As part of Northern Slant’s reflections on the Good Friday Agreement at 20, Alina Utrata spoke to Byron Bland, an ordained Presbyterian minister and Senior Consultant at the Stanford University Centre on International Conflict and Negotiation. Byron worked with Community Dialogue in Northern Ireland for a number of years after the Good Friday Agreement was signed, facilitating grassroots dialogue initiatives. He is currently a Fellow at the Martin Luther King Institute at Stanford University and was in Belfast this month as a speaker at the British Council’s Peace and Beyond conference.
Byron Bland may not be from Northern Ireland, but he’s no stranger to divided communities. Growing up in the American South, he experienced first-hand the United States’ attempts to address racial segregation.
“My high school class was the first integrated class to graduate, right on the Alabama-Georgia border,” Byron said. “While there was much tension, and I am sure that many of the African American students felt more than a little intimidation, we underwent that transition with remarkably little violence. I remember it happening and it was new and no one knew what would happen, but the lack of violence was due to the personal character, strong faith, and powerful leadership of Martin Luther King.
“It is not that there was no violence elsewhere, but on the whole, when compared to similar social transformations of that scale, like for example the partition of India and Pakistan, what stood out is how little violence occurred.”
An ordained Presbyterian minister, Byron worked early in his career as the pastor of a predominately black inner city church in San Francisco. Later, he received a call from United Campus Christian Ministry at Stanford University, 30 miles south of San Francisco, asking him to be their campus chaplain.
“I wanted to do work in poverty and hunger programmes and something around peace issues,” he said. “Then I was hired by Stanford’s Center for International Cooperation and Security as part of their ethics program on nuclear deterrence.” International politics would turn Byron towards peace-building- and Northern Ireland.
“I remember [former Secretary of Defense and Stanford professor] Bill Perry walked into a seminar and announced that the Berlin Wall had just collapsed,” Byron recalled. “[After the Cold war] there was a rise in internal domestic conflicts… Another Stanford professor, David Holloway, asked me to host a cross-community delegation from Northern Ireland organised by a Jesuit priest named Brian Lennon. Brian and I formed a close partnership, and things went from there. In 1977, Brian spent about three months at Stanford where we planned and discussed the formation of a dialogue process for Northern Ireland.”
That relationship became the beginning of Byron’s involvement in Northern Ireland. “We knew that there would be an agreement,” he said. “But we also knew there weren’t the relationships at the grassroots to sustain it. So how could you build them?”
Brian Lennon, along with others in Northern Ireland, established Community Dialogue, an organisation that sought to encourage deeper understanding among communities and build a more peaceful society through grassroots dialogue.
“Community Dialogue was based on the assumption that, in the midst of tension, there was common ground that made dialogue potentially fruitful,” Byron explained. “If there’s not some common ground, then all dialogue does is clarify that. But while in Northern Ireland there were violent differences between ethnic and religious identity and constitutional status, and policing, and all that stuff — what people wanted their lives to look like was largely the same.”
Although there was talk about the past, Byron recognised that much of what was being discussed was about the future. “There were concerns about whether they could trust each other,” Byron said. “How did you find the trust to shake the hand of someone who had sworn for the last 30 years that they wanted to kill you?”
For Byron, the value of grassroots dialogue was not about achieving agreement or consensus. “What does dialogue accomplish? It’s rarely agreement.” he explained. “Hannah Arendt once said that what made human community possible was forgiveness and promise. And promise was the one form of political association that wasn’t bad on coercion. The question became if reconciliation is an exchange of promises, what are those promises about?” For him, this insight was key into understanding the Good Friday Agreement — and the impact it would have on Northern Ireland.
“It isn’t that agreements make for peaceful relationships. Peaceful relationships make agreements possible,” Byron said. “For example, in North Belfast, I’d be taken to a corner where two leaders of the community come together to deal with issues. When they reached an agreement, they became suspicious of how the other side would use that agreement.
“People seem to think that agreement leads to common understanding and gradually lead to deeper agreements,” Byron commented. “Our sense was that the opposite happens. Agreements have the potential to sow more distrust than trust. Agreements lead to greater distrust because they don’t pan out the way the different sides expect them to, and then you have to explain why there is failure.”
Although the two sides reached an agreement on Good Friday in 1998, Byron doesn’t think that means they reached a common understanding. “The Good Friday Agreement was sold to different communities differently — as the stabilisation of politics in Northern Ireland to the PUL [Protestant, unionist, loyalist] community and the process of political and social transformation to the CRN [Catholic, republican, nationalist] community. So, they voted for the agreement for different reasons.”
Community Dialogue came up with questions that would help participants shape discussions about a vision of a shared future: What do you want? What do you need? And what can you live with?
“I remember, on television years ago, they were interviewing a loyalist couple protesting about parades,” Byron recalled. “It was a gorgeous Belfast morning — so it was rainy and cold. And the presenter asked why are you out here, and the woman pointed and said, ‘because if we aren’t, they’re going to take over.’ And I thought that was an illuminating moment: that if they took over, we would have a future we could not live with.”
This type of situation, Byron explained, led to a hostile peace. “A hostile peace is a situation in which parties feel they have to block the aspirations and goals and efforts of the other side because if they don’t, they’re going to get a future they can’t live with,” he explained. “That’s what characterises politics today. It’s not about creating value together, it’s about preventing the other side from achieving its goals and objectives.
“The Good Friday Agreement was great and wonderful, but it was a starting point. The difficulty is formulating a shared future. The [GFA] is not going to automatically produce effective political relationships.”
Byron says that working in Northern Ireland has taught him many things, and helped him think about many issues in new ways. “[Northern Ireland] taught me that the liberal paradigm in which peace was the default position to which things return when disruptions are fixed was wrong. Rather, the default position was chaos. So if you broke political relationships, even if you fixed them, you went back to chaos not peace.
“Peace, instead, was something you constructed daily. Breaking political relationships have serious consequences that usually involve people getting killed. I knew from Northern Ireland first-hand what happens when you break them.”
For Byron, this insight has implications for the United States today. “Within the Democratic Party [in the US], there’s a question of what weight we give to the identity politics of cosmopolitan cities versus the bread and butter issues at play in the heartland. And what is disturbing is that they are seen as antithetical to one another. You get one or the other. If you think that there ought to be greater equality between different identities in cosmopolitan places, it is seen as a threat to bread and butter issues, and vice versa. It’s a tragic situation.”
But Byron is not hopeless. “We talk about trust as encapsulating interests,” he says. “It’s not so much a calculation as it is a judgement that if my interests are embedded in your interests, then as you pursue your interests you further mine as well. [In the US] identity issues should be embedded within bread and butter issues, so as you further one you further the other.”
Coming back to Belfast now, Byron says it is clear that things are vastly different than when he began working in Northern Ireland. “Belfast is very different than when I first came here,” he said. “It’s more open and thriving.”
And, for Byron, looking back on the past can provide important lessons for the future. “I went back to my high school reunion recently. While there, I remembered a commencement speech in which someone said: ‘As I look back, I don’t think anyone would say that I wish I was less kind.’ I think that is important to remember. Whenever we do things now, we think there are great justifications and that we are giving the other side what it deserves, and if we are harsh it will straighten them out. When you look back, I think we’ll wish we had been a little kinder in that situation.”
Kindness, it seems, may be an important lesson for both the United States and Northern Ireland as they respectively require difficult conversations around what a vision of a shared future may look like.
Originally published at Northern Slant.