Divided Progress: De-Constructing Time in Belfast

By Laney Lenox– 

From September-December 2017, I lived in the Beechmount area of the Falls in West Belfast. Although I had spent an extensive amount of time living in Belfast prior to this, both as an undergraduate and a postgraduate studying post-conflict society, like many international transplants to Belfast I lived in South Belfast near Queen’s and had only visited West Belfast on conflict-related tours. In September 2017, I completed my MA in Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queens University Belfast’s (QUB) Mitchell Institute and was working part-time at the QUB Admissions and Access Office. During my morning commute, I cycled from Beechmount to Donnegall Road, cutting through the City Hospital to reach Queen’s. This meant leaving a heavily Nationalist/Catholic/Republican area to cycle through a heavily Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist area, finally arriving in South Belfast. The area around Queen’s seemed relatively un-touched by the conflict memorialized in the other two areas. This commute took twenty minutes.

At the time, I was also working as an intern for the Prisons Memory Archive (PMA), a project focused on documenting experiences of incarceration in Northern Ireland during the ‘Troubles’. Much as my morning commute placed vastly different parts of Belfast in intimate juxtaposition, the PMA recorded stories from a variety of perspectives and placed them side by side, digitally speaking, on its website.[1]

I became an intern at the PMA through my interest in storytelling as a tool for ‘dealing with’ conflict. My master’s research focused on participatory storytelling processes and practices, eventually centred on how storytelling is used as a mechanism for ‘dealing with the past’ in post-conflict societies. I framed the work of the PMA through the storytelling theory of Michael Jackson. Jackson argues that humans make meaning of their own lives and the context of wider society through storytelling,[2] drawing on Hannah Arendt’s understanding of storytelling as the bridge between the private and the public.[3] In my PhD research, I intended to continue exploring this existential storytelling process, hoping to bring a new angle of understanding to the role played by oral history and storytelling-based archives in post-conflict societies in relation to ‘dealing with the past.’

Problematizing the term ‘post-conflict’ proved the first significant hurdle in my PhD writing process. As my research began to significantly focus on mechanisms for ‘dealing with the past’, I wondered how appropriate it was to impose a framework of linear progress on cities like Belfast. My old morning commute was enough proof that different parts of the city were not developing along the same trajectory. As that commute juxtaposed different parts of the city, and as the PMA juxtaposed different perspectives of the conflict through different experiences of the prison space, I began to view time simultaneously. That is, in order to understand how the past influenced the present and the impact this has on how we imagine the future, I had to divorce myself from a strictly linear understanding of time when writing about these processes.

During the first year of my PhD, my time volunteering at a North Belfast community centre made apparent that this divided progress was not just a concern of memory and history. It was economic as well. The areas of the city most affected by the conflict were also the parts of the city suffering the most poverty and economic disparity. Thus, to view progress as something with a strictly linear trajectory excludes the least privileged parts of the city.

Considering Belfast as a cohesive and collective space progressing at the same rate along a strictly linear timeline does not capture the complexity necessary to consider the diverse needs and desires that become apparent when spending time in various parts of the city. Sharing personal stories is a vital process because it creates space for nuance and disrupts or complicates dominant narratives. This type of inclusivity has the power to introduce new ideas and solutions.

Seminal peace studies theorist Johan Galtung suggests a distinction in definitions of peace, creating the now widely used binary in understandings of the term: positive versus negative peace. Negative peace refers to the cessation of everyday physical violence symptomatic of conflict, whereas positive peace refers to deeper structural change indicative of more just and equal communities.[4] Because building and sustaining peace requires structural change, Galtung argues that the introduction of new ideas is a necessary step towards inclusive transformation.

In an effort to continually keep my academic work grounded in on-the-ground peace-building efforts, this year I trained to become an ambassador for the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP). Through this process, I learned that the work of IEP is informed heavily by Galtung’s understanding of positive peace. Through the development of the Positive Peace Indicators (PPI), a system through which they analyse the state of positive peace globally in an annual report,[5] the IEP seeks to understand factors contributing to meaningful advances in social justice. The IEP also emphasizes the transformational nature of positive peace, reflecting Galtung’s idea that truly meaningful change only arises from changing the structures from which a conflict arose. The use of Galtung’s nuanced understanding of peace in concrete peacebuilding and peace measuring efforts indicates that striving toward writing about peace and conflict studies in a more complex and nuanced manner as academics is significant.

In my work, creating space for this type of inclusivity means rejecting all language attached to linear progress and strictly linear notions of time. Instead of ‘post-conflict society’, I now write ‘societies affected by conflict.’ Drawing on the work of Paul Gready and Simon Robins, I now discuss processes of dealing with contentious histories as part of transformative, rather than transitional, justice.[6] These distinctions are important not because the rejection of linear and homogenous progress is, in and of itself, a new idea. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that not all perspectives fit neatly within a dominant discourse or dominant temporal space. Problematizing dominant narratives is important because, as Jackson suggests, narrative-creation is the process through which humans make meaning. In order to ensure that this meaning-making process is inclusive, the challenging of dominant and exclusive structures is necessary. This includes structures as seemingly fixed as linear temporality. This acknowledgement of plurality within academic discourse around not only the ‘Troubles’, but also other protracted conflicts and the societies affected by those conflicts creates space for the truly transformational introduction of thoughts, ideas, and conversations necessary to establish and sustain positive peace.

 

[1] The Prisons Memory Archive, Accessed: 21 January 2020, Available at: https://prisonsmemoryarchive.com/

[2] Jackson, Michael (2002) The Politics of Storytelling: Variations on a Theme by Hannah Arendt, second edn. Cophenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press.

[3] Arendt, Hannah (1998) The Human Condition, second edn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[4] Galtung, Johan (1969) ‘Violence, Peace, and Peace Research.’ Journal of Peace Research, 6(3), pp. 167-191.

[5] IEP (2019) ‘Positive Peace Report 2019’ Accessed: 22 January 2019, Available at: http://visionofhumanity.org/app/uploads/2019/10/PPR-2019-web.pdf

[6] Gready, Paul and Robins, Simon (2019) ‘From Transitional to Transformative Justice: A New Agenda for Practice’ in: P. Gready and S. Robins, eds, From Transitional to Transformative Justice, Cambridge University Press, pp. 31-56

(Image: Albert Memorial Clock reflected in a building, Belfast, Wikimedia Commons)

Laney Lenox is a PhD candidate at Ulster University’s School of Applied Policy and Social Sciences. Her research examines the role of archives documenting experiences of incarceration in societies affected by conflict. She is currently conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Berlin, Germany, working with memorial and archival spaces as well as interviewing former political prisoners incarcerated in the GDR. Her work falls broadly into critical and radical post-colonial theory with an anthropological approach to field work. She is particularly interested in viewing linear time as a social construct and in understanding how this relates to power structures when discussing ‘dealing with the past’ in these conflict-affected sites. She previously worked as a journalist, an archival consultant, a creative writing teacher, and a community engagement practitioner for a non-profit organization. She tweets at @LenoxLaney.

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