I once had an interesting conversation about Northern Ireland and Bosnia. It all started with being asked whether I head the “thunder” in the morning. I had heard a big noise at about six am. Some months before I had shared with friends a sad realisation that when you live in Northern Ireland, things like shootings, pipe bombs, molotov cocktails, protests gone violent, become common and you just get on with your life. We had bomb alerts (real ones), and partially exploded bombs in the centre, and many threats over Christmas in 2012. Did that stop people from getting on with life and doing their last minute shopping? Hardly. At that point I wondered if that was good (people making a statement they won’t be intimidated) or not so good (people accepting this as a reality and be passive about the situation).
The week when I heard the noise, the most likely explanation I could find was that a bomb had exploded somewhere in North Belfast. The least likely explanation I could think of was “thunder”.
The conversation I mentioned above took an interesting turn. It went back into the Bosnian court, mainly because someone I knew was fascinated with this comparison. Then I shared my opinion on the biggest difference between the two regions. The similarities are endless: consociationalist structures, hard hit economies, youth unemployment, nationalistic politics, party politics divided by religious views, religion as an ethnic marker, separatist ideas, prejudice, stereotypes, segregation, etc. None of the regions are post conflict. At best Bosnia is in a frozen conflict state, where things could deteriorate very quickly. Having also lived in NI for just over two years, observing, taking things in, studying about it, having discussions with those involved in the process and those who research it, I had my beliefs confirmed that NI is in fact conflict, not post conflict, nor frozen conflict. The main characteristic of the Troubles was its “sporadic violence” element. That has not stopped. It seemed like the contentions issue of the flag, had in fact made it even worse. People generally ignore the dissident republicans because they are “small” and don’t have much influence, yet the threat and even sporadic physical violence continues. The fact that a large number of areas are patrolled by paramilitary organisations is tacitly accepted by the large majority of their residents which give in to paying “protection fees”. It is even argued by some that these effectively illegal organisations are used by politicians to “stir things up” when the level of support for their ethnic and religious based parties drops.
In order to give a practical example for the big difference between conflict/frozen conflict, I pointed at how context matters when you implement peacebuilding projects.
The conflict transformation idea of storytelling has been used in many parts of the world as a tool for reconciliation and specific peace projects. There are many such initiatives both in Bosnia and in NI. If you have read my blog you have probably heard me saying all these things about local ownership and how much context and culture matter. When it comes to a personal transformation, yes storytelling does miracles. I have personally, professionally and emotionally witnessed first hand how this transformation works and I vouch for it. However, storytelling as a means of bringing about change at the society or political level will not be equally as effective everywhere. I believe it can work well in Bosnia, and my conclusions are based on research and a few years of observation of such as programme. A lot of people involved in that programme actively participated in the recent protests and in drafting clear demands from citizens to their government taking it a step further from the street. Some had solid resources to do this as they established civil society groups and organisations across Bosnia after they took part in the programme.
I have had the chance to see this at work in Northern Ireland as well, and I think when it comes to change at the society/political level it doesn’t have the same results. When people go back to their communities in Bosnia the context allows for them to share their opinions or continue the type of work they have done with other young people. In Northern Ireland, in the areas this type of initiatives are most needed, it’s very risky and dangerous, so people may not share the opinions they had before, but they cannot be vocal about it or try to share what they’ve learnt because of the risk of physical threat to them and their family. Pressured by the circumstances, they might even continue to financially support paramilitary groups. The pressure extends to maybe not sending children to an integrated school or teaching them to speak up against prejudice or mix with children from other communities because doing so will put them at risk. This is not to say exceptions do not exist thought sadly I personally think it happens in a vast majority of cases.
If you think all of this is common sense, then why are universities and governments referring to Bosnia and NI as post conflict? I was taught something very different before I had the chance to experience it. I went to Bosnia and asked why all the projects mentioned conflict and resolving conflict, when I thought we were doing post conflict peacebuilding. I now look back and think I was very naive when I left university. I am just pleased my mentors and professors encouraged me to go out and see for myself how the reality of these places looks like, and I am grateful for it.