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Text: Derick Wilson Page Design: John Hughes

Understanding Conflict ... And Finding Ways Out Of It

"Understanding Conflict ... And Finding Ways Out Of It"

by Derick Wilson
Published by the University of Ulster, Coleraine 1990
Paperback 15 pp

Out of Print

This material is copyright of the Centre for the Study of Conflict and the author(s) and is included on the CAIN web site with the permission of the publisher. Reproduction or redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.

"Understanding Conflict ... And Finding Ways Out Of It"

by Derick Wilson

Centre for the Study of Conflict
University of Ulster






The Project


- Direct Work with People


- Aids for Study and Teaching


- Research


The Project Team


Project Management and Resources


- Accountability


- Adminstration


- Locations




Appendix 1 - Groups we have worked with


Appendix 2 - Referees


"Understanding Conflict .... and finding ways out of it" is a project that seeks to make training, study materials and research available to people and groups interested in community reconciliation. The Lawlor Foundation, working through the Corrymeela Community, provided initial seed-funding for five years. Subsequently two other charitable trusts have offered further support.

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In Northern Ireland people do not talk about politics, religion and history unless they know who they are talking to. The fact that we all belong together is denied time and again.

The Northern Ireland conflict has many dimensions. It embraces, among others, selective histories and memories; divergent cultures; the geography of Ireland and Great Britain; politics; class; business and trade unions; prejudice and bigotry; religion and the churches; unemployment and emigration.

"Understanding Conflict ... and finding ways out of it" has been initiated by four people who over the years have worked in Northern Ireland on programmes and projects of the Corrymeela Community, a reconciliation group.

Working with many groups (See appendix 1) we have found that we need ways of exploring and recognising our differences and the difficulties between us before we can try to find ways forward together.

Through these meetings we have deepened our insights into life in Northern Ireland and beyond. Living here, the task is to make it possible to meet and establish relationships which transcend the walls of silence and of violence, that often divide us. In this manner we hope to find new ways forward together.

Even in the event of a political breakthrough, it will be a long journey to better relationships together. The perceptions inherited from and generated by continuing mutual suspicion and distrust are very strong. They have led us into two decades of civil conflict and the violence itself often reinforces them.

Where there are different experiences of violence there is always the danger that we make the other side's violence worse than ours. Opposed perspectives on this question can again generate very bitter arguments and deepen division.

In this society we avoid talking about these things at all in order to preserve any good relationship we think we have. In this way even good motives preserve the division.

Visitors to Northern Ireland frequently are surprised by the extent to which 'normal' life goes on for the vast majority. They are impressed by the physical beauty of much of the countryside and the kindness and hospitality of its people. This kindness and hospitality make the problem still more complex for, paradoxically, this kind and hospitable people are the same people able to do and live amidst so much violence.

Our experience convinces us that those who try to do this work need relationships that give sustained personal support. The Northern Irish situation and the feelings evoked by it are so strong that anybody who tries to understand it often becomes the victim of strong emotions, both his/her own and those of others. To sustain those in this work, and to understand the feelings and to think clearly about ways forward, trust and teamwork are needed.

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The Project

Real possibilities to live together in Northern Ireland only grow as we meet, trust and eventually work with one another. In our work we ask people to speak about their experiences and in this way we learn together about the sense of antagonism without becoming absorbed by it. We learn how the 'others are not a monolithic bloc full of self-justified enmity toward us but made up of people like ourselves, full of doubts, anxieties and fears.

We build bridges through our understanding of each others' experiences which often free us from the circle of angry self justification. We become part of new relationships which free us of fear and often of the sense of being alone. In Appendix 5 we give an example of our work with a group.

Important steps have already been taken. Through our lives and work we have known many people who were in violence, who have suffered under violence and who have found peaceful ways forward.

We have, within our group, specialist knowledge of history, politics, philosophy, psychotherapy, education and theology. We have worked in community development, Christian education and psychotherapy. We have experiences of working within formal and informal education, church and ecumenical organisations, voluntary and statutory bodies.

We will seek to work together with people within schools and colleges, universities, community youth programmes, the churches, voluntary organisations, community and reconciliation groups. We hope to work with those in business, trade-union and political life who express interest.

The three complementary strands of the project are:

(A) Direct Work With People

(B) Aids for Study and Teaching

(C) Research

In each area we outline the groups and programmes of work we wish to do.


(a) Responding to requests to assist projects working on understanding community conflict

We have already responded to many requests by groups (see Appendix 1). Usually they are made up of people from different backgrounds on a cross-community basis. With them, we have explored the questions they have about their lives, their projects and the predicaments they face. These have included experiences of violence and hurt, the nature of conflict and how to live in the midst of it and the possibility of finding ways of peace together with other people.

After these initial meetings groups often seek ways to continue to work together further e.g. Youth and Community Workers planning joint programmes; Senior School Pupils developing new forms of inter-school links; cross-community meetings that were followed up by school staff meeting to develop resources for teaching.

(b) Establishing regular meetings of small study/training groups that meet for a period of time

Out of our work to date and linking with the work of the Corrymeela Community and other groups we are in contact with through the Centre for the Study for Conflict there is considerable evidence that many people wish to meet on a regular basis. The purpose of such meetings is to support one another in difficult situations, to deepen our understanding of one another and to seek new ways forward together. We will support such groups. We will meet on evenings, and/or days and/or on a residential basis to suit the wishes of participants.

These groups will be formed out of the existing networks we belong to and the members and activity will lead us to others. Groups will be formed with the intention of having a life-time of up to three years. We have been involved in a preliminary scheme of this nature which has worked for three years and much has developed out of it. Members come from community work, social work, teaching, youth work, medical care, church, trade union and business backgrounds.

(c) Development of future leadership, especially among young people

The development of community leadership is especially important for future reconciliation work in Northern Ireland. We have learned this within the Corrymeela programme. This is especially true for young people within the so-called 'seed groups'. Young people join a one-year programme of six residential weekends and have follow-up meetings. Many of these young people now work in community reconciliation projects while others maintain deep and continuing friendships that cross traditional barriers and have lasted for many years.

There are now many adults and young people coming forward into different expressions of community reconciliation work. We will invite groups of people to participate in such groups, using community and residential settings.

(d) Offering courses, seminars and conferences of an occasional nature

The project will offer opportunities for those who wish to begin to understand conflict and who are seeking new ways in Northern Ireland. This will be done through seminars and occasional conferences.

We hope to use the short course programmes of both Northern Ireland Universities with regular courses and seminars. In addition we will build on the work of the Corrymeela Community in Ballycastle and Belfast by offering day, evening and residential courses.

We have already taken occasional courses and conferences (e.g. Anglo-Irish Encounter; Ecumenical Youth Council of Europe). We have found them to be important starting points for many people. We see considerable additional opportunities for courses arising out of recent government policy changes in respect of community relations.

The intention of these approaches is to increase the number of people confident and competent in cross-community work and assist them to take their experiences into public institutions and community life generally.


The most important work is the direct work with people and groups. However it is necessary that the work be supported and supplemented by carefully developed study and teaching materials. The work will complement what is happening in formal education. We will therefore develop and contribute materials which are from our viewpoint relevant to politics, history, mutual understanding, cultural heritage and religious education.

Youth Service policy and Community Relations policy are also changing and our work with local groups will assist community understanding programmes. Out of this common work we hope that relevant community education materials would evolve.

A leading publisher of adult education material has invited us to prepare material on community conflict for consideration with a view to publication.

Teaching materials we wish to prepare will cover a wide range of topics and subjects of which the following are examples only:

  1. new study texts on the politics and the history of the North of Ireland for senior school pupils and undergraduates;

  2. narratives and stories about reconciliation in forms suitable for schools, youth organisations, churches and adult education programmes;

  3. biblical materials on rivalry, conflict, violence and scapegoating.


The distinguishing feature of this project is that we are not only involved in University work but that we are part of the life of Corrymeela. Because of our experience of life in Northern Ireland and some of the reconciling work of Corrymeela we no longer regard instability as something extraordinary. From where we stand it is peace and stability that need to be understood.

In our understanding of politics, fears and anxieties are now the foundation. Political breakdown in Northern Ireland has shown us that once relationships break down normal politics and normal assumptions about a stable society do not any longer work here.

We wish to continue and develop these insights through a series of connected research themes. As a first step we intend to pursue work in the following areas.

Frank Wright:

  1. Writing a history of Ulster in the nineteenth century to emphasise tendencies which acted against polarisation. Most of the problems of this period have re-emerged today. (This concept has been provisionally accepted by Gill and Macmillan).

  2. Theme: To expand the theory of communal deterrence Writing a version of 'Northern Ireland: A Comparative Analysis', for a non-specialist readership.

Duncan Morrow:

Theme: The ways in which violent conflict manages us

  1. 'The Churches and Inter-Community Relationships in Northern Ireland'

  2. Currently undertaking research on 'Violence and its effects on West Belfast'

Derick Wilson:

People living in the midst of violence and conflict

  1. Collecting, analysing and reflecting on the issues arising from the narratives of people in the conflict

  2. Gathering material suitable for training people in the ways that have been open to small groups to effect change in the midst of communal conflict.

Roel Kaptein:

Background Reflection

  1. Scientific reflection about models to analyse conflict and to understand specific case studies.

  2. The relevance of Old and New Testament stories and other biblical texts for the study of experiences of conflict and finding ways of peace in Northern Ireland.

  3. Supervision of the work done.

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The Project Team

The project team consists of three members who live in Northern Ireland and one consultant. One member will work full-time, a second part-time and the third will work regularly in an associate capacity. All four have considerable experience of reconciliation work.


Derick Wilson is a science graduate of Queens University, Belfast. He took a postgraduate diploma in Youth and Community Work at University College, Swansea, after which he worked for the N.I. Community Relations Commission (70-73).

After establishing professional courses as Senior Lecturer in Youth and Community Work at the Northern Ireland Polytechnic, (73-78) he was Director of the Corrymeela Reconciliation Centre at Ballycastle, County Antrim (78-85).

He was supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and Foundation Charles Veillon (85-89) to research reconciliation work and develop forms of training appropriate to supporting people in this work. During this time he spent a term as guest researcher at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, University of Uppsala, and the Life and Peace Ecumenical Institute there. He was Chairperson of the Youth Committee for Northern Ireland (87-89) and a member of the ad-hoc group seeking to establish a new Community Relations Council (88-89).


Dr. Frank Wright is a Political Science Lecturer at Queens University, Belfast since 1973. In 1987 he became half-time in order to undertake commitments in this kind of work. He took the University Prize in Politics at Trinity College, Oxford, in 1969, and achieved First Class Honours there in 1970 in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. He was a Research Fellow at New College, Oxford, 1971-73. His publications include "Northern Ireland: A Comparative Analysis", "Reconciling the Histories of Protestant and Catholic in Northern Ireland", "Reconciliation of Historical Traditions in Ulster", "The Agrarian Opposition in Ulster Politics 1848-87", "The Ulster Spectrum", "Protestant Ideology and Politics in Ulster".


Dr. Duncan Morrow is a graduate of Oxford and Edinburgh. Having studied politics in Linz as an Austrian Foreign Student Scholar he is now a Research Officer at the Centre for the study of Conflict at the University of Ulster. He has just completed a study of the Churches and Inter-community relationships and is currently undertaking a research project on North and West Belfast on the impact of violence and community relationships. Duncan has taught and lectured in politics and peace studies at the Universities of Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Ulster, and worked voluntarily for Quaker Peace and Service, Corrymeela, Save the Children (Belfast) and Farset City Farm (Belfast).


Roel Kaptein is a retired person living in Holland. He was a civil servant and then studied law, theology, medicine, art and history in the Netherlands and Switzerland. He has been secretary of the council of pastoral care and of the council for church and family of the General Synod of the Dutch Presbyterian Church for twenty five years. He has worked for many years in the German Democratic Republic and in the German Federal Republic and is a trained psychotherapist.

As a member of the Dutch-Northern Irish Committee he has worked for ten years with many groups in Northern Ireland and with the Corrymeela Community. Groups have included youth workers, community workers, social workers, teachers, probation staff, clergy, politicians, community groups, doctors, psychiatrists and others. He has written extensively in journals in Dutch, German and English and has had several books published.

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There will be an advisory group consisting of two academic staff of the Management Committee of the Centre for the Study of Conflict (One to be the Director), two members of the Corrymeela Community and others nominated by funding bodies as required. This Advisory Committee will meet on at least three formal occasions per year.

Foundations supporting the project will be invited to visit the project frequently and will receive six monthly financial and narrative progress reports. If any foundation wishes special information about the progress of the work at any time, this will always be given.


Financial contributions to the project will be channelled through the Corrymeela Community, a registered Charity (Number XN 48052A) or direct to a named project account at the University of Ulster. All project finance will be administered by the University Finance Department and will be accounted for as per standard University procedures. All fees payable by groups with means will supplement the resources available for extending the project.


The project is based in the Centre for the Study of Conflict at the University of Ulster. Members have access to library, seminar and conference facilities, research back-up and office accommodation. Frank Wright will work out of Queen's University.

We will make use of meeting rooms in Corrymeela House, Belfast and residential facilities and meeting rooms at the Corrymeela Centre, Ballycastle, Co. Antrim.

The project will draw on the expertise and contacts of other teaching, programme and research staff.

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