Ireland and Sudan have very different conditions and cultures, but each has experience of a history of bitter division and seemingly intractable conflict.
Two experts shared the insights they’ve acquired, and the tangible progress that has been made, from years of peace-building work in the two places. Vice Chancellor Tony Gallagher, from Queen’s University in Belfast, and Program Officer Linda Bishai, from the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C., spoke at a forum sponsored by the Peace and Conflict Studies Program
, the Irish Partnerships Center and the Middle East Center at UMass Lowell.
The event, titled "Facing Conflict: Voices from the Field," brought interested students and faculty into close contact with the nitty-gritty of working in conflict areas.
Gallagher spoke about his efforts to increase integrated, collaborative education in Northern Ireland, where sectarianism has supported a system of completely separate Catholic and Protestant schools. The research project he directs brings together students from participating schools to study their core subjects together.
Initial findings show that “sustained contact became a new habit,” said Gallagher, arguing that it makes reconciliation more likely and effective.
Bishai started at the Institute of Peace in 2005 expecting to work on conflict management issues, but was handed the Sudan brief and sent to “establish something” in Khartoum. She found that the agency’s small budget has certain advantages in the sphere of international program development.
“Less money means less opportunity for catastrophic failure,” said Bishai, who worked with local partners in Khartoum to develop voter education programs in advance of the first national elections. The programs evolved into a focus on teaching about the social underpinnings of democracy.
“Democracy means not just freedom of expression for yourself, but also tolerance for freedom of expression by others,” said Bishai. “We shifted to teaching citizenship skills, such as making decisions in a pluralistic society.”
Both speakers paused to give extra thought to a question posed by student Edwyn Shoemaker, junior political science major and a member of the International Relations Club on campus.
“In your work, what have you found the most interesting and the least interesting, and what would you wish to change?” he asked.
“I’d have to say the most interesting is what I call the ‘butterfly moments’ – those small moments of realization of major change,” said Gallagher, referring to the image from chaos theory in which a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the globe can, ultimately, lead to a typhoon far away.
“It was a school awards day and, as the headmaster called a name, the girl in her [Catholic school] uniform crossed the stage to receive it,” he said, recalling an example. “Afterwards, the headmaster told me that, at that moment, he understood what integrated schooling was all about.”
Bishai spoke of making friends and the “fantastic individuals” she met and worked with in Sudan.
“Most of all, it was the experience of seeing the Sudanese people through their eyes – not as needy people getting a handout, but as individuals interested in making changes,” she said. “It was a shift of perspective.”
The speakers agreed on what they would change: the constant uncertainty of funding and the required documentation and endless paperwork.
“Administration is dispiriting,” said Gallagher.