Memorandum submitted by Towards Understanding
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
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 OutBritish Soldiers' Impressions of the Northern
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
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:
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
"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 enlighteningI
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 workneeded in
"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."
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.