It was poignant that Pádraig Ó Tuama spoke at Franklin & Marshall College’s Common Hour on Nov. 11, a day that has honored the men and women who fought and died in war since 1918.
Ó Tuama led the Corry Meela Community, Ireland’s oldest peace and reconciliation community, from 2014 to 2019. He titled his virtual conversation, “Making Language Work: Powerful Words for Powerful Divisions: Lessons and Mistakes from an Irish Peace Maker & Poet.”
“I’m particularly going to talk about mistakes,” the conflict-resolution mediator said, speaking from his home in Belfast, Ireland. “[I’m] going try and share some things that went wrong over many years of conflict resolution and some lessons that I’ve learned from those.”
The poet and theologian read some of his poems and told stories of his experiences mediating conflicts to illustrate points in his discussion on the challenges a mediator faces in trying to help find resolution.
“A conflict is a simple thing: I want something; you want something else. I have conflict with myself because different parts of me wants different things,” Ó Tuama said. “Conflict becomes difficult when you don’t know how to get past it or when something is so important or so bewildering that it creates a barrier for working together or living alongside each other or living with yourself.”
Ó Tuama works in Northern Ireland, which was created in 1921 when British-controlled Ireland was partitioned between north and south. In 1922, Southern Ireland, predominantly Catholic, became the Irish Free State while a majority, mostly Protestant, in Northern Ireland chose to stay under British control.
Through most of the latter half of the 20th century, conflict reigned in Northern Ireland between the Protestants and the Catholics. During “the Troubles,” more than 3,500 lives were lost and 50,000 people injured through violence and bombings.
As a conflict mediator, Ó Tuama first trained in neighbor-neighbor disputes, which usually meant working with two people living either near each other or in the same apartment block who are having a dispute over noise or property or behavior and it has escalated.
“I was always aware that my deepest interest was groups who were in conflict,” he said. “I was really interested where there were 30 people, 50 people, 200 people, an entire city of people in conflict. I am fascinated by how the tide of conflict and aggression and threat and pain and fear and history operate in a group like that.
“I’m fascinated by the language that’s used that way and I’m fascinated by the question, ‘Can we do anything?’”
Ó Tuama recited one of his poems, “The Pedagogy of Conflict,” part of which reads:
When I was a child,
I learnt to lie. When I was a child
my parents said that sometimes,
lives are protected
by an undetected
light lie of
When I was a child,
I learnt to lie.
Now, I am more than twenty-five
and I’m alive
because I’ve lied
and I am lying still.
it’s the only way of living.
Conflict resolution isn’t about everyone reaching a point of agreeing about everything; it’s about getting people to have “a fruitful disagreement with one another,” he said.
Ó Tuama told about one of his mediation experiences, where, not realizing who was in the group he was speaking to, he brought up a story of a bombing incident in the neighborhood to start a conversation. It unleashed hurt and anger in the room because some of the people knew the bomb victims, even recovered their remains, and others knew the man who set off the bomb.
So he spoke to their hurt and anger and said, “What was important was to say, ‘I know and I trust this room of people has lived with enough grief and complexity that you actually already know the way within which you can have a helpful conversation.’”
He added, “’You’ll probably still disagree with each other in the end. That’s fine, but I know you have the tools already because you are already living with the complexity of living in a place of division.’ And, indeed, they did. They absolutely did.”