Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 357 - 359)




  357. A very warm welcome to you. I recall an earlier encounter in terms of the police inquiry with the Mediation Network and our ground rules are reasonably familiar now after nearly four years of this Parliamentary Session. We will endeavour to make our questions follow a logical order. You should feel entirely free to gloss any answer you wish to gloss either now orally or in writing afterwards if something occurs to you that causes you to feel that the point was perhaps not fully made, and we equally will feel free to come back to you with supplementaries if, on reading the transcript, we feel that there is something missing. You were kind in sending us a memorandum and in following up with the observations about Drumcree. Is there anything else you would like to say of a general nature before we start?

  (Mr McAllister) No, thank you, Chairman.

  358. Let me ask a couple of ground clearing questions. What was the background to the establishment, in I think 1991, of the Mediation Network for Northern Ireland?
  (Mr McAllister) Chairman, a number of traditions in a sense formed the origins of the Mediation Network. Mediation as a conscious method of peace work appealed to people in the peace movement and in the churches in Northern Ireland during the 1980s. Some workshops were run by American theorists and practitioners and that generated a lot of interest. At the same time, in the field of family work, family mediation was growing within the United Kingdom generally, so people involved in social work in family care were interested in the potential of mediation. There were people in the education field who were interested in peace education and teaching children to approach conflict differently. In addition, there were people whose particular interest was about the Troubles and how to introduce methodology to peace activity in Northern Ireland on the ground, so all of these perspectives came together among a group of enthusiasts who formed an association in 1986 and they realised by the end of the 1980s that they needed to organise their activities more professionally, and so became a registered charity and became The Mediation Network in 1994.

  359. That is an admirably concise account. Would you like to say a bit more about the organisation in terms of both staffing and funding?
  (Mr McAllister) Yes, Chairman. We believe that peace will move forward in our society at the macro-political level around the level of politicians and political leaders whose job it will be to establish the parameters of a new society, but that the work of political progress needs to be supported in the body of society where the division between our people is manifest. We have identified a number of sectors in the life of society in Northern Ireland where we believe mediation can be of help. Specifically they are in the community sector on the ground in Northern Ireland, in disputes between not just neighbours but neighbourhoods. In every urban space of our society there is a sectarian interface. In Belfast alone there are fourteen. Therefore, in areas where large Nationalist estates live cheek by jowl with large Unionist or Loyalist estates there is very often friction and so we have been working with community activists, community workers, trying to develop their skills for assisting people in that kind of situation. A lot of the work that we do is training; we promote training. Because mediation is a new concept relatively speaking in Northern Ireland we believe that there is a need to model practice. We in particular believe that we should not import to Northern Ireland methodologies and theories from abroad willy-nilly, that it is more important to reach into the indigenous common sense and wisdom of our society and draw out methodologies from what people know historically works. Our approach to training is very much based on being elicitive and drawing out from people what historically they believe works well in conflict and then to apply that and develop practice and theory from our own experience. We are involved, ourselves, as mediators on the ground. My colleague can explain our staff team in a moment but, just to finish on the areas of work, we are also involved in the justice system and in particular with policing and change in policing and we have been involved, initially from 1993 to 1996, on the development of a community relations component for the training of recruits. Since 1997 we have been working with senior police officers anticipating the changes that have come about through Patten. Now we are moving our police work along to address the new policing order in Northern Ireland which will involve civic institutions, ordinary citizens, politicians and of course the police service itself. We are also involved in the churches since religion is an historic theme of the conflict in Northern Ireland and the churches are still a very important institution in the life of our people. Therefore church activists and clergy are important leaders in the community and we are working with them again to improve their skills base and the conceptual development of conflict prevention in a church context. We are also working increasingly with business and commerce because it is understood that a workplace which is comfortable with diversity is more attractive for inward investment to progress. We are also increasingly involved with public institutions because it is recognised that institutional change in Northern Ireland needs to take place along with societal change, so we are trying to help bodies such as the Housing Executive, branches of the Civil Service and branches of the Health Service to look at the use of mediation and a new approach to conflict. We are really involved in a wide panoply of activity.
  (Mr Campbell) We have nine full time staff. Three of them are primarily in administration and the rest are practitioners, development officers of one kind or another. We have a volunteer from Germany who is with us who is primarily an administrator, and we also have an Australian with us who is doing a PhD in anthropology and studying conflict as it affects our Northern Ireland society. We have international people coming through from time to time and we can learn from them but we also like to think that we contribute to their learning.

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