One of the consequences of 80 years of the Partition of Ireland has been the cutting off of people from each other in the North and South of the country, resulting in lack of communication, trust, and a fear of the ‘other’ as being different. Also in the North of Ireland, the two main communities, separated by religion, political allegiances, national identities, and for the most part living physically apart, suspicion and lack of trust are deep, and it is this trust which must be built by both communities whose identities are changing and future together still evolving.

The most recent ‘troubles’ started in Northern Ireland in 1969, the root of the conflict being social, economic, political, historical, religious. Tragically, instead of solving our problems through the democratic process, violence erupted and continued for almost 30 years. The Good Friday Agreement, signed on 10th April, l998, set out a framework of political initiatives which addresses many of the contentious issues, and a framework of co-operation and partnerships, which opened up the possibilities of better relations between the two communities in the North, the two parts of Ireland, and between Ireland and Britain. The implementation of the Good Friday Agreement continues. However, the current situation of direct rule from London is unacceptable and it is to be hoped that there will be a devolved government and power sharing executive soon.

It has to be acknowledged that, though we have come a long way, we have a great deal further to go, but we know now that the ‘armed struggle’ is over, the long outstanding political injustices and inequalities are being tackled, and given goodwill and a generosity of spirit and forgiveness, peace is possible.

This peace process has been long and arduous but one of its most important lessons is this: Those involved in conflict resolution must never give up hope.

Another most important lesson for all of us is that violence, whether it is state violence or the violence of opposition, never brings long-lasting benefit but always brings long-lasting suffering and misery. One of the most important lessons to come out of Northern Ireland is that violence, militarism, and para-militarism, do not solve deep ethnic/political problems. They can only be solved through nonviolence, all-inclusive dialogue, and a will by people and politicians, to forgive and move forward to build a just and shared future together.

To break a vicious cycle of violence, it takes courageous civil and political leadership and people willing to take risks for peace. Being willing to take the first step, to walk the extra mile, and especially to see the humanity of the other, to see their point of view, and recognize they too are afraid, and have grievances to be addressed, helps to humanize the people and situation. Often this means that it is sometimes necessary to enter into principled compromise. Diversity is a fact of life, and it is important we respect difference and create institutions that allow for representation and equal treatment of all sectors of our diverse societies.

One of the causes of the conflict in Northern Ireland was the fact that we had majority rule for fifty years, with a minority community’s basic civil rights denied. We now know that majoritarianism in divided societies is not true democracy, and it is necessary, in order to ensure justice and equality, to create all inclusive political institutions that uphold minority rights. Also creating good practices, such as preferential voting (proportional representation) which allows for win/win situations, and avoiding divisive methods like referendums of yes/no, resulting in win/ lose scenarios which lead to dangerous polarization of communities.

There are many examples in the world today where conflict resolution has worked and much can be learned. I hope that in time, as we heal ourselves and our country, Northern Ireland will give hope to others in a far worse situation than we have experienced. We are aware of the many problems faced by the human family. We do care that poverty, environmental crisis, nuclear weapons and war, are putting at risk our lives and the lives of our children everywhere.

What then can we do when faced, as we all are, with such challenges? I believe we are each called to help build non-killing, nonviolent societies, at both a local and international level. We need to reclaim our basic value, that human life is sacred, and we should not be killing or hurting each other, but solving our problems in a more civilized way.
This is the United Nations Decade for a Culture of Peace and Nonviolence for the Children of the World (2001-2010) which I know is supported by the South Korean government. We can each help in building this culture, starting in our homes, schools, universities, communities, at every level of society to teach nonviolence as a way of life, a way of solving conflicts, and as a political science that works, and this will bring about a new culture of compassion and nonviolence for humanity.
While governments can make a difference, in the final analysis it is the individual—that is, each one of us—that will bring the dream of a nonviolent world to reality. We, the people, must think and act nonviolently. We must not get stuck in the past as to do so will destroy the imagination and creativity which is so necessary to build a new future together. All peoples and nations have suffered, and great sacrifices have been made. We have all hurt each other, but isn’t it time we begin, whilst not forgetting, at least to forgive one another? One of our great Irish poets, William Butler Yeats, once wrote “too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.” How much we need not to allow ourselves to harden our hearts against one another, or other nations, but to be prepared to forgive. A character in the play of another famous Irish writer, Sean O’Casey, cries out “Take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh.” As a young girl I learned those words as a real prayer: “Oh take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of love.”

To change our world we need a spiritual and a political evolution. The political steps are often very obvious: uphold human rights, and international laws, demand our governments meet their obligations under these laws, support and reform the United Nations, etc. However, all the legislation, resolutions, and fine talk will be of no use, if we do not as men and women evolve and become transformed, so that we, the human family, achieve a more enlightened and humane way of living together, and solving conflicts. Celebrating what is good in all our cultures and traditions, and rejecting the old ways of violence, militarism, nuclear weapons and war, seems like a dream, but as we dream so shall we become. Let us therefore dare to dream together of a different world, and work together to make it come true.