Curating a Vision for the Future: IPCR Students Investigate ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland

By schwartzsa | November 22, 2011

By Sarah R. Schwartz ’10

A sculpture on a museum tour, a finger painting hung on a proud parent’s refrigerator—these are a couple of ways in which Art, creative expression, is typically experienced. However, first-year master’s students in Arcadia’s International Peace and Conflict Resolution (IPCR) program, recently returned from Northern Ireland in October, look at Art through the eyes of peace practitioners. Art can be harnessed to achieve peace among opposing identities.

International Experience: Peace & Reconciliation in Ireland, led by Drs. Warren Haffar and Amy Cox, serves as an introduction to the IPCR program through a survey of the conflict and application of the typology of peace and conflict studies.

Some say conflict in Ireland dates back 800 years, but the most recent violence  in Northern Ireland, often referred to as “the Troubles,” began in the 1960s and ended with the “Good Friday Agreement of 1998.” “The Troubles” began as a civil rights movement borrowing ideas from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the U.S. Civil Rights Movement to give Catholics in the North the same status as Protestants—one man, one vote. However, the Northern Ireland State struggled to reform, and a low-level violent conflict emerged that would last for 30 years.

While trying to grasp the region’s complex history, students traveled to the site of the conflict during a weeklong field study. During their travels they spoke with exceptional artists, academics, practitioners and other individuals directly affected by the conflict.

Conflict Murals: Beacon of Hope or Despair?

Students were given a tour of famous murals by Kevin Hasson, artist and peace activist of the Bogside Artists Group, that bear living witness to Northern Ireland’s prolonged period of social conflict. In Derry, community artists take it upon themselves to represent that history.

Hannah Simon-Girard ’14, a graduate student pursuing a dual degree in IPCR and Public Health, notes a particularly moving moment when she realized, looking at a mural of a 14-year-old girl in a catholic school uniform, that Hasson was depicting his own cousin who was killed in the conflict. “The Irish really care about history, and as peace practitioners it’s our responsibility to honor their context,” she says.

“There are cultural reasons that make this an ethnic conflict. We can’t say, ‘why aren’t you taking down the murals?’ just because we think that they’ve got to be inciting some sort of rumination or aggression between people groups. But you can’t—remembering their history is as important to their healing as it is the legacy of the conflict there. They use art to educate and transform the hearts of individuals in the community.”

While in Belfast, Ireland, students met with Dr. Dominic Bryan, director of the Institute of Irish Studies and lecturer in Social Anthropology at Queens University, Belfast. He is investigating the ramifications of policy in the way public space is utilized and how it influences people identity. The outcomes of his research have implications for conflict resolution and understanding why violent conflict has been such a part of Northern Ireland’s recent history and why violence has diminished.

Students also gained an audience with Dr. Callie Persic, community development practitioner with the West Belfast Partnership. As a practitioner working in an interface zone, Persic discussed using the tenets of community development, such as restoring an uninhabitable house, as a way to bridge the gap between people-groups and inspire understanding and unity.

“To go there physically and meet with people who are personally invested and have had to transform themselves from within on an individual level adds a whole other perspective to the conflict,” says Simon-Girard. “When you go to Northern Ireland and you’re meeting people who were a part of those paramilitary groups and have family and friends that suffered loss as a result of those conflicts, that’s a very raw, human way to be viewing it.”

Investigating Conflict from Home

Back in Glenside, Pa., Arcadia’s IPCR program presented a special screening of We Carried Your Secrets with Jon McCourt, a peace activist from Derry, on Nov. 15, to further student’s investigation of Art as a medium of healing.

The documentary movingly illustrates the process of scripting and performing a Theatre of Witness production, which showcases the real-life narratives of seven individuals from opposing people-groups who experienced the conflict in Northern Ireland in different ways. Serving as a nexus of social justice and art, Theatre of Witness tells the personal tale of how each individual experienced the conflict, how they remember the past and how they attempt to navigate the future. The play was performed in some of the most tumultuous regions of Northern Ireland, and inspired understanding and unity in many Irish viewers.

Jon McCourt, who was featured among those seven narratives, led a discussion following the film. He marched for civil rights in 1968, later became a community peace activist, and has worked in the field ever since, including working with victims of violence, community relations and youth in criminalized areas.

“When you paint a picture, when you name it, it’s easier to deal with,” says McCourt. “For me, [Art] is an amazing medium, but it’s not the only one. I would just as easily sit on a wall with a bunch of kids and tell them a story or tell them about their father, their grandfather, or take them to a cemetery and see the graves of the people or the place where their neighbors were killed. Part of us has to find a way where we can remove the corks of conflict and give a place inventory. I think the Arts are probably the best medium to do that.”

After attending the screening and discussion, Simon-Girard notes that while there are many benefits of academia in terms of honing and owning the typology of peace and conflict studies, the trip and speakers such as McCourt are what really illustrate and illuminate the complexity of what it means to be a peace activist.

“It renewed my trust and opened up my understanding in how expressing history [through Art] can be used as more of a vehicle that’s therapeutic than one that’s destructive, she says. “As Jon eloquently put, the youth that succeeds the generation that were directly involved in violent acts are taking on that legacy without ever being asked permission—they inherit that. This experience just emphasizes the complexity and the layers of dealing with conflict. If we fail to see those layers, then we fail as peace makers.”