The art of acknowledgment: re- imagining relationships in Northern Ireland
This is a unique time in Northern Ireland as it transitions from overt violence to relative peace.1 After 800 years of tensions between Protestants and Catholics2 in Northern Ireland, culminating in the extreme violence of a period known as the Troubles (1968-19983), there is now relative peace in the region since the 1994 ceasefires and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. As a result of these recent historical developments there are currently people alive with first-hand experience of the Troubles and, at the same time, there is a younger generation growing up in a more segregated society than that of their parents and grandparents. This setting provides a unique opportunity to explore how we repair relationships within communities that have been torn apart after years of violence and humiliation. This chapter focuses on reparation, as for example apology or other symbolic forms of restitution (Zehr 2002), at the level of the community, and in particular the relationships between the members of different social identity groups. According to Bell, within the transitional justice field there is an increasing “recognition that if a shift is to be successful, transitional societies must enact it in various extra-legal and non-executive domains” (2011: 325). In this chapter, we will present the findings from an ethnographic case study that assessed whether art combined with conflict resolution approaches can create alternative paths for individuals in situations of inherited conflict to accept the validity of each other’s perspectives, and the significance of this for the parties involved. After discussing the notion of empathy, we will describe how validation, recognition and acknowledgment can transform relationships. Following this, we will consider how art can support the conflict transformation process through an examination of a storytelling and visual art project that took place in Portadown, Northern Ireland in 2008 with an intergenerational group of Catholics and Protestants as part of the author’s doctoral research. The chapter closes with an analysis, using a restorative lens, of three of the five artworks that came out of the project; these artworks were made by the young participant artists as creative attempts to “put right the wrongs” (Zehr 2002: 19) they heard in the older people’s stories about life during and before “the Troubles”.