War Resisters' International Triennial
Conference for Ireland
Stories and Strategies:
Nonviolent Resistance and Peace-building
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|Stories and Strategies:
a report by Rob Fairmichael
Some general comments first. In general it worked. There were less people than anticipated, a couple of hundred in total. A conclusion on the content might be that there were too many stories and not enough strategies. DCU (Dublin City University|) as a venue worked all right in general but at times the bureaucracy (particularly with some people unavailable on a bank holiday weekend) made life difficult. While involvement from Ireland was lower than I would have liked, I got the impression that those who did come and engage got a tremendous amount out of it, and I hope that INNATE will be able to maintain a relationship with most of these people. The workcampers (provided by SCI/VSI) were tremendous. I will explore some of these points in more detail during this article.
On a personal level I was pleased both to survive and feel that I had risen to the challenges put before me as well as I could. For example, the day before the free afternoon it was pointed out that this is usually used for interaction between locals and internationals. How could I set up programme overnight? The day it was happening I first told the plenary session that we had been worked on the programme for the free afternoon "for months, ever since I started talking to people about it last night". I explained an English language proverb; it was organised on 'a wing and a prayer', I said, but as the WRI is a secular organisation, it was just organised on a wing (well, Dorie Wilsnack thought that was funny). A 'marketplace' where locals offered and internationals sought out what they wanted to do led to various trips in various directions around Dublin. I led a group of twenty of more on a guided tour around the centre of Dublin, giving the socio-political spin from Parnell Square to Kildare Street along with personal anecdotes. Not having had any time to prepare, would I have enough to say? Yes, and more if I did it again (I forgot to tell them about the time the car we were in was swooped on outside the GPO, one special branch car in front, one behind, and we were questioned - all for being dangerous disarmament activists in a 'neutral' state!).
The theme groups which participants followed for four mornings in a row were at the heart of the Triennial conference. This was where people had a chance to really get to grips with one topic. I couldn't attempt to summarise what I don't know about but the theme group I attended, on 'International peace operations: what they are and what they could be' with Howard Clark and Christine Schweitzer in general worked well. In a field where there are currently different initiatives it was good to get to grips with a bit more - and to see Christine's typology of different kinds of operation, and how conventional and non-violent initiatives have developed. I still feel ignorant but less ignorant than before! And with more knowledge about where to find out more.
After lunch there was an opportunity to take part in workshops which anyone could offer, i.e. if you wanted to put on a workshop you put on a workshop and people voted with their feet. This is an important counterpoint to the morning programme in that it allows everyone an equal opportunity. There were a few people from around Ireland that I was involved in specifically inviting to run workshops. Again I would assume a very varied response but there was a broad choice so hopefully something for everyone. And there was also an opportunity for specialist interest groups regarding work with women, or nonviolence training, to get together.
The evening plenaries, after dinner, were a time when people were already getting tired but an opportunity for everyone to hear usually a few presentations and engage in plenary debate. As well as different aspects of story-telling and strategising from several continents, this included Glencree talking about their work primarily with victims and combatants of the Northern Ireland Troubles. One interesting story that I heard from Michael Randle in the evening plenary was the origin of the CND symbol (also featured in the current Peace News in a piece by Andrew Rigby) - use that next time someone accuses it of being a 'broken cross'! Florencia Mallon's point about honouring the stories that don't make it into the history books was an important one. Analysis was made of changes since 11th September 2001. And it is always is a privilege to hear directly the stories of struggles that people are engaged in, whether in West Papua, Vieques, Israel or elsewhere.
Social and cultural programme
Unfortunately the fact that we had less space than we expected in the Hub (the student centre in DCU) for social and cultural activities led to problems. An excellent local drama production (The Day the Music Died by a community drama group from Finglas) did not get the space they deserved for both their performance and the audience was smaller. I feared that it might take a simplistic view of Bloody Sunday, at some level; instead it was an amazingly human, and at times humorous (without detracting at all from the seriousness of the topic) look at a seminal event in the Troubles in the North. Really impressive, both play and presentation. Also impressive in a different way was Mary Begley and friends leading traditional music sessions several evenings (a number of participants contributed songs). But the lack of space meant those who just wanted to chat had to stand around or sit on the floor in the hallway of the Hub. And there were rumblings of discontent also from those who weren't into Irish traditional music (ochone!)....but it is difficult to please all the people.
My own contribution was playing the music (on CD and tape) to a written paper I had produced which everyone received, 'Musical musings on Irish history and culture'. This was intended (in 22 or 23 pieces over a couple of hours, in fact presented over two evenings) to both run through various aspects of Irish history and culture, and to introduce a range of Irish musicians, singers and groups so people had a quick introduction. It was two and a half thousand years of Irish history and culture in two and a half hours.
For the final celebration/party evening in future I would recommend the business programme ending at 6.00 pm so people get a decent evening of it. Tommy Sands was great, I thought, but with his session ending after midnight (the final plenary went to 9.30 pm) it was too late for some people to attend or perform in the extempore performances which we hoped. That said, it did not prevent inveterate night owls partaking in a drumming session (courtesy of Cormac Griffith) which kept on until nearly 3 a.m. - I was pleasantly surprised that DCU's security men let it run until then. We were certainly going out with a bang.
But meeting old friends and making new ones is an essential part of such a gathering. That and the craic and story telling that goes along with it. How could you not be amused as Gernot Lennert 'proves' that Ireland is really Turkish? Or laugh with the antics of assorted performances, intentionally humorous or not. Why, it nearly makes up for all the panic of being an organiser.
As to why the event was smaller than expected I have no one answer. There were people we knew wanted to come (i.e. people we had links with) who were not granted visas, e.g. from Kinshasa, Congo. The Department of Foreign Affairs' ruling that people had to have travelled outside their own country before (and returned) before getting a visa to Ireland was both insulting and illogical - but we did know there were people who wanted to get a booking simply to get into the country. If Foreign Affairs used as part of the criteria whether people had links with the organisation concerned, or shown involvement in the same field, then they would have been on more solid ground.
It is also true that Dublin is not cheap and accommodation at DCU, while reasonable by Irish standards, was not cheap either (and Dublin is now officially more expensive than Paris). Neither was to it possible to provide camping as a low budget option, which some Triennials have been able to do, not did fundraising and its lack of success provide the possibility of bursaries. Dublin is not now that difficult to get to, courtesy of Ryanair et al, but it is not as handy for most as the European mainland (for example).
There were many, many great people there. I include in this very substantially the workcampers, provided through Voluntary Service International (SCI) who were impressive and did a fantastic job; without them the logistics could not have functioned. Likewise the interpreters who kept Babel babbling on. The daily magazine provided an instant record and news of what was happening that day. Ordinary activists and individuals from around the globe were often inspiring. The WRI staff kept their remarkable cool throughout. And after all was said and done I did feel privileged that the Triennial had come to Ireland and to have been part of such an event. But it's just as well such an event only comes to a small country once in a lifetime....and in the unlikely event that it were to be more than once in my lifetime my answer would probably again be 'no'!
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