Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Written Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Towards Understanding and Healing

  Much is being heard of "storytelling" as options are explored for helping the people of Northern Ireland to "move forward from a history of division and conflict" into a truly shared society. As international situations of truth recovery, such as the South African model, are being examined for potential application to Northern Ireland, many people are asking if there are ways of translating such learning into a culturally appropriate model. One project that has fused international storytelling techniques with localised approaches in order to create storytelling opportunities for people affected by the conflict in Northern Ireland is Towards Understanding and Healing.

  Towards Understanding and Healing is an organisation that recognizes individual experience in the context of the larger story of conflict in Northern Ireland. Towards Understanding and Healing offers a safe space for people to begin to articulate personal stories and also to listen to other stories, or "truths," in a way that does not diminish their own experience. Because of Northern Ireland's diverse history and culture, no one person can tell the story of the past thirty years. This project emphasises the need to bring together all of the disparate narratives that comprise the story of Northern Ireland in order to better understand the effects of the past and the potential of the future.


  The 30 years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland left much pain and suffering in their wake. With the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, a space to finally address this pain began to appear. Agencies and organisations working on the ground saw a need for a project that could create a safe environment for individuals from diverse backgrounds to share their stories of the Troubles with each other across community boundaries. With this sharing, individuals and the wider community could begin to process the legacy of the conflict.

  In 1998, a working committee was formed, representing various agencies in the field of community relations/community healing. Spearheaded by Derry/Londonderry-based organisations, but comprised of membership from throughout Northern Ireland, the working committee established Towards Understanding and Healing as a Northern Ireland-wide project. As the committee began the process of establishing methodologies, the project was informed and influenced by other dialogue/storytelling projects both in Northern Ireland and abroad (see Influences and Methodologies). Based on the stated needs of their various constituencies, the committee began exploring the possibility of bringing a group of former soldiers and parents of soldiers killed in Northern Ireland to meet with various individuals interested in exploring and understanding the impact of the conflict and the consequences of the soldiers' presence in Northern Ireland.

  In November 2000, the first Towards Understanding and Healing residential was held in a safe, neutral location in Northern Ireland. The event brought together former British soldiers; parents of soldiers killed in Northern Ireland; victims of state and paramilitary violence from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland; former paramilitaries and community leaders. In order to provide a wider context for the participants, the entire process was influenced by contributions from representatives from areas of international conflict (To Reflect and Trust; see Influences and Methodologies).

  Due to the highly successful experience of the first residential and the subsequent requests for further residentials, a virtually identical event was held the following year. Again, demand was great for this type of serious storytelling encounter. In response, the Towards Understanding and Healing committee created an opportunity for people to take storytelling to another level. In early August 2002, Towards Understanding and Healing, in partnership with To Reflect and Trust, organized an international conference entitled "Peace is Tough". Taking place in Derry/Londonderry, the conference brought together a wide range of politicians and community activists from Israel/Palestine, South Africa, Germany, the United States and Northern Ireland to explore the relationship between those at the decision-making/policy-making level and those working at the grassroots level. The conference examined the compromises made towards the attainment of peace, what is meant by peace and the relationship between peace and human rights, among other topics.

  With the success of the first residentials and the conference, it became clear that there was a need for a continued Towards Understanding and Healing presence. The first three events had taken place on an ad-hoc basis as money could be gathered from various sources, and community relations practitioners had donated time to organise the events. In order to stabilise the organisation and to widen its scope, Peace II monies were sought and gained from the Special European Union Programmes Body. In autumn 2003, a full-time coordinator and part-time administrator took up post and began to structure a full, working organisation that could facilitate storytelling and dialogue-based encounters. Since that time, the organisation has continued to strengthen connections with other organisations in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Great Britain, and abroad.


  The development of Towards Understanding and Healing was informed and influenced by both research on the need for storytelling and dialogue as well as the experience and practice of other projects in both Northern Ireland and abroad. The three major influences are as follows:

An Crann/The Tree

  The primary model of practice was based on the work of "An Crann/The Tree," a Northern Ireland-based organisation set up to help people tell and hear stories of the conflict. Started by Damian Gorman, an internationally renowned writer and artist, and Maureen Hetherington, of Derry City Council, this work included storytelling at the individual/group level and used the arts to help people articulate sometimes-painful memories. The ethos of An Crann/The Tree was one of inclusivity and validation of all individual experiences. By gathering and sharing the disparate narrative, the organisation aspired to connect people to the human and emotional detail of the hurt that has been done to all during the course of the Troubles. In 1998, An Crann/The Tree's three-year plan came to a close. Towards Understanding and Healing was seen as the logical "second-phase"" of this important project, using storytelling and dialogue to help in the healing process.

Brits Speak Out

  Around the Good Friday Agreement in 1997-98, John Lindsay, a writer/researcher for the Guildhall Press, made contact with a number of former British soldiers who had served in Northern Ireland over the past 30 years. These soldiers shared their stories with Lindsay who compiled them into a book entitled Brits Speak Out—British Soldiers' Impressions of the Northern Ireland Conflict.

  In the course of the research it became apparent that there are many combatants and ex-combatants who suffer from social and psychological problems as a consequence of their experiences in Northern Ireland. Among those interviewed, there were soldiers who expressed the need to confront their past and the experience of serving in Northern Ireland. The soldiers who articulated their story felt that describing their experience was in some way therapeutic. A number of soldiers expressed an interest in revisiting Northern Ireland to engage in dialogue with a community that they perceived as the "enemy."

  Lindsay's research reinforced the idea that there was a need for a safe storytelling space. His book was influential in the inclusion of former British soldiers in the first residentials, which sought to encourage rarely-heard voices of people impacted by The Troubles.

  Consequently, Lindsay's pioneering work resulted in the inclusion of people from Great Britain in the storytelling residentials. Their inclusion then resulted in some of the first major acknowledgement of the suffering experienced by people from England, Scotland and Wales as a result of the Troubles. Towards Understanding and Healing became instrumental in helping to set up the Legacy Project (Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Trust, Warrington Peace Centre) in order to acknowledge and meet the needs of these victims/survivors.

To Reflect and Trust

  The format of the first residentials was based on two models. The first was an international model of practice entitled "To Reflect and Trust," which was set up by Prof. Dan Bar-On of Ben-Gurion University in Israel. Prof. Bar-On was responsible for creating a dialogue group between descendents of victims of the Holocaust and descendents of Nazi perpetrators. The model concentrates on interactive workshops where participants are encouraged to share experiences at a personal level within a group setting. Bar-On's research is focused on exploring holistically the generational reverberations of conflict on societies struggling to come to terms with their violent history.

  Prof. Bar-On attended the first two Towards Understanding and Healing residentials, bringing his knowledge and experience to the group as a guest speaker/facilitator.

  Prof Bar-on attended the first two Towards Understanding and Healing residentials, bringing his knowledge and experience to the group as a guest speaker/facilitator.


  Over the years, Towards Understanding and Healing has developed a two-pronged approach to facilitating important encounters. Storytelling allows participants to tell and hear personal stories in a fully supportive atmosphere. Dialogue provides participants with the opportunity to have more challenging exchanges as critical issues pertaining to the conflict in Northern Ireland are discussed. Both types of encounter take place in single-identity (ie only Catholics, only Protestants), as well as cross-community (ie Catholics and Protestants) contexts. Both storytelling and dialogue events are generally carried out on a residential basis, as this format allows for a greater feeling of safety for participants and the level of work that takes place can be more intense. Safety is a key aspect of every encounter facilitated by the organisation; however, participants are encouraged to allow themselves to be stretched and to grow as a result of these encounters.

  Because of the diversity and number of programmes carried out each year by Towards Understanding and Healing, it would be difficult to outline each in the space provided. However, some examples of programming include:

Storytelling Residentials

  Similar to the initial residential projects of Towards Understanding and Healing, these weekend residentials are held for people who have been impacted in some way by the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The weekend is designed to provide people from Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and Great Britain with an opportunity to come together to explore individual and shared experiences. The focus of the weekend will be an opportunity to connect with others through the telling and hearing of individual stories. This weekend will be a unique experience for many of the people who attend, bringing together people from all perspectives of the conflict in Northern Ireland to discuss its legacy in their lives. Past participants have included: people who lost children or partners in paramilitary bombings, people who lost a parent or partner who was serving in Northern Ireland with the British Army, people who were affected by State violence, loyalist and republican ex-prisoners, disabled RUC/PSNI officers, members of English police forces affected by IRA bombings, etc.

  Towards Understanding and Healing uses a very straight-forward, "no gimmicks" methodology in our storytelling process. In small, well-facilitated groups of approximately six people, participants are given the opportunity to talk about their life experiences in as much or as little detail as is comfortable. Each person can generally take as much time as is needed and speaks without interruptions. At the end, the speaker can decide whether or not to take questions or have any discussion about their story. This deceptively simple format allows for some very complex ground to be covered in individuals and in the life of the group. While this process is not psychoanalytical or clinically therapeutic, many of its results can be quite healing for individuals, opening them to possibilities that were, previously, not available to them. The storytelling process is always managed and facilitated by highly trained professionals, some of whom have training in clinical methods.

    "I had discussions with people who I never thought I would have access to meet and it was a very moving experience."

    "I was touched at a deep level hearing other people's stories and relating my own experiences, some of which remain surprisingly raw."

    "I found it very harrowing, but also enlightening—I gained a better understanding about people's loss and suffering."

    "Risk taking at its best!"

Storytelling Training for Community Workers

  For professionals working in the community who have not experienced the storytelling process, there is much confusion about what it is and why/how it is used. Particularly as increased mentions of storytelling come from higher government (ie the Secretary of State) in relation to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation process, people in Northern Ireland have an increased desire to know what storytelling is about. This residential training has been held for community relations workers to familiarise them with Towards Understanding and Healing's storytelling methodology. Participants experienced the storytelling process in small groups and received training in the process and ethics of storytelling. Facilitators were storytelling "veterans" from Northern Ireland who could lend their insights into the purpose, history and methodology of the storytelling process in Northern Ireland.

    "Must continue this work—needed in every community."

    "I would certainly like to take this back to the women's group within the community where I work and maybe with young people in a cross-community context."

    "I feel that I am leaving with a greater understanding and some skills."

    "Very helpful, very in-depth."

Dialogue-Based Conferences

  In the political aftermath of the Troubles, individuals and communities have been left wondering how to pick up the pieces of the experiences of the past 30 years. "After the Fighting Stops. . ." was a residential-based dialogue encounter that sought to highlight the increasing role of dialogue and storytelling as a way by which to give individuals a voice in piecing together the wider picture of what has taken place in Northern Ireland during the conflict. Specifically, the focus of the event was on concrete ways of achieving community healing and moving forward as a post-conflict society. This conference drew together a fully-representative cross-section of Northern Irish society, as well as those affected by the Troubles from Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland, to examine storytelling and dialogue as a tool in addressing the affects of the Troubles on individuals and communities.

  The conference sought to shake up the typical conference format by shifting the focus to direct dialogue between participants instead of the contributions of the keynote speakers. Participants spent much of the three days in small dialogue groups that met consistently throughout the conference. These small dialogue groups allowed participants to build trust with the members of their group that enabled them to discussing hard-hitting issues. The small group conversations were influenced by the contributions of the international speakers who came from situations of conflict in Colombia, Palestine, South Africa and Native American United States. These international presentations also allowed conference delegates transfer the learning surrounding trauma and healing from the experiences of those nations to that of Northern Ireland.

  The event had two goals. The first was to provide people with the opportunity for critical encounters and opportunities for dialogue that could affect changes in thought that could move the peace process forward on the political level, while generating the potential for personal and community healing. The second was to provide people with various models of effective storytelling. Increasingly, people on both statutory and community levels are asking for opportunities to dialogue about critical issues and to explore what storytelling really means in practice. This unusual and innovative approach to bringing people together created the space to accomplish both.

    "It's the first time I have had a privilege of sitting in a group made up of victims, survivors, ex-combatants, ex-prisoners and community workers. This has reinforced my belief that the cross-community work I am involved in is worthwhile."

    "What I have learned is that there is more to the `Peace Process' than political rhetoric and that there is a lot of genuine people who want to move themselves and their communities away from past hurt."

    ". . .that when individuals get a chance to meet the `other' and see the real human being, a miracle happens. Healing comes to both."

    "This conference taught me the real power of properly facilitated dialogue in a safe space where I could be me, face the `other' and for the first time really understand. It was a special and fantastic experience."


  Towards Understanding and Healing is an organisation that seeks to enable people who have been affected by the conflict in Northern Ireland to have access to "The Other" for conversations and encounters that would never, otherwise, take place. In this goal, Towards Understanding and Healing is finding a multitude of people who are willing to engage in this type of work. Contrary to what people might expect, former members of security forces, former members of paramilitary organisations, people who have been bereaved or injured, community professionals and "regular" members of society are eager for opportunities to access significant storytelling and dialogue encounters. While this work is not for everyone, the majority of those who engage in it find that it can lead to personal and societal breakthroughs. Towards Understanding and Healing hopes to continue, along with other organisations of our kind, to fulfil the need for these types of storytelling encounters in Northern Ireland's society.

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