Lessons of Northern Ireland's shattered communities

October 18, 2004

Leaders from some of the world's shattered communities meeting in Hungary will hear from University of Ulster expert Dr Peter Shirlow this week about segregation in Northern Ireland - and ways in which community activists are trying to ease its divisive repercussions.

Participants in a high profile conference in the capital Budapest include academics and specialists who were aides to Israeli and Palestinian delegations at negotiations which led to the stalled Geneva Accord peace blueprint, the 2000 Camp David Summit and other initiatives. Taking part also are community leaders from Europe's most recent bloody conflict in the Balkans, including the Mayors of Mostar and Strpce.

A leading authority on Northern Ireland segregation, Dr Shirlow's extensive investigations into the problem have led to his invitation to speak at the high-profile "Divided Cities in Conflict Zones" conference. It is hosted by the Centre for Media and Communications Studies Unit at the Central European University, which is based in Budapest.

"The obvious reality is that our political situation is less volatile than that of Palestine-Israel. However, the Palestinian and Israeli delegates seek knowledge on how other peace strategies survive despite obvious difficulties," said Dr Shirlow, who is a senior lecturer in human geography at the University of Ulster's Coleraine campus.

"It is clear that despite some remaining instability within Northern Ireland, our peace process is seen as having achieved some degree of success and sustainability. Similarly, cities such as Mostar are dealing with a situation, like Belfast in the 1970s, that was affected by rapid processes of societal corrosion and segregation."

The invitation is seen as a recognition of the primary role that the University of Ulster plays in analysing conflict transformation nationally and internationally. Additionally, Dr Shirlow's work on segregation and conflict amelioration has been recognised as important in terms of influencing policy and community relations thinking in Northern Ireland.

He said the conference wants to hear how former combatants sometimes come together to try to defuse tension.

"I will be illustrating how the problems and divisions came about in Belfast, especially in the late 1970s, and looking at the impact in the city between then and now. I will also look at some of the ways in which segregation still creates instability and -- importantly I think for many of the audience - I will be describing some of the bottom-up, community level, initiatives that have allowed people from both sides of the divide to tackle or engage with the effects of segregation in a meaningful way.

"It is about showing that although you can't have a perfect solution to problems, you can negotiate at local level and resolve the Holy Crosses and other such disputes in a positive way. By a positive, meaningful way I mean a reduction of violence."

Among the speakers are Menachem Klein, Professor of Political Science at Bar Ilan University, who was advisor to Israel's delegation to the 2000 Camp David summit and a member of the Israeli team that negotiated the Geneva Accord. Klein recently spoke in Washington at the Carnegie Endowment under the sponsorship of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and Americans for Peace Now.

University of Ulster

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