Holding it together in Northern Ireland

Avila Kilmurray

The societal rollercoaster of political transition can be exhilarating but it is not comfortable. How can philanthropy offer a steadying hand? Over 30 years of political violence a small number of largely UK charitable foundations made courageous investment in integrated education (children from divided communities/religious identities); in civil society initiatives to chart pathways out of violence; in supporting the protection of human rights, including the documentation of abuses; and in funding community-based initiatives to build local advocacy, confidence and capacities.

Most importantly, the long-term members of ACF’s (UK Association of Charitable Foundations) Northern Ireland Interest Group were there for us. When we felt consigned to pariah status, their engagement said ‘We care’. For those of us working and funding in Northern Ireland this was immensely important.

The advent of the 1994 ceasefires meant the pace of transition was both rapid and uncertain. The question posed was invariably ‘What can we do to consolidate peacebuilding?’ One critical contribution was to keep faith with community activists that had been grafting away over the years of violence (women’s groups, human rights defenders, etc). All too often attention fixes on the latest media-glossed prodigal spokesperson and/or organization, sidelining local communities that have a diversity of needs, hopes and fears. Peace processes must include this diversity of voices if they are to be sustainable. The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, for one, recognized that.

Notwithstanding a backdrop of generous and courageous funding from the European Union through its PEACE Programme, responsive philanthropy made a vital contribution. Atlantic Philanthropies and the Ireland Funds supported delegations to share learning from other societies emerging from violence. Speakers, from South Africa in particular, helped shift the paradigm of political possibilities. The Community Foundation for Northern Ireland collaborated with Harvard University-based Project on Justice in Times of Transition to share grounded experience with community-level leaders from Central America, Asia and the Middle East. The message was invariably that change was possible, but needed to be understood and transmitted in accessible language. Then there were those Irish American philanthropists who took involvement to a different level, lobbying the US administration to provide visas for previously demonized Republican and Loyalist representatives, thereby enhancing the credibility of both with their home constituencies. Equally, the £10,000 grant from the non-charitable Rowntree Reform Trust helped the emerging Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition elect two women representatives to the peace talks.

But independent philanthropy was most important when it funded risk-taking initiatives – and there were many of them. There was the tentative reaching out when divided communities developed integrated plans to work for joint development across the ‘peace walls’. There was the self-organization both of the victims/survivors of violence and of recently released political ex-prisoners – both extremely sensitive issues, but critical to the underpinning of the peace process. Philanthropy supported community restorative justice initiatives (originally roundly condemned by the British Government), which worked to replace paramilitary punishment shootings of alleged ‘anti-social elements’ with non-violent community mediation – an initiative that later helped create more positive discussion around policing. It funded mobile phone networks to provide communication across peace walls in order to alleviate inter-communal violence. Grants for challenge and innovation resulted in the establishment of Healing through Remembering to address the still very divisive issue of how to deal with the past in a region that still fails to agree on its name – Northern Ireland, the North or Ulster!

With the passage of time what comes to mind is the importance of patient capital, well prepared for the flexibility of one step forward, two steps back. Philanthropy turned out to be an intelligent listener ready to ride out the transition with us, but not afraid to ask probing and challenging questions. It was able to say, ‘Lift your head and recognize how far you’ve come’, while offering resources that enabled us to respond to that fleeting moment of opportunity when the next step could be taken.

Avila Kilmurray is director, policy & strategy, at the Global Fund for Community Foundations. She was director of Community Foundation for Northern Ireland 1994–2014. Email avila@globalfundcf.org

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