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Billy King


Nonviolence News


War Resisters' International Triennial Conference for Ireland
Stories and Strategies: Nonviolent Resistance and Peace-building

Areport by Rob Fairmichael (August 2002)

To assess something which you're intimately involved with is difficult. While I was out of the main Dublin-London axis for the War Resister's International Triennial Conference, 'Stories and strategies - nonviolent resistance and social change', I was nevertheless centrally involved. This meant that while aware of much of what was happening, beforehand I was not so much in the whirlwind and during it I was too busy to engage in some of the conference. But in any case a large conference like this has many different personal experiences depending on the sessions people choose to go with, who they interact with, the language groups they can be part of, et cetera.

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 morning plenary start, as usual, included somebody telling their own personal story in 15 or 20 minutes. These are always an inspiring start to the day. We all face difficult struggles of varying kinds; some may be more mundane, some more dangerous and risky, some more varied, but all represent the struggle of an individual to be true to themselves and to overcome violence and live nonviolence. Siva Ramamoorthy's journey from non-violence to violence and on to nonviolence in Sri Lanka was one; the gun which he felt would liberate him became with time a burden and a pain. But keeping the faith in the face of the mundane can be difficult in a different way. While we listened to people who might be considered to have a particularly interesting story I hope that part of the message is - anyone there could be sitting in the hot seat telling their story. We all have a story. And that was part of the Triennial message as well.

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
There is a difficult act to do in arranging enough social and cultural programme and not too much. After a day's work, with an ending time for plenaries at 9.30 pm, 10.00 pm is a realistic starting time and this is already late for many people, particularly for those not native (English language) speakers for whom listening to English as lingua franca was tiring.

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.

Home Stay
I was also responsible for a home stay programme which enabled Triennial goers to stay with Irish hosts for a few days. At one stage it looked like I would have too many visitors and not enough hosts but a number of the enquiries fell through. Then in fact some of the 'more organised' enquirers either couldn't come or didn't have additional time (after ten days away). In fact what happened was that many people were fixed up with accommodation during the Triennial for afterwards either informally or through the WRI structures; this was bound to happen. But despite the relatively small numbers for the pre-organised home stay programme I think it was important to offer it, both for those who wanted to be organised and for those who might not get to meet people who offered them accommodation. The opportunity to stay in homes was an important component of being in Ireland and it is something I would like to see for future Triennials (staying in the country concerned - not in Ireland!). We had a small but useful seminar in Belfast, with WRI Triennial attenders from four continents, the Monday after the Triennial ended.

Business sessions topped and tailed the Triennial. One question of debate was whether the next Council (annual meeting) should take place in Columbia or whether it should be a stand alone conference. So it was a question of how to engage with the Colombian situation, and engage with Colombian activists, rather than whether to (it was decided to hold the 2003 Council there). Another piece of business encouraged engagement on the anniversary of the attacks on the USA on 11th September.

You need your head examined to want to host a big international conference. Prior to the decision being made for Ireland as the venue, I had opposed it coming on the ground that the infrastructure was too weak. Unfortunately I proved to be right; that is not to apportion blame since a) it had to happen somewhere, and b) most of the Dublin groups are very small and have to work hard to keep their heads above water. As the involvement in the organisational logistics by supporting groups in Dublin was less than anticipated, most everything local fell to Siva Ramamoorthy and Pat Barrett to do. They did remarkably well to survive. Thank you, Pat and Siva, and to the WRI International Office for coping with what I would consider uncopeable. What we did we did and what we didn't we didn't. And if we wanted to do what we didn't do then we should have planned to do something different. To do a mighty focus in a large general gathering is very difficult. Maybe that should be looked at for the future. I leave it to others to make overall judgements but my inclination would be to agree with the statement at the start of this piece that not enough strategies emerged. Would it have been unrealistic to expect more? Probably, unless the input and orientation had been different. A planning fault? Quite possibly.

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'!

  • Comments on the WRI Triennial are welcome to be included in the next issue; by phone, fax or e-mail.
  • Some material including the daily paper at the Triennial are already on the WRI website at and more will appear there in due course.
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