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Lessons from Northern Ireland: Dawn Purvis on Reconciliation
Durham, NC - Born in Belfast, Dawn Purvis came of age during The Troubles, the civil conflict that left more then 3,000 dead in Northern Ireland by the time a peace accord was signed in 1998. A member of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) and expert in women's issues, she won a seat in the 1996 Northern Ireland Forum election and then in the 1998 Northern Ireland Assembly election, representing East Belfast.
Although she was criticized because of the PUP's links to a loyalist paramilitary group, she has been a staunch defender of the peace process as well as greater attention to the poverty and inequality that persists in the province. However, she resigned in 2010, after the murder of a Belfast man that was attributed to the loyalist paramilitary.
Purvis currently chairs Healing Through Remembering, an extensive cross-community organization made up of a range of members holding different political perspectives working on a common goal of how to deal with the legacy of the past as it relates to the conflict in and about Northern Ireland. Since 2009, HTR has hosted nine students who volunteer with peace-building organizations in Belfast through DukeEngage. Purvis also directs the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast, an NGO that focuses on women's and reproductive health.
This interview was conducted via email with Robin Kirk, the faculty co-director of the Duke Human Rights Center @ the Franklin Humanities Institute and the director of the DukeEngage-Northern Ireland program. Purvis speak on "Reconciliation -- Are the Concrete Walls the Stumbling Blocks to Peace Building?" at 5 p.m. Feb. 27 in the Garage at Smith Warehouse. The event is open to the public.
Q. What was your life like growing up in a place where communities were divided?
As a child, life seemed quite normal to me. I played with my friends in the streets where I lived. I went to a school a couple of streets away from my house. Whenever there was a bombing or shooting we were kept indoors. If it happened further away from where we lived I was allowed to continue playing in the street as long as I didn't go beyond it.
From an early age I knew there were people that lived just over the bridge and just below the Gasworks that did not like us very much. Sometimes they threw stones at us or would come into our streets and throw pipe bombs or fire guns. I didn't know why. I knew that the people in my community didn't care much for them either. They were different. They were not like us. This confused me because my best friend said her aunts and cousins lived over the bridge and I was sure they were just like her.
It was not until I got older that I realized life was not normal. Fear dictated how we lived our lives; where we lived; what hospital we were born in; where we went to school; who we played with; where we socialized; who we married; where we worked; what cemetery we were buried in. Fear of the other. Fear of the unknown.
Q. What inspired you to enter public life as a politician?
I never set out to be a politician. I was inspired by the people around me, family, friends and former combatants, neighbors and encouraged by members of the Progressive Unionist Party to get involved in politics to help improve the quality of people's lives and help work towards peace.
Coming to terms with the past is a huge challenge for many societies, including the United States. What are the top three lessons you have learned about this process?
This is a process, not an event or something that happens overnight; a process that is integral to building peace and stability. Also, this involves difficult and honest conversations. Finally, the benefits for individuals and society are transformative.
Q. It's clear that groups doing this kind of work are struggling for resources. Yet this is vital to the peace process. What do you see as the future for cross community work in Northern Ireland?
Peace and reconciliation work has often been dependent on resources from elsewhere, including European Peace funds, Atlantic Philanthropists, American Ireland Fund and such like. Groups involved in this work have struggled for many years making a difference with little or no recognition or legitimacy from political leaders.
Slowly, political parties in Northern Ireland are recognizing that this work is crucial in enabling them to do their jobs. They are beginning to appreciate the importance of dealing with the past to build the future and the type of society we want to live in. Having a cohesive, peaceful and stable society makes the government's job of attracting investment, growing the economy and creating employment much easier.
As external resources dry up the pressure on the NI Executive to fund peace and reconciliation work will grow. Therefore that political legitimacy for the work is hugely important in ensuring it continues. Where there is political will, then it usually follows that there are sufficient funds.
Q. Are there other processes of healing through remembering that inspire you?
Individuals inspire me. There are some very brave people in Northern Ireland who have had the courage to speak with honesty and integrity about how we deal with our past. These include victims, former combatants, journalists, and politicians.
They have stepped outside the label attached to them to explore what is possible and have very uncomfortable conversations with people they would rather avoid.
Similarly I have met and been inspired by individuals who have been brave enough to hold a mirror up to churches, organizations and the state in an effort to get them to reflect or examine what happened in the past and acknowledge the harm done. They do this, very often, in the hope that sufficient safeguards are put in place to ensure that no one will ever experience what they did.
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