Today it is exactly a year before we are destined to leave the EU with its connotations of separation and isolation. Che sera sera whatever will be will be. It’s odd that someone as European as I should reflect now on the benefits of distancing ourselves from our continental cousins. The first break from the continent happened thousands of years ago when literally we broke off creating the channel that divides us now and the white cliffs of Dover that welcome those that cross it from the other side. Cliffs and channels like walls are dividers that some would say have kept us safe from many a foreign invader since the dawn of time, just as the roads and byways between the Republic and Northern Ireland bind it together in an admixture of personal and business ties matched by the blending of the landscapes.
But is the Channel, La Manche, and the resulting cliffs as much of a divide as meets the eye? We are a nation of shopkeepers and merchants continuing to cross borders whatever the politicians are proposing, as we cannot be an isolated island just as the borders between northern Irelánd and the South cannot contain and won’t contain those com d’habitude who cris cross the border daily.
In a sense borders like the Channel soften the divide. Sometimes in life we need the in between, the space, and it’s good to have the grey between the black and the white. Right the way down to our personal relationships space allows for individuality and scope to grow together in a much more fulfilled life than something overly centralised and suffocating. New relationships based on a wider experience can develop, and we should shun those who want to take back control regardless of the need to embrace, trade, share and co-operate. We need to relish the grey! So there’s a challenge there for any globalisers like me to change the invitation to separate to a new kind of sustainable co-existence, one that relishes ones own space whilst at the same time embracing our neighbour – this is perhaps a fitting message this Eastertide wishing you all a very happy and blessed one.
There’s a sign above monasteries welcoming strangers. ‘Pax Intrantibus’ or Peace to all who enter – words that evoke both hope and promise. This connotes the idea of retreating from the harsh realities of the world outside to inner, islands of peace. But it’s a lot wider than that. Peace isn’t just something internalised and private; peace should be our legacy, our mandate and our mission.This sets a fitting theme for my review of the year end 2017
So much of what I have written in previous issues hones in on the abject failures of people to communicate peaceably with each other. The last year has seen our politicians raucously claiming utterly untenable and extremist positions – Boris on Europe, Trump on just about anything, Junker in his determination to treat England punitively, and then there’s the Israelis and the Palestinians providing a Mexican standoff. There were little signs of promise to come with Mugabe going in Zimbabwe and Zuma on the way out in S Africa, and signs of some progress in passing the first Brexit hurdle. Even the stock market rallied. But there’s been an underlying gloom about the standing of those in responsibility, in the growing inequality between the haves and the have nots, in the willingness to spend billions on Trident rather than the NHS, in Natanyahu expanding settlements in the Occupied West Bank and crowing over Jerusalem – all these dampen the hope and promise for 2018.
There’s a lot more that those of us who think and breath peace and mediation can do to improve things in our world next year. So don’t let the peace within stop our striving for a peace without.
In mediations we were used to things being hushed up such that you have to be there to see the action as one side makes an offer and the other bats back with a counter offer. Politicians don’t have the luxury of doing things quietly as if it isn’t the subject of a press announcement on the day, it’s leaked and all over your front pages. To our shuttle quietly plying our trade between two or more rooms is matched by the super shuttle designed as much to inform a wider audience whilst very publicly parrying with each other.
What a spat we have had over the past few months as David Davis moves up from nil to somewhere close to €50,000, and Herr Junker seems to stick at rather more. I won’t ponder the political considerations, but starting at an extreme position simply encourages the other side to reciprocate making it harder to find the centre ground that the timetable dictates we should be up to. Had we simply seen the result after a series of secret meetings, there would be shock and horror from the home crowd as they would neither know how you got there, or fawned consent to what emerges. So understanding and appreciating different stages of the negotiation and somehow being seen to authorise or rubber stamp the next stage is a necessary pre requisite of the super shuttle. But to a timid commercial mediator looking in it all seems sometimes like pistols at dawn.
Maybe they would have avoided some of the testiness had they sat a little longer in smoke filled rooms with a glass in hand rhumb nations on the possibilities rather than the improbabilities showcased in recent months.
Doubtless many of you will have kept abreast of the way international politics seems to be heading – there is more of an inclination now to build a protective wall of words or concrete as if it were to make the world a better place by lambasting ones enemies in spontaneous tweets or making contractors rich in building seemingly impenetrable wall. The Romans did it with Hadrian’s Wall to keep those barbaric Scots in ancient Alba. If my history serves me right, the Chinese replicated it by building the great wall to keep out the Mongol hoards. Alcatraz was meant to keep bad people in. Our great castles bear witness to an age when walls were there not only to protect those within but to dominate those without. Walls stopped being built defensively when we had learnt the lesson that they are pretty ineffective – particularly against the cannons. But wasn’t it Sir Isaac Newton who said that we still build too many walls and not enough bridges. It was always thus. We bang far too many people up in prison to protect the public just as Israel builds walls to keep people in perhaps emanated by Trump keep Mexicans out. In or out the merry dance continues like some
The latest offering on the wall in Bethlehem
But we have seen time and time again that there ought to be no constraints to the human mind and no walls to dampen the human spirit as humanity wins in the end – we have seen it in Germany when the wall came down; it worked in Northern Ireland despite many a slip; we see it every day when some Israelis and Palestinians are willing to cross the divide and to work, talk and break bread together. ‘Love recognises no barriers. It can jump hurdles, leaps fences, penetrate walls to arrive at its destination full of hope’ (Maria Angelou). So really we don’t need cannons to defeat the whole point of having walls and fences. Those of us old and wise enough to see through all this destructive rhetoric, all these knee jerk tweeted reactions to events that go on around us, we have a task in hand; we have work to do to educate particularly young people that there are older kinder and better ways to communicate with and treat each other. It is often the weakest in our societies such as refugees and others who have lost everything that bring out the best in us – such as the wonderful spirit of those who helped at the Grenfell Tower or those supporting victims and offenders in the restorative justice programme. Our connectivity to each other should triumph over our own destructive tendency to isolate, protect, wall out the enemy. Mankind is so silly you have to laugh sometimes at just how thick we all are at learning the lessons of history.
Making light in the Walled off Hotel Bethlehem. We are all walled in in the end … so!
Few of us will have been unmoved by the tragic story of Charlie Gard, the baby whose body had all but shut down being kept alive by artificial respiration. There were such profound differences of opinion between Ormond Street Hospital and the parents that it necessitated the decision of judges to decide on the fate of Charlie – a decision that no judge could possibly wish to make. This week the parents decided that their child had deteriorated in the months of legal wrangling top the extent that recovery of any meaningful support wasn’t achievable and it was they rather than the judge that made the decision to switch off his life support. Did anyone mention the possibility of mediation? You had to await the judge’s , Mr Justice Francis’s, decision for mediation to be mentioned:
“I have already expressed the opinion that I believe that it would, in all cases like this, be helpful for there to be some form of Issues Resolution Hearing or other form of mediation where the parties can have confidential conversations to see what common ground can be reached between them. I believe that that type of hearing, be it Judge led or some other form of private mediation, would have led to a greater understanding between the parents and the clinical team in this case. I am not saying that it would necessarily have led to a resolution, but I think in many such cases it would and I would like to think that in future cases like this such attempts can be made… Almost all family proceedings are now subject to compulsory court led dispute resolution hearings. I recognise, of course, that negotiating issues such as the life or death of a child seems impossible and often will be. However, it is my clear view that mediation should be attempted in all cases such as this one even if all that it does is achieve a greater understanding by the parties of each other’s positions. Few users of the court system will be in a greater state of turmoil and grief than parents in the position that these parents have been in and anything which helps them to understand the process and the viewpoint of the other side, even if they profoundly disagree with it, would in my judgment be of benefit and I hope that some lessons can therefore be taken from this tragic case which it has been my duty to oversee.”
From what one gleaned from the reports, the publicity encouraged people to take sides and you had everyone from President Trump to the Pope weighing in. The pressure on the parents to do what they thought was right for Charlie must have been unimaginably difficult, and no-one should criticise them for wishing to travel that extra mile even if there was but one tiny jot of hope there for him. But wind the way back to the appeal raising over a million pounds before proceedings were started by the hospital; at that stage the parents and the hospital must have been aware of months of litigation – during which Charlie’s prognosis was bound to get worse, whilst support matched by increasingly unachievable possibilities got greater. Had there been an opportunity through some sort of assisted mediation as then judge would have wished at the very least there would have been a better understanding of each other, or even some agreement found. Some years back you may recall the Alder Hay Hospital case where children’s body p[arts were retained by the hospital unbeknown to the distraught parents. There were a series of private mediations which resolved all or most of the cases against the hospital. Parents wanted by and large a chance to say how much they were affected and to seek an explanation and a suitable apology from the hospital. Charlie’s case just might have been resolved this way. In highly emotive cases such as these there is a real case for compulsory mediation. I don’t like the word ‘compulsory’ as it sounds combative and formulaic. But there’s no doubt that if people in conflict are given space and privacy they usually cherish that opportunity to build bridges not walls. More the pity that in this case the opportunity to do so doesn’t appear to have been canvassed let alone taken up – there were no winners. God bless little Charlie.
What a difference a week makes. One minute our PM espouses strong and stable sentiments only to get a pasting at the polls, and she now appears to be becoming far more contrite in the process. I meant to do a piece so soon as initial lambasts on Brexit occurred. My message then is the same as it is now – the tougher you sound the greater the gap becomes between you and those you wish to talk to, as they just respond with gusto sounding equally bombastic as our PM did in her desire to please her home audience. Of course far from pleasing them they stuck two fingers up to her and look at her now.
Poor old Nick Clegg admitted in his final speech before departing from the stage on election night that if you live by the sword you die by the sword. Maybe he had all politicians in mind as us Brits take adversarial politics to a new level whilst maintaining our British respect for democracy and politesse. They use of course words not swords, and let’s look at how those words are put over. John Major famously used a soap box like those used in Hyde Park to carry his message to a far wider audience than choosing highly controlled venues, and he looked the part. There is little you can probably remember about his clothes – 50 shades of grey more like! Whether you are putting you message across to voters or setting up your stall for negotiations to leave the EU – words, tone and style all matter so much. The word ‘hand bagged’ became much more popular in the Thatcher years as handbags and the Iron Lady seemed to be permanent bedfellows. She was a keen advocate of getting those she dealt with in an upper arm twist, such that hearts and minds followed. But she had style and a sense that she was the right person to have around at the right time. Sharp words, brusquely stated, brightly coloured pointy shoes and large beads seemed to be Theresa May’s favoured negotiation tactics and that seemed to reinforce her overall demeanour in her dealings with European politicians in particular and just about everyone one else on the home front – the archetypal awkward woman. But used bluntly diplomacy or the lack of it simply widens the gap and adds to the differences, rather than true diplomacy being used as the velvet glove of power – if the likes of Merkel can wield power without raising her voice beyond that of a Teutonic bonne maman then why don’t others follow suit?
Let’s look at it in the round rather than just as a commentary on how a politician looks. Moderating your language and reducing unrealistic demands encourages reciprocal responses, and looking and sounding the part helps. As mediators we are constantly encouraging parties in what are usually pretty difficult conversations to sound as if they want to engage with the opposition – using positive and non-adversarial language put over in a manner that seeks to persuade rather than cajole. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we are asking them to under-sell their claim or the veracity of their response. They have come to the table to do a deal. I constantly see people in conflict using extreme language and making extreme claims and responses that simply make doing deals harder – that is after all why mediators are brought in to assist these negotiations. The deeper the hole or the more extreme the differences the higher the bar becomes to doing some sort of acceptable deal. When you eventually do get round to negotiating, by saying that any deal has to be on our terms and looking the part – how does that look to those your negotiating with? Looking at Europe – as I can’t resist the political jibe – anyone with a tiny bit of brain would know that we need inwards immigration to function and that the rights of nine tenths of those working here from Europe are needed and should be respected. Similarly in Europe the Schengen Treaty is if not dead in the water in need of life support. So safe and secure borders are now very much on everyone’s agendas. If such things are pretty obvious then why on earth don’t politicians narrow the gap by saying so? If it has to be a good deal all round so that all parties get a mutually beneficial outcome then why isn’t everyone involved sounding the part? Was it Theodore Roosevelt who said something like ‘speak softly and carry a big stick and you will go far’. Maybe handbags will come back into fashion?
Today we learnt that that Martin McGuinness that stalwart of the Northern Ireland peace process died. He symbolised so much how people can change their perspective – one moment a terrorist the next a statesman advocating peace and reconciliation. Coming from a family with deep roots in both Irish Catholicism and Scottish Protestantism I sort of saw it from both perspectives born twixt one and the other. But I was lucky in having what I call a good start. Martin didn’t have that start; he was born in the Bogside area of Belfast, an area which some commentator described someone there as being born to fail as if someone on the other side of the divide was born to succeed. Life then as now can be very unforgiving for some sections of our society. But then he changed, transformed from a raptor to a dove because he realised sometime in the 1980’s that violence begets violence and rarely succeeds in achieving the aims of the aggressors. Does that make him a saint or a reformed sinner?
We see people in history making good of their lives after bad starts whether that be debauched soldier turned saint St Augustine of Hippo, who said ‘God grant me chastity and continence, but not yet’, or the reformed ex prisoner Jonathan Aitken. The point may be that very few examples in life of people who are innately and completely good or bad. As David Morrissey once said ‘ I think where you don’t know where you stand with someone, they can surprise you in their goodness or their badness, and that makes them human’. So in mediations I rarely come across people who are either utterly good or utterly bad; everyone has an element of both; everyone is – well – just human. But it is when the good shines through, through repentance, renewal or rediscovery of our humanity that is what history records and that defines the legacy we leave behind.
I would like to say it’s me draping banners over Tower Bridge or that at least it’s me on the left. I can only say I way there in spirit. More later on language, Trumpism and where goes empathy.
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