A Discussion with Mari Fitzduff, Director, International Master of Arts Program in Coexistence and Conflict, Brandeis University
Background: This exchange in June, 2010 between Mari Fitzduff and Susan Hayward focuses on her experiences living and working in Northern Ireland. She highlights the importance of space for ecumenical engagement across sectarian barriers in moving towards resolution of that long-standing conflict and the important roles of women in building coexistence. One specific contribution was women’s roles in the push for integrated schools in Northern Ireland, with nuns, especially, taking a leading role in interfaith work. Senior leadership within the church communities, however, put up considerable resistance. In the post conflict period, the churches have found it fairly easy to reconcile, due to the foundations of the peace-building interfaith work on the part of the women.
Interview Conducted on June 17, 2010
Tell me a bit about your background and early experiences of conflict in Northern Ireland & what led you to where you are now.
I was born in the Republic of Ireland, raised Catholic, and when I entered the University, I became very involved in the ecumenical movement. It was vibrant at that time, and it looked in particular at radical forms of Christianity as they related to issues in South Africa, to issues of poverty, etc. And I think that shifted me significantly from having a Catholic perspective to having an ecumenical Christian perspective. When I subsequently moved to Northern Ireland, I found that certainly most of the Christian churches didn’t seem to be to be responding in a particularly Christian way to the conflict. So I gravitated towards the Quakers and Mennonites, who seemed to me to be responding in a very thoughtful and courageous way.
I started my work in Dublin, working for Irish television for a couple years. I left to marry a man I had met in 1969 & we had both been on a University committee, part of the student revolution of the 1960’s. and we were married in 1974. So we traveled for a couple years around the world looking mainly at community enterprises. We stayed with friends who were working on issues of social justice. For example, the friends we stayed with in Argentina were subsequently arrested because of the opposition work they were doing in 74 and 75. We looked at the work of Catholic Relief Services in Guatemala, etc. It was fascinating to see community enterprise in Jordan and the Middle East, and Afghanistan. We traveled mostly at local levels & our budget was a dollar a day each!
When we came back, we came initially to Northern Ireland, where the conflict had started five years earlier. We moved to an area in which my husband’s family had lived for 300 years, but they were considered settlers, Protestants who had come over from Scotland in the 18th century. So they’d been there a long time, but although they eventually married into Catholicism, they were still considered to be part of the plantation, as they owned a great deal of land, and a big plantation house.
We were in an interface area where there was a huge amount of violence happening around us. I believe there were thirty people killed within a square mile of us & Catholic and Protestant. I began to think there had to be a better way - it was awful place to be living. You were in continuing danger, your children were in danger, businesses being blown up, including my husband’s family business. So I began to look at conflict resolution. It wasn’t so easy in those days. There weren’t websites, or other easily available resources. But I found that there was a field that was beginning to look at addressing conflict through more peaceful methods and I began to teach it, in part as a means to learn it & in local universities. It was such a new field, that when I offered to teach mediation in the mid-80s, half the people who showed up thought we were teaching meditation!
During this time & the late 1980’s - a few of us set up the first ever mediation service in Northern Ireland, which addressed political issues. Because of my work at the university, and my setting up of the new mediation service, the British government approached me to see if we could help them better strategize the end of the war. The main approaches to conflict resolution employed by the government until this point had been economic and military. They had made quite a lot of progress on equality issues, but they had never looked at issues of inter-community relationships. So the Government then invited me and a colleague to write a report about what they should do to this end. We wrote a report saying that they needed an organization outside of Government that could look at building a more shared society, and getting all sectors involved, while continuing to look at inequality. We proposed two institutes & one at the heart of government, and one independent, outside of it.
Subsequently, I was asked to lead the independent one, which I did. It was called the Community Relations Council and it basically funded by the British government and the European Union. We took on the funding for the whole of civil society and the public sector, looking at how to put pressure on businesses, the public, communities, and all institutions such as museums (which only previously represented the Protestant population which were roughly 2/3 of the population, and completely ignoring the one-third Catholics who had lived in Northern Ireland since the division of the island in 1921). The purpose was to address proactively the divisions within society. I was the executive of that for six years, from 1990-1997, and when we had seen the process through to the final peace talks, I left just before the agreement in 1998 to take a position at the United Nations University in Derry/Londonderry in Northern Ireland. That was an international conflict institute dedicated to doing really useful research that could be utilized to help address divisions throughout the world. I directed that for six years, then moved to Brandeis university to set up the first explicitly professional Masters degree in coexistence and conflict.
What inspired you to get involved in this work?
I had two children, and raising them in a war zone energized me to consider how else to address and work out economic and political differences between people.
What was the response of the churches in the midst of this conflict environment and how did they connect & or not & to your work with civil society?
When I took over in 1990, by and large the major religions were following the people, not leading them. It was pretty disconcerting to see how little they were doing at the local level to mend relationships and address issues of difference. There were exceptions & Mennonites and Quakers. And there were individuals & Protestant and Catholic champions within the different churches. But by and large I saw that the churches themselves were a barrier to the work that needed to be done in Northern Ireland. In the 1980s, we still had the example of a Catholic priest who shook hands with Protestant minister on Christmas Eve and the minister subsequently had to leave because of the anger it engendered in his community.
It was very depressing as far as the main religious groups were concerned. Now, they did begin to come on board when the political agreement was made; they became more involved, as did many others & many of whom have revised history to say they were always involved in inter-community relationships, although most of us remember it otherwise!
What about the roles of women?
In terms of women, what was interesting is that there was a significant attempt to create integrated schools. Prior to that period, except for one school, which had been created in the 1970’s, all of them had been segregated into Catholic and Protestant schools. But subsequently, in the 1980’s there was a much more vigorous movement to create mixed schools. For many years, the Catholic Church said they would not provide chaplains for these integrated schools, because they felt the children should be going to Catholic schools, and for many years parents found it difficult to arrange for the various sacraments’ that children participate in to establish their membership of the Catholic Church. But I do remember that some nuns went, on their own initiative, without church permission, and became chaplains at these schools. This was courageous.
In the period from the 1970s to the 1990s, it was very interesting to observe the nuns, became they became much more radical than many of the priests, particularly the diocesan priests who were more grounded in the conservative local institutions. The nuns were more free to offer their services in ways that the priests could not. So you saw some of them doing the interfaith work, or getting involved in other issues where the priests were absent.
And how did the Church respond to the nuns’ involvement in these issues?
Mostly by ignoring them and not getting involved. The nuns who served as chaplains in the integrated schools were chastised & there was no support and sometimes just criticism from the Catholic Church.
At this time there were some breakthroughs happening in the Presbyterian church in terms of women becoming ordained. There was one woman named Ruth Patterson who led the way in becoming a woman minister in the Presbyterian church. She was also very actively involved in issues of ecumenism. Another woman named Sister Geraldine Smith also was very involved in the ecumenical women’s movement, and in moving people beyond their boundaries and barriers in terms of their faith. Women were freer to do ecumenical work.
I would say that it is only since the ceasefire that the main body of the men in the churches have become involved. There were a few people people like Ken Newell, who stood out because he was Presbyterian and he had a very open church in Belfast. And others such as Gerry Reynolds, a Catholic Redemptorist priest who was very active in mediation talks with the IRA. But by and large there was a sequence in which the first people to move were community women and other women in general and that was in large part, I believe, because they were less likely to be endangered by reaching across the barriers - the men were more likely to be shot for doing so.
It was very depressing how little the church was willing to help & except for the odd handshake at a senior level. I can remember having conversations with very senior people in the Catholic Church about the fact that when there was talk of more integrated education at a high level & at the university and teacher training level -- there were sermons in the Catholic Churches saying this should not happen: we must keep our teachers separate. The Protestant churches were resistant too, and this was for people who were age 19 & 23, not children. They were afraid of losing souls, afraid of losing membership (afraid of mixed marriages), afraid of peoples’ faith being challenged. Basically afraid of losing people from their pews.
What was the path of your involvement?
My first job was working on a religious program as the presenter for the Irish television channel. One of the issues I had looked at was whether there was any difference between those kids who went to Catholic vs. secular public schools in terms of belief and in terms of practice. I discovered there was not a lot of difference in terms of beliefs, but the children who went to secular schools practiced their faith more & they had to make more of an effort to understand and practice their faith.
Have there been studies focusing on these children, who have gone to integrated schools and their attitudes towards the conflict?
The children who go to the integrated schools have more liberal attitudes, and many more relationships across the society, as one would expect. But it doesn’t always work this way. Martin McGuiness went to an integrated school. So it’s no guarantee, but it does seem that it helps a lot to create a more cohesive society.
It’s exciting how many schools have now been set up. And since there is so little church support for them, the parents are much more pro-actively involved in the schools, in associations to support and run the school. Particularly within the Catholic Church (which is much more coherent than the Protestant churches) they are still not keen on integrated schools, but they put up with them.
How have the churches been involved post-conflict in building co-existence and deepening peace?
Like many others, in the post-conflict phase & as opposed to the all-out-war stage - the churches found it much easier to be involved when the war died down. We’ve been delighted to see that there is much more going on now in terms of the churches. This is the same for everyone. We wish there had been much more going on during the conflict, when things were very difficult. But for example, there was a bombing just after the Belfast Agreement was signed in 1998, and the churches came together to condemn that. And, just a few weeks ago, the inquiry on Bloody Sunday came out: about 13 people who had been shot dead by the military in 1972, apparently, according to the report which took 12 years to produce, without any legitimate excuse or reason in Derry/Londonderry (we can’t agree on the name & Protestants call it Londonderry, and Catholics Derry.) The churches came together to go to Londonderry/Derry to apologize and sympathize for what had happened. It’s good to see these things happening now.
Let me return to your personal background. After Northern Ireland, you said you went to the United Nations Center. What did you do for them?
I moved to the UN center in Londonderry in the late 1990s and worked there until 2003. We spent much of our time looking at research that could be useful for policy purposes both in Ireland and elsewhere. There were sixty different research projects when I was there. It was a pro active institute in terms of relevant research. For example, one of our studies was on transformational leadership vs. transactional leadership. In the religious sense, that would be the difference between someone who says I just want people to follow me, and keep me in power, versus someone who says I need to challenge my followers & and be inclusive as to who I serve & examples of the latter are few: probably Gandhi, and Martin Luther King jr. and Mandela are the ones that stand out. They refused just to serve their’ people, but reached out across the community divisions.
Then I was headhunted to set up a new program at Brandeis & a Masters program. It struck me that we suffered so badly in Northern Ireland because of the inability of the government to deal with differences. When I looked around the world, I was aware that governments elsewhere were not dealing with this issue well either & they were using or abusing differences instead of managing them well. So I wanted to bring together folks from governments, and NGOs and international organizations to look at how differences were being managed in conflict, to consider lessons learned for how to do this better, and to try to learn from the mistakes of many of our pasts. I started program in 2004, and we now have up to 40 students a year & 80 percent international from all over the world - looking at how best to manage conflict.
One of the things that had been useful is that when I began to work in Northern Ireland, I had done my doctorate on paramilitaries and individuals who had been very sectarian in what they said and did. My doctorate looked at those who had changed into being much less sectarian and more open. What had brought about their change? This was hugely useful in terms of setting up the organization.
It turned out there were (very roughly) two different kinds of people. The minority of people changed because they had changed their minds. The majority of people changed because they had experiences that changed their perspectives & people they encountered & and these were experiences that lasted over awhile, not just one brief encounter, but someone with whom they were continually involved. That gave time for their barriers to drop. For many, particularly those who were serving time for murder, prison was the first time they encountered others, and had educational opportunities. Thus prison became a space for huge change for people. That kind of education and the opportunity to reflect, to think about things was, many said, the first time they had space to think about what on earth they were fighting for.
The Protestant loyalists, when they came out of prison, set up a political party that was much more inclusive. The relationships they developed with nationalists opened up a lot of space in the political sphere. The prisons were eventually segregated, but it was more through their internal discussion with one another that they started seeing contradictions. I remember a Presbyterian minister who spoke about having the Sermon on the Mount in one hand and the newspaper in the other, and he realized that one or the other had to give. Another interesting thing was asking them why they got involved in the first place & some got involved because of family history, some had relatives who were killed or beaten up, and then there were the young men who found that joining the paramilitaries gave them status and power.
Were women involved in the fighting?
Very few women involved in the fighting & 6 percent. They were slightly more active on the Republican side. I had a colleague who had at one time been working with a loyalist paramilitary. She said they were so sexist, that they had no problem having women involved around them, bringing them tea and so on, while they were planning their attacks and strategies, because they thought the women were too unintelligent to follow what they were planning. She was so worried about her own man being killed, that she would slash his tires on the nights they knew they were going out on a murder attack on Catholics.
But again, women had a freedom that men didn’t have. The fighters saw the men and the male organizations who sought to reach across barriers as very threatening. The women’s groups were seen as less threatening & so they could get away with reaching across barriers.
Women were involved in ecumenical work, through community relations work which was more secular and then also some religious work. Some of it was formal within the churches & they would meet for a weekend to look at difficult issues together. There were a few that did interfaith work, on the interface between protestant areas and Catholics, and they sprang into action as necessary. We had one square mile of mixed areas in Belfast, where 600 people had been killed from both communities & you can imagine how tense that area was. A lot of Quaker women and men set up coffee shops for visitors going to the prisons and were involved in welfare work, and they assisted with political discussions. There was a Protestant pastor, a man who spent a lot of his time negotiating with the Protestant loyalists. And some Catholic priests, individuals not working through the Church, who were involved in talks with the Government. But the fact that I can name the people who were helpful is distressing and telling of how few there were.
Mari, you’ve looked at issues of women in conflict in Northern Ireland but also beyond. Have you found any lessons learned how women get involved in or approach conflict resolution?
In Northern Ireland, women tended to contain the war but didn’t end it until they became involved in politics in the mid-1990s. Women wanted to serve their communities but not be involved in politics, or be challenging the war itself. But a big change came in the 1990’s. When the ceasefires were declared in 1994, a committee was set up to get people involved in regional politics (regional representation from Northern Ireland had been disbanded in the 1974). There were a number of active women’s groups who wrote to the political parties asking them about their position on various women’s issues and only one party wrote back. So the women decided to form their only political party & they won two seats in the Forum, and were very influential in getting the politicians to an agreement. They were non-sectarian, ecumenical, and represented all different classes. They had a system in the Parliament at that time whereby you had to have so many Catholic and Protestant votes to pass significant votes. The women’s party, the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition would re-designate itself depending on how it saw things. It was very much a process party & i.e. didn’t stand for a particular political position, but helping the parties to find a solution. They did a lot of mediating between the parties.
Looking elsewhere, everywhere is different. In Liberia, you had women successfully denying sex to men until they made a peace agreement. That was very different from Northern Ireland. But the overall problem is that women think war is not their business. They think their role is to pick up the pieces, but they don’t see their role as being politically involved in ending the war. All over, we see individual women getting involved, but we need a critical mass. In Northern Ireland, it was when women said, “we certainly can’t do any worse than the men, and maybe we can do better”, that they got involved. South Africa was fascinating because of the role of women, although at the end of the day in South Africa, the men had and still have most of the power.
Women, when they move into power, in order to work with men often feel they have to hide some of their power. Or they don't like the way power is wielded. For example, when Tony Blair came in to power in 1994, he brought a lot of women in through the election & but because of the crazy culture of working often at nighttime and around-the-clock, a huge number of women left, because they said this was a ridiculous way to live your life.
In these conflict situations, do you see religion serving as an avenue through which women took charge or as a barrier to women becoming involved?
What happened in the Catholic Church is that radical women became so frustrated with the churches’ stance of non-negotiability with women’s ordination that they gave up on the religion. They left the Church. There are many women who came into the Protestant churches for ordination. But by and large, the churches were never seen as a way for women to gain authority as peacemakers in their local community.
Secularization has happened at a huge pace in Northern Ireland now, and the Church has fallen apart because of the sex scandals. There has been a huge rise in mixed marriages, and a sharp drop in church attendance. People call themselves non-religious. I think whatever chance there was for the Cchurch to be powerful as a social change agent has passed. There is less opportunity for them to play this role now.
Any questions you bring to our July conference on this intersection of women, religion, and peace?
One thing that has been fascinating to watch are the Orders of sisters in the US that have been separating themselves from the men in the Church. This has allowed them to think more radically than they would have before. The Church was so sexist and authoritarian. There used to be a joke about men in the Church having an egg and two nuns for breakfast, since the nuns were always hovering around serving the men and really did seem to think the Word of God came through the priests. These days, women seem to be able to think more radically than men on social justice issues. This is one of the most interesting things, as I reflect on where this will go in the future.
I think one of the tensions is that there is still a lot of exclusion in the churches, and a lot of good radical women who might have revitalized the churches have left out of dismay and disgust. Some of them have gotten involved in peace building; some have developed a different sort of feminist religion, that is, feminist Christians that look at powerful women in Christian history as a source of inspiration, such as Teresa of Avila, St Brigid, etc etc. But these discussions and spiritual practices happen outside of the churches, not within them.
Whether the confluence will come again interests me. It was a very interesting time in the 1980s, when women thought staying in the church and gaining more power in the churches, was possible. But then disillusionment hit, and it may be here to stay.