Rethinking Conflict – A Conversation with Rev. Gary Mason

September 24, 2018

Building just and sustainable peace is a perpetual process that cannot be accomplished during a set time period or through the signing of a single peace accord, the price of maintaining peace is eternal vigilance. “Real, meaningful change can only take place during meaningful relationships”, which entails taking the time to sit down with the opposition to develop relationships, being willing and open to listening to others’ stories, and creating a safe space to address difficult questions of legacy, identity, and how we deal with our conflicting past and memories. These are just a few reflections of Rev. Gary Mason, Director of the conflict transformation organization, “Rethinking Conflict” based in Belfast, Ireland discussed on September 18, 2018, at the Alliance for Peacebuilding offices during an event co-hosted with the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy.

Watch the Full Conversation Here

Rev. Mason has served as a Methodist clergy person in the parish ministry in Belfast for the past 27 years and has played an integral role in the Northern Irish peace process. Based upon his experience as a close advisory to Protestant ex-combatants and his instrumental work in facilitating negotiations with paramilitaries and government officials, he shared his reflections and advice on not only the creation of peace accords but what it takes to negotiate compromise, weapons decommissioning, and the differences between a political peace process and a social peace process.

Reflecting upon this experience, he recommends six conditions that were critical to the Northern Ireland peace process and could have implications for other processes.

  • An active and willing political leadership that not only supports a peace agenda but is trusted by their constituents.
  • A willingness on all sides to take a risk for peace.
  • A desire on all sides to break the cycle of violence.
  • An openness to third parties and their potential support for peace.
  • A situation where attempts to resolve the conflict utilizing military force is futile and security is not guaranteed.
  • Support for and by civil society, including multi-disciplinary teams including religious leaders, women’s groups, lawyers, NGOs, historians, etc within the peace process.

Maintaining a multi-disciplinary team is critical towards achieving a social peace process, they become the inherent glue that will hold the process together during adverse and complicated situations. He reflected particularly on the role of religious leaders in supporting peace processes, cautioning that religion is a powerful force and religious leaders need to step forward more within the public space, taking “prophetic, strategic risks for peace”. Religious institutions by nature tend to be cautious, but he argues religious leaders can no longer hide behind their ‘fortress doors’, sharing their messages of peace only to their congregations. It is time for them to enter into the public space and use religion as a force for good.

Additional discussion centered upon how we can move forward out of violence while remembering the past, reflecting upon the human need to remember our fallen even in the face of counter-narratives. What is the difference between commemoration and celebration and what is the role of memory in truth and reconciliation processes? In the current political context in the US, where counter-narratives prevail around memorializing the Confederacy, both through waiving of the Confederate flags and the ongoing fight to keep statues and monuments to various leaders who participated in, advocated for, or outright fought to protect slavery, this conversation seems of particular relevance. It begs the question what are the lessons that can be learned from the Northern Ireland peace process and how can they be applied to this current situation? How are we able to give credence to these memories while at the same time recognizing the trauma and agony they can inflict upon a specific portion of the population?

Rev. Mason cautioned that “this stuff is just not going to be simple, and confusion and complexity can be a friend of peace.” He recommends, what he has termed, “Remembering Forward” that allows us to remember while at the same time having counter-narratives. There will always be questions or fairness and underlying assessments of what is actually good enough when we address questions of reconciliation, grievances, and even reparations, but if we are able to be forward-facing, have the patience to develop meaningful relationships, and be open and willing to change while being ever vigilant, peace is possible.

If you are interested in watching the full conversation, please visit our Youtube channel.