The Transitional Justice Workshop: Northern Ireland as a Case Study
This unique workshop explored transitional justice concepts and mechanisms in the context of conflict-transformation, focusing on the case-study of Northern Ireland. It was first held by the Hebrew University's Minerva Center for Human Rights, as part of the Transitional Justice Program, in the spring semester of 2013, and again with new groups of students in 2014 and 2015. The workshop was developed and taught by Dr. Ron Dudai, a leading Israeli scholar in the field, who completed his PhD at Queens University Belfast and has written extensively on transitional justice
The Northern Ireland conflict was the bloodiest and most high-profile conflict in Post-WWII Western Europe. The peace process which led to the end of the conflict is considered largely successful, though tensions and violence between the communities still exist. As part of this process, a wide range of transitional justice mechanisms and initiatives have been established in Northern Ireland, both by the state and by civil society.
In the comparative study of transitional justice and conflict transformation, the Northern Ireland case is considered among the most complex and interesting, and in this workshop it served as a basis for a critical discussion of transitional justice in broader theoretical and practical contexts. The workshop examined issues such as dealing with the past, commissions of inquiry, reconciliation processes, institutional reforms and the role of actors such as civil society, armed groups, and former political prisoners. Importantly, the workshop also explored comparative aspects of the issues, including aspects relating to Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Ten top students of diverse academic backgrounds were selected for the intensive semester-long workshop, which included a one-week study tour of Northern Ireland. The tour included numerous meetings, workshops and site visits with politicians, civil society organizations, community leaders, ex-combatants and ex-prisoners from the various Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups, engaged academics in the fields of law, criminology and education, and students. As reflected in our students' testimonials, the course and study trip had a profound impact on the participants – providing them with academic and practical tools, with hope and with inspiration necessary to personally work for transition, justice and human rights in Israel.
"Going to Northern Ireland was a chance to explore a conflicted society as an outside observer. During our study trip we met academics, politicians and activists from civil society organizations, some of whom were ex-prisoners. The women and men who met with us spoke with great honesty about their personal experiences as well as their professional insights. As the days passed I felt that each meeting unfolded another layer of the story of Northern Ireland and made it richer and more complex. Thus I became more and more confused and troubled yet fascinated by this beautiful and wounded country. During these meetings I felt privileged to be introduced to such a variety of angles and incredible life experiences of the conflict. I was especially inspired by the people we met who promote coexistence and reconciliation between and inside the different communities, despite the immense hardships they've personally been through. Their actions and life courses led me to think deeply about my future personal path in Israel-Palestine….
I am still processing the great amount of knowledge given to me during our visit. Yet I already feel that observing closely a different conflict as an outsider has given me tools to better understand the reality I live, as well as inspiration for future actions and projects relating to human rights and transitional justice in our region.
I am grateful for the opportunity to go through this amazingly enriching experience."
- Raheli Hefetz (3rd-year Law student)
"I am a great believer in comparative research in general between conflicts, but I think that for Israelis in particular a comparative view is of decisive importance, far beyond academia or research. It has political and public significance, it presents new perspectives and it challenges existing frameworks of discourse. I believe that as many Israelis and Palestinians as possible should see Northern Ireland, in order to observe a place where a protracted conflict was overcome and change was achieved. Of course we need to avoid superficial comparisons… but the discussion is in itself vitally important and enables you to observe "your" conflict a little from the outside and from a new angle.
Throughout the trip thoughts are racing all the time between Northern Ireland and Israel/Palestine… about similarities and differences and what can be learned. Questions about the present – is the argument about the Protestant flag marches through Catholic communities similar to that regarding our Jerusalem Day marches of Jews through Eastern Jerusalem, or the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem?... And about the future – what role can ex-prisoners play in our process of reconciliation? Can the British apology over Black Sunday be an appropriate model in the context of Jews and Arabs in Israel?...
The makeup of our group had a huge contribution to the success of the trip. The group was excellent and the good vibe provided a very fertile framework for deep discussions both as a group and in the discussions that went on throughout the trip in informal smaller forums.
Thanks to the course and the trip I was able to dive into these issues in the deepest and most complex manner imaginable… I am grateful for the opportunity that was given to me."
- Lior Lehrs (PhD student in International Relations and Conflict Transformation)
"When we landed in Northern Ireland I was very sure of what I know... But already after the first day this sense of confidence was replaced by big question marks. It is true that you told us many times that if we are confused, we're on the right track… My confusion was due to the fact that you can't really say that the conflict has been resolved. Just from walking in a neighborhood in Belfast and seeing a gate in a dividing wall that is still locked at night in order to prevent passage between neighborhoods, just from hearing from about the failure of the mixed school system, just from the very fact that the receptionist at the hotel still whispers the word "Catholic" - I understood that "peace" is a more complex concept than I had grasped until now…
I came back with a big smile. The intensity of the tour, the meetings with people, the personal conversations with students in the group and with locals were a very powerful experience….
I want to thank you again for the amazing opportunity I was given to participate in the workshop. It is so unusual to be the recipient of so much access to information and openness from all of the speakers. This was the best educational experience of my legal studies."
- Michal Klein (LLM student)
"For some eight years now I have been engaged in social, educational and political activism in Israel…. During the last three years I have also been studying law, something I turned to in the hope of acquiring tools for social change. In light of the deteriorating situation in our region – the disenfranchisement and segregation that are less and less ashamed of themselves, the nationalism and racism that lift their head up high, both in the street and in parliament, and the absence of hope that any of this will change – I too began slowly losing hope….
How grateful I am for this week, that felt like a month, and was so packed with men and women working for years, in the field, every day, each in their own way, in work that is often so exhausting and discouraging, but from whose fruits – and from the determination and faith driving it – one can only be amazed. How wonderful and confusing it was to hear so many different perspectives - of politicians, academics, activists on the ground – on "what is this conflict about" and on how to deal with its implications. How riveting it was to deconstruct these dichotomies into sub-stories and absent or hidden or silenced stories, and to give them voice. How interesting it was to talk directly with people we met by chance because we happened to be there, in a market or pub or street. How moving was the generosity, patience and willingness to answer every question, however direct or personal, that everyone bestowed upon us.
Thank you for awakening the hope that had fallen asleep in my heart."
- Mia Biran (3rd-year student of Law and Literature)
"Like a forest after a fire, Northern Ireland 15 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement is sprouting thin branches through which one can still easily see the burnt ground and the struggle of new wisps to rise above it…. The trip to Northern Ireland was significant for me, as it enabled me to see myself playing a role in our transition from a society in conflict to a society that is going (one day) to turn to peace. It made apparent the roles possible for me in such a transition… The trip made it possible for me to look at our society here and now and identify in it those branches that are trying to raise their head despite the fire that is still burning."
- Enav Morgenstern (4th-year student of Law and Social Work)