Peacebuilding and reconciliation through storytelling in Northern Ireland and the border counties of the Republic of Ireland

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Monday 16 January 2023

Maiangwa, Benjamin, and Sean Byrne. Storytelling, Self, Society 11, no. 1 (2015): 85-110.

The article begins by setting out the context of Northern Ireland following the Good Friday Agreement, arguing that the region had experienced a top-down peace process conducted primarily at the level of state governments and international institutions. While this process mostly ended violence in the region, it left intact the popular narratives that had maintained, and been strengthened by, the conflict; the article argues that prevents the status quo being experienced as a comprehensive peace by ordinary people living in the region.

It then moves on to discuss, in general terms, the potential role for storytelling in peacebuilding, in tandem with or following state-level negotiations; by bringing people into contact with the narratives of the other side of a conflict, it becomes possible to create a new narrative which all members of the community can share in, which can form the basis of much deeper reconciliation than formal, top-down peace negotiations. At the same time, the article recognises the potential limitations of community-based storytelling initiatives – when poorly moderated, or entered into with bad intentions, a storytelling event can merely perpetuate existing exclusionary or marginalising narratives.

The bulk of the article discusses a particular storytelling initiative which has taken place in Northern Ireland and the border counties of the Republic of Ireland, Towards Understanding and Healing (TUH). TUH took the form of focus groups including members of communities who had participated in, or merely experienced, the violence of the Troubles, from both Republican and Unionist backgrounds. Participants were encouraged to share stories of their experiences in a non-judgemental environment, and listen to those of others. Some participants reported a sense of being “rehumanised” by the experience, or of finding that other participants were rehumanised for them. The article discusses the concept of “emotional justice” which emerged from the initiative, as something generally felt to be necessary for reconciliation in addition to retributive justice. The article concludes with concerns that government funding for the initiative may shortly be cut off, emphasising that state investment in storytelling initiatives is vital for the establishment of social reconciliation after conflicts.

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