Lessons from Charlottesville to Belfast……and back again

I first came to Charlottesville many years ago to learn about conflict and its resolution. Vamik Volkan was the Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia and I was a young psychiatrist and political leader in Northern Ireland, taking my first steps along the road of learning about violent political conflict. Vamik, originally from the divided island of Cyprus, was an internationally recognized expert. I returned to Charlottesville years later, on the invitation of Dr Greg Saathoff, to become involved with his Critical Incident Analysis Group (CIAG), serving on the Advisory Board and then as Joint Chairman, with Gen Ed Meese III. I was also for some years a Visiting Professor at the Department of Psychiatric Medicine at UVa. For me, Charlottesville was an idyllic place of thoughtful reflection where I could come away from the acute violence in my own community in Northern Ireland to meet with others and learn about healing broken communal relationships.
These past weeks have reminded us how thin is the veneer of civilization in all our communities and how quickly it can be stripped away, in Belfast, Beirut, the Balkans, and even in beautiful Charlottesville. Even as the Irish Peace Process has been making progress, often helped by friends in the United States, I have seen America itself become increasingly polarized and divided. We have learnt some lessons but we cannot teach others for sadly we seem only to learn, when we do, from our own painful experience, and even then as the years pass a new generation can forget what has been learnt. In Ireland we learnt many things, but let me mention three.
The first is that moral rectitude, which is our natural first port of call when something untoward arises, rarely solves these problems. When one side says to the other, “I am right and you are wrong. I am good and you are bad” the response is rarely a healing of relationships because each side only feels the more justified. The Irish blaming the British for the historic use of physical force to subdue Ireland did not persuade a single Protestant Unionist to change their view of history. The British blaming the IRA for the use of terrorist violence to change the situation did not undermine their support in the Catholic Nationalist community, nor did forceful use of the rule of law bring peace. When each side believes itself to be right, simply insisting on that only deepens divisions; it does not resolve them.
Secondly, we learnt the positive and negative power of symbols – flags, emblems, badges, statues, rituals, ceremonies. We discovered for example that limiting the flying of the British flag in the absence of agreement, simply emphasised and deepened a sense of victory and defeat, and often resulted in violence. Losing something that represents your cultural identity is much more traumatic than not having had it in the first place. On the other hand creating new symbols, as when The Queen visited the Republic of Ireland, wore green, spoke some words in Irish, and shook hands with some of those whose colleagues had murdered members of her own family, this transformed the atmosphere and made further progress possible. It is putting up, not pulling down that enabled us to move forward – putting up new symbols, as well as putting up with some of the old ones that represented a painful past.
Finally, we discovered the limits of the efficacy of the rule of law and human rights in addressing matters of culture and identity. Setting down legal limits to behaviours can reduce certain excesses in the short to medium term, but of themselves it did not produce the healing of relationships in the long-term. It was not about individual relationships, but about analysing and addressing the key disturbed historic relationships that affected us – between Protestant Unionists and Catholic Nationalists in Northern Ireland; between the people of Ireland, North and South; and between Britain and Ireland. When we set aside the historic rights and wrongs and focussed on building better relationships for the future, we made progress. Every time that each side resorted to talking in terms of who was right and who was wrong, and how the rights of their side of the community must be insisted upon, the relationships deteriorated into a win or lose struggle in which the whole community lost out.
The events in Charlottesville have underlined a message that we all know in our own personal lives. Relationships at every level are an organic process that is never ‘sorted’. They must be constantly nourished and renewed if they are not to fall into disrepair. On the other hand, relationships can take us beyond what we could ever be or achieve on our own, if we understand that winning and losing is what we do together, rather than over against each other.

Professor, the Lord Alderdice FRCPsych

Harris Manchester College, Oxford

John Alderdice was for 11 years the leader of the Alliance Party – Northern Ireland’s cross community political party. He was one of the negotiators of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and became the first Speaker of the new Northern Ireland Assembly. As a result of his work on conflict at home and abroad he was appointed more than twenty years ago to the Upper Chamber of the British Parliament (the House of Lords) and is currently the Director of the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict, based at Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford. He is also a Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry of the School of Medicine at the University of Maryland in Baltimore.

CIAG studies past critical incidents to understand their impacts on government and society and develops strategies to mitigate their devastating effects.

CIAG wishes to thank Research Strategies Network (RSN) for their continued support of CIAG programs. More information on the Research Strategies Network can be found at: Research Strategies Network.

Critical Incident – an event that has the potential for causing social trauma and undermining social trust, creating fear that may have impact on community life and even on the practice of democracy.