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One evening in the spring of 2000, a group of people came to see me in my office in Belfast. They were a delegation from the World Community for Christian Meditation and were led by a Benedictine monk named Laurence Freeman. They were in Belfast to prepare for a conference involving the Dalai Lama and a number of Nobel Peace Prize laureates from around the world, and they wanted to take soundings among locals regarding the conference program.

“What are you calling this event?” I asked.

“Dialogue for Peace,” Laurence Freeman replied.

I groaned, and, when asked what was wrong, I opined that in the Northern Ireland conflict, the word “dialogue” had become owned by one side. As for “peace,” well, in my view, it was just an exhausted platitude, used and abused by all sides in the conflict and, consequently, long past its sell-by date and best avoided.

“I can see you are a person for whom words are very important,” Father Laurence observed.

“Of course,” said I. “They are all I have.”

“No, they are not,” Laurence instantly replied.

A few days later, a thoughtful note arrived from Laurence Freeman. It read: “It was good to meet you and I wish you well with your work. But . . . while your words are important, don’t forget to look after the spaces between them.”

I had been involved in political activism and mediation efforts in Northern Ireland since my teenage years in the 1970s, the most awful decade of the Troubles. Here was a true challenge to my way of thinking about the conflict: the importance both of words and the spaces between them.

Brendan McAllister
Brendan McAllister has been involved in peace activism in Northern Ireland for forty-five years.

I thought back to an afternoon in January of 1998, a year that would see the historic Good Friday Agreement signed in Belfast, but which started with horrible violence. On December 27, a hardline loyalist (Protestant) paramilitary leader named Billy Wright had been assassinated within the walls of the maximum-security Maze prison by members of an opposing, republican (Catholic) organization. Wright was against the peace process and the ceasefires that went along with it. After his murder, his associates went looking for people to kill in retaliation. Between December 1997 and February 1998, they shot dead a number of Catholics.

I had been visiting the Maze prison since 1995 for regular discussions on the conflict with the commanders of the paramilitary organizations held there. I was actually sitting in a cell with Billy Wright four days before his death. When I returned two weeks later to meet with his men, I found two of his closest associates watching the evening news on TV. A boy of about ten was speaking to the camera. His father, an ordinary Catholic, had been murdered the night before. With a simple eloquence he said:

“I’d just like to ask the men who did this: why did you shoot my daddy?”

Wright’s grieving prisoner colleagues switched off the television in the cell. Without any of us commenting on what we had just seen and heard, we began our meeting, focused on the state of the peace process at that time.

Two years later, as the last of the prisoners were being released as part of the peace agreement, I visited the prison for the last time. In a moment of candor, I reminded one of the prisoners of that evening, how we had sat with him while a child asked for an explanation for the murder of his beloved father. The prisoner said he remembered it very well. I said that I had decided to say nothing at the time, that words seemed unnecessary; just being there (especially since I was a Catholic) seemed enough.

The prisoner agreed and said that he had been deeply embarrassed and uncomfortable in front of me and my friend that day. Simply by being there, we had punctured the prisoners’ world, making it impossible for them to sit in the mono-cultural comfort of a prison ghetto. We had brought an “otherness” into the cell and, in the process, our presence had brought some kind of moral accountability that, as it turned out, lodged in the mind of two leaders of a group of paramilitary prisoners.

So, the implication of Laurence Freeman’s sage advice held true for me. Sometimes words are not necessary. Indeed, simply being present can sometimes be as much as you can do and can be a significant contribution in itself.

But, how does an intervenor become present in a situation where a conflict has become intractable, where, in between attacks on each other, each side takes refuge in their respective trench? How does one gain simultaneous access to opposing trenches, especially when you are a local and viewed as coming from one of the sides? If you are working as a peace mediator in your own country, you need several qualities.

Firstly, you need the confidence to be yourself, to be authentic. In my case, this meant being comfortable and up-front about being a Catholic, from the nationalist side of the conflict. In my experience, protagonists respect you more if you are not in denial about coming from a different background or side to them. However, a certain subtlety is required. One should not be too assertive about one’s background, to the point where it becomes the focus or a distraction. The focus should always be on the other.

Yet you also need the breadth to be more than yourself, to take something of the other into your heart and into your way of thinking. You have to learn how to think as others do and to reflect this at times in the dialogue, to empathize, to let people know that you have come to understand them. And thirdly, you need tenacity—or, should I say, courage—to come out of the safety of whatever shell-hole, trench, or enclave you live in, walk across no-man’s land, and ask to be allowed into an opposing trench.

It is also important to say that the work of peace begins within the work of conflict. Conflict is a dynamic phenomenon. It is not static and lifeless but moves and evolves. Conflict has an emotional life. Peace is also dynamic. It has an energy that has to grow and be nurtured within conflict, if that conflict is ever to be transformed.

People often talk about peace as if it is something that starts when violence stops. But in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, the two have existed side by side. Peace is born in the midst of violence. It is as if a society is a greenhouse where the tree of violence grows strong and overshadows the greenhouse, denying light to much of the ground. Then, the greenhouse conditions begin to change, just enough for a new tree to grow inside it. In time, the tree of peace grows more powerful than the tree of violence, which no longer thrives and begins to wither where it stands. But when the tree of peace is in its infancy, during its sapling years, it must sprout and reach outward and upward in a climate that is still harsh and more favorable to the tree of violence.

Unearth and Refine the Truth

The idea of peace is threatened not only by the men of violence, it is devalued by false prophets, those who misuse it for their own ends. One instance of this was in the Cold War era, when dissidents in the Communist bloc struggled to reclaim an authentic concept of peace from the cynical meaning imposed by the Soviet-backed rulers of their countries.

In a speech accepting an award from the German Booksellers Association in 1989, Czechoslovakia’s most famous dissident, Václav Havel, affirmed the importance of keeping the meaning of words under “adequate observation.” He spoke of how he and other activists in the Charter 77 dissident movement in their country had worked hard to rehabilitate the word “peace”:

For forty years now, I have read it on the front of every building and in every shop window in my country. For forty years, an allergy to that beautiful word has been engendered in me as in every one of my fellow citizens because I know what the word has meant here for the past forty years: ever mightier armies ostensibly to defend peace.

In spite of that lengthy process of systematically divesting the word “peace” of all meaning – worse than that, investing it instead with quite the opposite meaning to that given in the dictionary . . . [we] have managed to rehabilitate the word and restore its original meaning. . . . It was worth it, though. One important word has been rescued from total debasement.1

I am moved to observe that, in these times, the international community is still debasing the beautiful word “peace” and that it is in dire need of rehabilitation. Peace should mean much more than the absence of war. The original biblical understanding of peace was contained within the Hebrew word shalom. According to moral theologian Enda McDonagh, “shalom” means “a rich reality of wholeness, well-being and flourishing which extends from cosmos through society to God. It is a covenant reality, at once gift and task.”2

In McDonagh’s view, the peace of shalom is a loving awareness of the loving God. The peace of shalom is a harmony of body, mind, spirit, and emotion. It is about wholeness and well-being and all of life understood in relation to its Creator. McDonagh draws attention to another important Hebrew word, sedaqah. It means “righteousness,” to live in right relationship with all of Creation, in right relationship with the Earth and its fruits, in right relationship with people. Shalom is the biblical root of peace, and sedaqah is the biblical root of the word “justice.” Shalom and sedaqah (peace and justice) go together, but, according to McDonagh, down through the ages, successive translations of Scripture have narrowed and distorted popular understandings of peace and justice.

In subsequent Greek versions of Scripture, McDonagh tells us, there are more than twenty terms used to try to describe the Hebrew concept of shalom. The nearest Greek word is eirene, which means harmony and order and, therefore, lacks the sense of right relationship with God and his created things. As history moved on and Scripture was translated into Latin, the nearest word to shalom was pax, meaning legal order. In ancient Rome, the doctrine of Pax Romana was introduced by Emperor Augustus in the first century CE. Pax Romana was a form of order that met the interests of the most powerful military magnates in the time of Augustus. At various times in world history, there has been an imperial peace that upholds the interests of those in power: Pax Islamica, Pax Hispanica, Pax Britannica, Pax Sovietica, Pax Americana, and many more.

In the same spirit as Havel sought to rehabilitate the “beautiful word,” we should be ready to criticize the concept of peace that world leaders currently promote too regularly. Is not this “international peace” often merely the outcome of a diplomacy that serves the interests of the most powerful? Peace is too frequently reduced to pax, as the restoration of a legal order and the absence of violence rather than the promotion of well-being and human flourishing.

Because of the term’s history, it’s important to understand if your own idea of peace is being received in the same way as you understand it. In my own country, Northern Ireland, in the mid-1970s, I went with my girlfriend to a peace demonstration in our town, and, as we processed along the street with thousands of others, the IRA (Irish Republican Army) set off an explosion nearby. At the time we wondered whether such people were mad. After all, how could anyone feel threatened by a peace demonstration?

Years later, I was traveling in the United States with a former member of the IRA. I told him about the explosion near the peace march and asked him to make sense of that. He replied that he remembered that time well. He and his comrades had asked permission to increase their violence in response to those peace marches. I asked why. He said that in their view we were settling for a false peace, one that accepted the continued British occupation of a part of Ireland and the continued inequality of (Catholic) nationalists. I profoundly disagreed with my companion’s analysis, yet it was a moment of personal awakening for me. I saw that one person’s peace is another person’s pax and, in their view, a legal order that ultimately serves the interests of the powerful.

This insight informs my understanding of the apparently irrational opposition of insurrectionists and terrorists around the world to that which the rest of the world understands as peace. Of course, this is not to justify any kind of violence. But it does raise questions about how peace is made and, from my point of view, about the concept of peace mediation.

In the 1980s, two veteran peace activists, Jean Goss and Hildegard Goss-Mayr visited Northern Ireland to conduct a workshop at the Corrymeela Centre for Reconciliation. They set out their understanding of Christian nonviolence in these terms:

To discover the truth, which is in the other, however little it is – perhaps he/she has betrayed this good and this truth to the point that one can hardly see it. This truth must be sought in the ideological, political, professional or religious context of the person or group in question. Why? Because all good and all truth come from God. It is His, the good and the true. If it is from God, then I have need of it. God, in creating human beings, put his divine seed into them, that is to say Himself. I must, therefore, discover this seed of God which is in the adversary. For if I discover this, I will find a way to dialogue, the bridge between the other and me on the level of equality. I must then discover the truth in the other and tell it to them.3

Whether one believes in God or not, to my understanding, nonviolence assumes that every human being carries within themselves at least a seed of truth. If we view mediation as a method of nonviolent peacebuilding, the mediator’s task is to look for the seed of truth in every person involved in a situation of conflict. It is to approach and even befriend people whom others may see as obnoxious, to separate people’s bad behavior from the truth that inspired it. A mediator’s role is to excavate truth, to unearth it and refine it to the point where it can become visible or accessible to opponents. And when the seeds of truth that opponents carry are drawn out through dialogue, the truth between them gets bigger. Truth is an energy that, in time, helps to transform conflict.

A Peace People rally in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. Its leaders, Betty Williams (L) and Mairead Corrigan/Maguire (R) were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1977. (Getty Images)

Build Relationships

In the summer of 1997, tensions rose in my hometown of Newry. A Protestant marching order proposed to hold a parade of 20,000 members through the 95 percent Catholic town. This particular situation was part of a bigger pattern across the country at that time. Many people of the Protestant/British tradition in Northern Ireland saw the right to parade as a litmus test of the health of their way of life in a period when the political negotiations were making many of them insecure. Similarly, many of the Catholic/nationalist tradition saw the right of local communities to live free of such parades as a test of equality. Local authorities in Newry asked me to mediate and, thankfully, an agreement was reached whereby the parade went only up to the town rather than through the town.

As other similar parades were planned for Newry over the following two summers, I was asked to explore the possibility of dialogue between the opposing sides. Over a period of months, I took soundings on the ground but found that the conditions were not ripe for getting the sides to sit down together to resolve the ongoing tension. Instead I proposed that the local authorities should establish a Good Relations Forum and invite various sections of the community to participate in an effort to improve general cross-community understanding in Newry. People involved in the parades conflict would be invited to participate as individual citizens, not as representatives of their organizations, alongside other nonaligned citizens. I also proposed a rule whereby the forum could not be used as a place of negotiation.

Having received these assurances, influential people reflecting a range of opinion and disagreement from across the local community came together in the Good Relations Forum. The forum met regularly for nine years. The parades conflict in the town subsided, not through negotiation of a deal but, rather, because people became more deeply informed about each other. Over time, because they had a deeper sensitivity about “the other,” people took steps to moderate their behavior. In Newry, the conflict was not so much resolved as it was transformed.

In a lot of conflict situations, people get stuck. They adopt positions, then dig in and become entrenched. And there they remain, perhaps for years, unable to put their natural energies to good use. In situations of conflict, good energy is trapped. Good mediation releases trapped energy and stimulates creativity.

The U.S. poet and conscientious objector, William Stafford, understood this when he famously observed that violence is a failure of the imagination. Often people engaged in violence fail to put themselves in the shoes of the other and are unable to imagine a way forward that does no damage to the other. We need to address this failure, to feed the imagination so that a better way of doing things can be envisioned.

But, before any of this can be done, we must first find our way into the trenches. This involves an area of work that I like to call “conciliation.” A conciliator establishes a relationship with people engaged in conflict and becomes a critical friend. That means empathizing with their experience and its impact on their lives, but it also means bringing to the engagement a sense of the other, the opponent, and encouraging a view of their conflict-world that takes more account of the other’s world view. Preferably, conciliation involves engagement with more than one side in a conflict but, unlike in mediation, there is no expectation of facilitating exchanges between them. The conciliator is an in-between, not a go-between. Because the conciliator is in contact with the other, however, they carry insight from them; they have the scent of the enemy about them and this is part of what makes them interesting to all sides. Contact with the other is part of the currency of conciliation/mediation.

If the international community tends to understand “peace” as “pax,” its approach to peacemaking evolves accordingly. The modalities and practice of mediation tend to be very technical and focused too narrowly on negotiations. They tend to give insufficient importance to building relationships. There is a preoccupation with negotiating according to “positions, interests, and needs” and designing agreements that focus on structures rather than strengthening relationships between opponents who must overcome deep enmities and work together to make peace sustainable. The chemistry of a peace process is as important as the physics.

Go Beyond Rational Analysis

In Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement was signed in April 1998 and ratified by over 70 percent of voters in a referendum a month later. However, it took a further nine years of false starts and further negotiations before a relatively stable, power-sharing government could take form. That government ran for ten years before it collapsed in January 2017. Its demise was, in part, a reflection of unresolved enmities between the two main parties who were obliged (by the terms of the agreement) to share power.

At the time of writing, the British and Irish sovereign governments are engaged in repeated efforts to enable the parties to negotiate a new arrangement. Yet they do so in an atmosphere of cynicism and despondency about their apparent incapacity to share power. This suggests a deeper problem about the failure of politics to overcome differences in a divided society. In Northern Ireland, while the violence has stopped, politics seems to have failed.

On the face of it, Northern Ireland possesses many of the components necessary for a sustainable peace such as sophisticated structures of shared governance between erstwhile enemies and a financial aid package to subsidize the economy. However, our society’s capacity to move on to a shared future is still shackled by the legacy of a divided past. This is manifested in many ways: in unresolved murders and many other serious crimes; the historical collusion of members of the state security forces in paramilitary murders and violence; the refusal or reluctance of the state and of those associated with terrorist organizations to assist with genuine recovery of the truth about the past.

I believe that the essential work of deepening relationships between erstwhile enemies in the effort toward peace requires a mediator to have a capacity to enter into the “spirit” of each protagonist. That means attending to the spirituality of conflict. By “spirituality” I mean a sense that there is more than what is obvious or visible, a sense of “the more.” It is a sense of interiority. Whether one believes in God or not, most people have a sense of interiority, a dialogue within themselves, a place of encounter with values, feelings, and impulses. The American theologian Ronald Rolheiser describes spirituality as “the holy longing”:

It is no easy task to walk this earth and find peace. Inside of us, it would seem, something is at odds with the very rhythm of things and we are forever restless, dissatisfied, frustrated, aching. We are so over-charged with desire that it is hard to come to simple rest. Desire is always stronger than satisfaction.4

Rolheiser asserts that our efforts to address this inner restlessness are at the heart of spirituality. From my point of view, Rolheiser’s evocation of this restlessness approaches the mystery of what motivates the terrorist extremists who embark on mass slaughter. To borrow a word from Rolheiser, people turn to violence because they are enthralled to their inner “dis-ease.” They may have a noble cause, such as a struggle for justice or other fundamental rights, but there is a deeper need, a “dis-ease” that they are trying to satisfy. And, without the capacity to imagine a peaceful way forward, they engage in violence.

Speaking more plainly, we have a tendency to believe that only peaceful people are spiritual; that only peaceful people have a heart and soul. But if we understand “spirituality” as the efforts each person makes to engage with the “holy longing” that is basic to the condition of being human, then a whole continent of possibility opens up to those whose task it is to build peace.

In the prologue to the Rule of St. Benedict, the father of Western monasticism, the following invitation is offered to those who wish to become monks in their search for God: “Listen carefully my son, to the Master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.”5

Mediation conducted with “the ear of the heart” will go further than a mere rational analysis of conflict. It will visit the spirit of those involved. Perhaps in these times, peace mediation needs to develop a greater capacity to travel into the spirituality of conflict and navigate ways through its many layers of trauma, misapprehension, alienation, and deep desire. For it is within the realm of spirituality that conflict is most deeply rooted. In the midst of conflict, there is a holy longing within both the peaceful and the violent; that those engaged in violence, in all its forms, on all sides, are spiritually lost; that those who are not at peace are spiritually lost.

Therefore, it is often the case that the work of peace must begin within the violence and mayhem of conflict. I speak, of course, of the bearers of shalom—that peace that is concerned with “wholeness, well-being and flourishing of the human spirit.”6 I speak of peace actors, such as mediators, who bring a quality of attention to those engaged in conflict, who look for the seed of truth within others and give as much importance to the spaces between words as to words themselves.


1 Václav Havel, “Acceptance Speech for the Peace Prize of the German Booksellers Association,” October 15, 1989.

2 Enda McDonagh, “Peace Makers or Justice Seekers” in Born Free and Equal, Pax Christi and Human Rights (Pax Christi International, 1990).

3 Jean Goss and Hildegard Goos-Mayr, The Gospel and the Struggle for Peace (International Fellowship of Reconciliation, 1990).

4 Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing: the Search for a Christian Spirituality (New York: Doubleday, 1999).

5 From the Prologue to the Rule of St. Benedict.

6 McDonagh, “Peace Makers or Justice Seekers.”