreds of years. Secondly, conflict occurs when communities feel deep unfairness, such as the unfairness felt by young Catholics in Northern Ireland in the 1960s who failed to get jobs, despite improvements to education meaning that they were as well-qualified as their Protestant counterparts. Thirdly, violent conflict occurs when a community feels that it is unable to make things better through peaceful democratic means. This volatile environment means that an unplanned trigger can lead to escalating violence. One of the ways the peace process in Northern Ireland made reconciliation possible was to create a situation in which both sides felt they were able to make things better in a peaceful and democratic way. To this end, the British government declared that it “no longer had any selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland”. Many Unionists saw this as a betrayal, but it created a political environment in which all parts of society felt they were able to move forward.
Given that conflict is caused by historic disturbed relationships between groups of people, the challenge facing all of us how we can continue to treat people as people, in a human and humane way, when they say and do things we don’t like. The recent political events of Brexit and the election of President Trump suggest that divisions are more entrenched than they have been for many years. “Normally, three months after an election the only people who can remember the outcome are the people who were actually in the election” but three months after these elections, the divisions seemed even deeper than beforehand. This may feel overwhelming, but Alderdice emphasised that an approach to conflict that focuses on relationships means that we can all make a difference, by looking for ways to bridge divides in our daily interactions with people who disagree with us. The goal of his career has been “finding a way to disagree with each other without killing each other – it may be a modest ambition, but it’s good enough for me”.
The Perse holds termly Community Lectures, open to all in the community, whether or not they have a link to the School. Information about upcoming lectures can be found here.