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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The peoples of Burma may seem a long way from our peaceful existence here in the UK. But the peoples of Rohingha province have been described as the most persecuted people on earth such that yesterday the Pope urged the Burmese – “In the social and civil context as well, I appeal not to create walls but to build bridges. To not respond to evil with evil. To defeat evil with good, the offence with forgiveness. A Christian would never say ‘you will pay for that’. Never. That is not a Christian gesture. An offence you overcome with forgiveness. To live in peace with everyone.”
As it happens today finds me not too far away from Burma or Myanmar. I am in Vietnam and Cambodia. Every country has its examples of intolerance. The Hungarians on our boat on the Mekong might agree that the aroma are persecuted; the Palestinians by the Israelis; historically the Irish by the English. Persecutions of minorities is one thing but persecution of the people as a whole is another. In Pol Pots Cambodia his regime cleared out the cities of everyone to start again at Ground Zero – Ankhar is always right. Stripping everyone of their rights and their dignity and their freedom unless they belonged to the small cadres of Khymer a Rouge is frightening in its complete de-civilising influence. The prison S21 brought it home to us – this detention centre in Pnomh Penh was where over 20,000 supposed recalcitrants including hundreds of children were shackled to iron beds tortured and bludgeoned to death. Even the old school play equipment was used to hang prisoners up upside down with their heads dipped in jars of excrement. Truly awful.
Its a big step to draw analogies to all these horrors and U.S. In the UK. But such examples where we agree that we should never witness such things again and then they do, they just happen and we feel powerless to do so much to change things for the better. Maybe we can in our own way be little forces for change and transformation. The Pope is right to remind us that people a long way away from the comforts of home shouldn’t be treated as they are. I will send a further article on building bridges out here in Vietnam later.
Anthony Glaister Mediator Arbitrator and Adjudicator
01347 825278 or 07711 423649
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I have a son who went to the Rudolph Steiner school in York where they stressed that children need to develop at a pace that best suits them, rather than having an imposed curricula. He grew up in a school where there was great freedom of expression and lack of the pressures of exams and assessment. Steiner children developed into extremely imaginative and rounded adults. I was intrigued by this dumbing down of competition and individual attainment such as becoming top of the class or becoming a school monitor. My friend Qasim has just reminded me of a quote from that great Olympian Pierre de Coubertin "the important thing … is not to win, but to take part; the important thing in Life is not triumph, but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well. To spread these principles is to build up a strong and more valiant and, above all, more scrupulous and more generous humanity." The ideals of the early Olympians have to an extent been diluted by creeping nationalism and an absolute determination to win as whatever cost. But look again at more mundane events like the Eurovision song contest and you can see the sheer fun of running something done for the hell of it – after all it’s the taking part that counts. How can we apply the Olympian ideal to what we do in mediation?
In years of getting involved in dispute resolution I have seen countless contests between parties absolutely determined to beat the person sitting on the other side. But often winning and succeeding are subtly different. A success might for instance be a negotiated truce, or a disengagement on terms that might otherwise have been seen as an outright loss. So when many of us were trained as mediators one of the great advantages of mediation was to achieve a win win solution – everyone won. Well I never really liked using the word win with all its connotations. In lay terms parties often found the concept of winning by paying out a lot of money or by offering an apology they didn’t really want to give. We seemed to be trying a way to make the servient or paying party feel better about themselves by selling them an outright porky that they were really winning by paying less than they could have done had it gone to court. So rather than both winning why shouldn’t we dress it up as both succeeding in terms of achieving a satisfactory outcome. So the next time we talk about giving the parties ownership of the outcome, give them the confidence to make those difficult decisions that involve loss and compromise, but looked at positively they have ‘got to a deal’, they have succeeded
Today 24th June I gave blood. The act of donating a bit of you to help someone else has always struck a chord with me, and when I hear about those who have donated organs to others, I feel humbled and proud that so many people can demonstrate their shared humanity and inter dependence in such a personal manner. Of course we all make sacrifices at so many different levels, within the family, the work place, friends, neighbours and even people we don’t know at all. We appreciate that everything becomes inter connected particularly now as the world has become a smaller place. The Africans have a lovely word for it ‘Ubuntu’ recognising that in our shared humanity we are who we are because of us, and that we are all bound together in so many ways. Friends and enemies meet, listen to each other’s stories, understand each other more and maybe forgive each other. So Mandela not only struck up an unexpected relationship with his jailers, but once freed he gave them prominent seats at his presidential inauguration. I also remember the immensely moving sight of a South African judge who served under apartheid providing meals on wheels to elderly people who he had imprisoned in the apartheid years in that lovely documentary film ‘One day after peace’. If we are able to give of ourselves and as Mandela did recognise the power of both forgiveness on the one hand and genuine remorse on the other, we can all play our part in making something positive out of an otherwise dire situation.
Now where does that take us today – the day after the referendum. I have had friends ringing and emailing me using phrases like ‘it’s a total disaster’ and ‘I have let the younger generation down’; I have had French friends ask me simply ‘Why?’. Had it been the other way round no doubt there would have been similar comments the other way round. Life has to move on and politicians now have to heal the rifts left behind by a very angry and at times vicious debate. Amidst all the political and economic turmoil with political heads rolling, a crash in the value of sterling, and the prospect of a very uncertain future, there needs to be a small voice of calm, a period of quiet reflection and restoration. Talk of retribution and dire consequences, of UKIPs plea encouraging other European countries to join the exit, all this excites and exacerbates the hurt on either side. Respect for politicians and institutions has to be earned, and frankly of late that has been wanting on either side. In the campaign politicians like litigants in courts attempt to damage each other below the water line; in Europe they warned constantly of the awful consequences of the UK withdrawing.
There have been some encouraging signs from the Brexit camp with Boris Johnson urging moderation and reconciliation. Undoubtedly good grace and moderation by the winners will encourage the healing process with those that have lost. Choosing the right words sets the tone for conversations and meetings to come. Personally I would encourage all politicians to take time out informally and together to take what William Uri calls a walk from NO to YES. I would encourage anyone who hasn’t looked at his TED talk to do so – and I apologise for constantly mentioning it – https://www.ted.com/talks/william_ury?language=en . The healing process shouldn’t begin with the formalities of official meetings in the public gaze. Time to reconnect informally, it it’s allowed, and only once the relationships have got back onto an even keel should the very difficult areas for discussion be tabled. Giving formal notice under Article 50 of the European Convention should be delayed. Quiet deliberation encourages understanding – it’s just as much a problem for UK Plc as it is for Brussels. Maybe I am being over optimistic, but peace and reconciliation and maybe even apologies all round may follow. Giving blood is painful – but its worthwhile remembering that we are all in this world together like it of not. But I still think I shall need something stronger this evening than a cup of tea to get over my shock. Maybe its still too raw, or maybe taking the dogs for a walk will assist. At least they can tell the difference between a Biscuit from a Brexit.