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Many paths to peace

Opportunities for the peace process
in Northern Ireland

Dai Williams, 10 September 1999

{valley of peace - between Omagh & Enniskillen}
Valley of peace near Kilskeery, between Enniskillen and Omagh (B46)

Hope for the wider peace process
Social control, change and empowerment
Psychological factors in the peace process
Harsh realities
Empowering the peace process
Attachment 1: Different levels of society affected by the peace process
Attachment 2: Examples of growing points - the seeds of peace
Attachment 3: Changing values & culture in Northern Ireland

Hope for the wider peace process

For years Northern Ireland has got a bad press in the UK and overseas. Media attention has been hijacked by reports of violence and intimidation. Bad news weakens public and business confidence. Good news rarely makes headlines but is vital to get a balanced view of the wider peace process. This study was a quest to find positive indictors or "growing points" in Northern Ireland in April, July and August 1999.

Government priorities and media coverage concentrate on the progress of high-level peace talks. But focusing on one level created a bottleneck, made it vulnerable to issues like de-commissioning and deadlines and has delayed the process by 3 months.

The wider process reported here gives reasons for greater confidence, provides a different context for the Patten Report and Mitchell Review and highlights opportunities for rapid change. It offers an anchor during initial reactions to Patten.

1. Observations

  • The peace talks are the top level of a wider peace process.
  • This wider process involves people at all levels of society in Northern Ireland - from families and communities to economic, religious, political and state organisations. (see attachment 1)
  • Multiple levels in the wider process offer many paths to peace.
  • There are many growing points in the peace process. (attachment 2)
  • These growing points are individual people who have accepted the need for change in their own lives and communities and have found the courage to work towards it.
  • These individuals come from all communities. Their changed values represent a new order that transcends old divides.
  • Hundreds of people are active facilitators initiating dialogues, reconciliation, mediation, support or partnership programmes.
  • Peace has become an industry in Northern Ireland, with export potential.
  • Thousand of citizens are now acting as catalysts in the peace process. They bring courage, hope and new values to their families, friends and communities in their daily lives.

2. Implications

  • These growing points give evidence of a wider peace process. They give clues to the natural social and psychological processes for healing and transformation that are occurring in parallel with constitutional reform.
  • These growing points indicate a fundamental shift in values and behaviour from a divided society to a new order based on hope, co-operation and mutual respect (attachment 3). Constitutional change is a key part of this wider social transformation from civil war to peace.

Social control, change and empowerment

Social control is exercised through law, politics and religion, and other institutions. In Northern Ireland law and politics favoured one community resulting in conflict. The Peace Agreement addresses these issues with proposals to enhance democratic processes and social justice.

But social change has to start in the hearts and minds of individuals and through them in their communities and organisations. To enable this:

  • The peace process has to take account of psychological processes that can inhibit or empower individuals in times of change.
  • Individual empowerment must be part of the peace process at all levels.

Psychological factors in the peace process

1. Social identity - different identities, different realities

  • Deep-rooted divisions in Northern Ireland have led to separate cultures.
  • Each group has its own reality that maintains loyalty and reinforces negative beliefs about other groups. All groups have painful memories.
  • Symbols and rituals - flags, banners, badges etc. express and reinforce traditional identities. They can represent solidarity and insecurity in groups.
  • Groups that force individuals to deny the new reality create deep contradictions and stress. Injustice or violence from other groups has enabled these old prejudices to survive - loyalty based on fear.
  • The peace process involves fundamental changes that threaten old identities and hence resistance to change - unless groups recognise the need to adapt.
  • Dialogue is a key to mutual understanding - "This is my truth tell me yours". It sheds light on the shadows of the past and starts the possibility of personal and social change. Ignorance breeds fear; knowledge creates new opportunities.
  • Researchers in the University of Ulster and Queens University are experts on this theme. For details and links visit the CAIN website (Conflict Archives on the Internet) at http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/index.html

2. Transitions - human responses to change (refer article in Futures)

  • People don’t give up deeply held beliefs easily. But human survival depends on the ability of individuals and communities to adapt successfully to trauma and change in their personal life or environment. Evolution has made this possible through a psychological process called transition.
  • Transitions can be caused by any major life event, good or bad, that radically alters our life or work. Most people experience 10-20 transitions in their lives.
  • Transitions have several stages that usually take 6-12 months to work through. People adapt superficially within days or weeks. But contradictions to deep beliefs or future hopes are suppressed or denied for several months, leading to anger, depression or fear and to a deep inner crisis typically 6 about months later.

Figure 1: The transition cycle - a template for human responses to change.
{The transition cycle - a template for human responses to change}

  • We grow through our changes. To resolve a transition crisis some obsolete belief, taboo or broken dream has to be let go. This defining moment may involve taking risks and putting one's career on the line. But then it liberates the individual and others to move forward and start to come to terms with the new reality. Mo Mowlam's visit to The Maze, and David Trimble's first meeting with Gerry Adams are examples of defining moments in Northern Ireland politics.
  • The transition recovery stage that follows can happen in a few weeks. It is a natural healing process that liberates great energy and optimism to successfully complete the transition, particularly after loss or trauma.
  • Personal transitions are crucial to the wider peace process. They are one source of the "growing points". They explain how individuals can adapt to a new reality with radical changes to their beliefs or behaviour eg victims or relatives becoming leading community workers, and ex-prisoners rejecting violence to become mediators or politicians.
  • Major events that affect many people at the same time may trigger mass transitions
    eg the Good Friday Agreement, the Referendum result and the Omagh bomb, with potential for mass changes later.
  • Trauma for a whole community can trigger a powerful 'collective recovery' within a year - as seen at Omagh this spring and summer.
  • Individuals unable to let go can be trapped in an extended crisis for months or years, until some new trauma or change releases them. This may still apply to many people in Northern Ireland after years of traumas and many people who feel threatened by the peace process because they may fear losing their job, past identity or status - whether paramilitaries, politicians or police.

The violence and prevarication this year may have represented an extended crisis for many paramilitaries and politicians who have not yet come to terms with the peace transition started by the Referendum. Quitting is one response to a transition crisis. But individuals can find opportunities to break out of this fear to take up the new reality within weeks of another major event. e.g. soon after the Patten report, or in the New Year after the Millennium shift.

3. Hope and fear - the psychological climate

  • When communities are under stress for a long period a climate of fear builds up. Under extreme stress individuals revert to ancient fight or flight behaviour. The fight reaction leads to anger, mindless violence and atrocities. The flight reaction is a response to extreme fear causing refugees to flee their homes.
  • Psychological climate is a key factor in the level of violence in a community. The peace process must include ways to reduce anxiety and fear. Better employment prospects and housing reduce anxiety. Bombing and intimidation increase it. The Referendum gave a massive boost to hope but delays in the peace talks risk increasing anxiety again.
  • World leaders involved in the peace process must have been affected by the rise in global tension during the Balkans war. But the quieter parade season this summer suggested a better climate than the tension in July and August last year.
  • The overall psychological climate in Northern Ireland has been improving for several years as international aid programmes took effect. Current uncertainty in the peace talks is likely to be a short-term fluctuation against an improving trend. If they fail tension will rise rapidly with the risk of a new cycle of violence.

The issue of psychological climate raises these questions:

  1. How to calm and stabilise the psychological climate in Northern Ireland long term i.e. from civil war to peace?
  • How to manage short-term fluctuations in tension and not over-react to provocative incidents, whether due to local events or global tension?
  • How to become less dependent on politicians outside the region for the timing and strategy of the peace process?


Harsh realities

1. Sticking points - peace with justice?

Although the main theme of this review is to highlight progress in the wider peace process I recognise that major problems still have to be resolved.

  • There is a deep legacy of injustice and mistrust from the years of the Troubles.
  • Prisoner releases are a major concern to victims, their families and many others. But within a year of release some of these prisoners may have become stabilising influences in their own communities as they work through their release transition. Former political prisoners re-offend less often than other prisoners. The release policy may have had unrecognised benefits. Their progress needs review.
  • Victims, their families and communities have legitimate grievances - a sense of rough justice, left behind by the peace process. They need to feel that their sacrifice is honoured if not avenged, or that there is some repentance by those responsible. The daily programme "Legacy" gives a voice to their pain. In South Africa the Truth Commission was designed for this purpose. Action needed.
  • The issue of Republican de-commissioning seems closely linked to restructuring the RUC, needed to build confidence in Nationalist areas. Loyalist decommissioning will depend on a reduced threat from Republican groups. So both will depend on implementation of the Patten report
  • Reform of the RUC is a fundamental issue to the social justice agenda and to a better quality of working life for the police. The Patten Report addresses this in detail now available for consultation.
  • All these sticking points are very complex, inter-related issues that will take time to work through, preferably in stages with time for ongoing dialogue and review. They need high levels of trust that will take time to develop. They involve fundamental transitions for individuals involved that will take at least 6-12 months to work through for acceptance. They cannot be "right first time" - improvements will emerge in their transition recovery stages. This will be helped if less complex issues are acted on first, improving the climate for trust and change.


2. The Millennium challenge - celebration or chaos

Another harsh reality is approaching fast - the possibility of moderate to severe disruption from the Millennium bug. If there are few problems then next year can be a time of celebration. But the possibility of disruption in other countries is very serious, and possibly in parts of the UK.

Many businesses and public sector organisations have made careful preparations. But the Government does not seem to intend to involve the public and communities in contingency planning.

There is less than 4 months left to prepare for possible Millennium disruption. The highest priority needs to be placed on 'community readiness' programmes if public panic is to be avoided in December and possible chaos in January.

Community readiness programmes are an ideal opportunity for many more organisations to plan and work together, quite different from any current political agendas.


Empowering the peace process

This is a critical week in the peace process with the Mitchell Review in progress and the Patten report out on Thursday. This review suggests there are many reasons for hope. It also indicates priority areas outside the peace talks and urgent practical issues needed to empower the wider peace process

1. Acknowledging the wider peace process

  • These observations of the wider peace process suggest that the tide of peace has already turned in Northern Ireland. At full flow it will be unstoppable. In Seamus Heaney's words "Then once in a lifetime that longed for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme."
  • There is a need for further study and recognition of the wider peace process in Northern Ireland and its progress. If political leaders and parties assess this themselves they may find more confidence to move forward on the high-level talks.
  • Regular media recognition of the wider peace process could pay tribute to the "Growing points" - much as "Legacy" does for victims. This could encourage further initiatives and build confidence at all levels.

2. Cultivating the growing points

  • Many growing points for peace and reconciliation give clues to further opportunities for the transition to peace. They exist at all levels from families to party leaders.
  • Northern Ireland is becoming a world leader in the peace industry
  • The value of community dialogue in helping to increase mutual understanding is becoming better recognised. The value of partnership programmes in many projects and organisations has been emphasised by aid programmes that reward it. Partnership in local councils could be extended by more incentives eg devolving more power as well as resources to those with partnership schemes.
  • Individual transitions offer a key to enabling greater commitment to peace through society in Northern Ireland. It would be valuable to learn more about the transitions that have led many individuals to become catalysts in the peace process. This may give new insights for helping others to gain commitment to change in their own communities and organisations.
  • Organisations can be growing points too. Those that recognise the value of transitions for personal development can also use it to gain new insights for organisation development and change - both in business and communities. Companies like Shell International have incorporated transition management into planning strategic organisation changes. This could enable organisations to adapt and participate more effectively in the new order that is emerging.

3. Reducing the fear

  • The peace process seeks an end to violence and intimidation and to promote greater democracy and justice. But it also threatens the future power and purpose of many individuals and organisations gained during the Troubles or earlier eg in politics, paramilitary groups, security forces and organised crime. This will have created new fears for some of those who oppose the Agreement.
  • The anxieties of all these groups need to be recognised. They will need to find a new purpose and status in the new order before they are willing to let go of their previous roles or behaviour eg decommissioning.
  • Reducing these fears can be helped through personal and community development programmes, retraining for alternative employment, or becoming involved in new projects. No group must feel left behind.
  • Groups that are under pressure to change will feel threatened. It is important for them to value their past achievements in their own terms before they are asked to let go of some of their old practices or identity, even if other groups dislike or despise them. This is a well-known problem in take-overs and mergers. It will be very important in the RUC and in paramilitary groups.
  • Changes for these individuals and organisations will involve transitions and transition management skills too, as for the growing points described above. These can be passed on in group briefings or through the media.

4. Transformation to peace

The peace process is about seeking a transformation throughout Northern Ireland - from a divided population to a more optimistic, dynamic society while still respecting the diversity of different traditions.

Transformation is used loosely in business and politics to represent an ideal goal for change. Transition theory suggests that large-scale transformation can only grow out of the mass of individual transitions. The new order may be different from what was first expected because of the new insights gained by individuals and groups as they recover and adapt to the many changes involved.

It follows that constitutional reform (eg the Assembly) and institutional reform (eg the RUC) must be open to further dialogue and adjustment as they evolve. Trying to get it "right first time" is not realistic and may even constrain the final result.

5. Millennium readiness - common cause for peace

  • Millennium readiness is an urgent issue for every community. Government and public services have been making contingency plans for moderate to severe disruption, and by careful preparation minimising the risk they will be needed.
  • But in most areas these plans seem restricted on a "need to know" basis, not communicated to the public to avoid causing panic. Panic is likely to develop anyway by December if public participation in contingency planning is delayed.
  • In the UK problems may only happen in a few locations. But where? Every local neighbourhood would be wise to plan for up to 4 weeks without essential services to protect people at risk. This implies rapid co-operation between all local organisations (social and business as well as public) within the next 2-3 months.
  • If there no serious problems arise such planning will have been a new opportunity for cross community dialogue and building networks for celebrations later in the year. If there are problems then cross-community planning will be fully justified.
  • There may also be delayed reactions to Millennium problems elsewhere in the world. If other countries are seriously affected these may cause global trade problems or recession a few months later. This contingency needs to be included in business and agricultural planning - promoting regional autonomy.
  • If there are traumas in January next year may seen a widespread Millennium transition. If so this could create further problems in the early summer, but powerful opportunities for progress in the peace process in the ‘recovery phase’ 6-9 months later - from July into the autumn. Peace celebrations?
  • Many communities around the world are combining plans for Millennium celebrations with Millennium readiness. Those who enjoy organising are likely to be good at both. Some communities are using the Millennium as a chance to look ahead and plan changes and improvements they would like to make for the next decade and generation. The peace process is like the Millennium - problems to be overcome but major opportunities to plan for better times to come.


Despite recent setbacks in high level peace talks, and current anxieties about the Patten Report, there seems to be a wider peace process in Northern Ireland. It is making progress in all levels of society - a sea change to the new order of peace.

The people of Northern Ireland are already on many paths to peace. Those who have already made their commitment to change are already acting as powerful catalysts and facilitators - growing points in the peace process.

These observations have been gathered from people directly involved in community and business development. These interpretations need to be checked out by others who work in, or research the peace process. If other people see similar trends they offer greater confidence to all involved - from local communities to party leaders.

The process of transition may be a crucial mechanism in the wider peace process. It is not widely known but has been recognised as a strategic organisation planning issue in Shell International for several years and by many organisation consultants and researchers. I have used it for 16 years when helping clients through periods of crisis and change. Transition briefings or notes are available on request.

Transition theory suggests that one or more political leaders may reach a defining moment soon and take a radical new initiative that could unfreeze the peace talks, reduce tension and open up a very constructive period in the peace process. When one person has the courage to move forward others will follow. This will make it OK for more people to take a risk for peace to develop their lives, communities and work for the new era, starting the next wave of change.

My study is biased: on my visits I was specifically looking for growing points in Northern Ireland communities. The problems are well known. But the growing points I found exceeded anything I expected - many paths to peace and many people way along them, a thriving peace industry. I hope this report will encourage people who want to trust the peace process but are not yet convinced that it can work, and those who are making it work already.


Dai Williams, Chartered Occupational Psychologist


Many paths to peace
Attachment 1

Different levels of society affected
by the peace process in Northern Ireland

 1. National and international organisations

  • Political institutions eg national & international governments
    (UK, Republic of Ireland, Europe and USA);
  • the proposed Assembly;
  • official political parties and unofficial paramilitary organisations.
  • Security & Emergency services - the RUC and Army
  • International agencies - EU & other funding bodies
  • Churches
  • Fraternities eg the loyal orders

2. Economic organisations

  • Private sector enterprises and representatives
  • Public sector services and utilities including health and higher education
  • Unions

3. Communities

  • Local councils
  • Schools
  • Cultural organisations
  • Community organisations
  • Local communities and neighbourhoods

4. Personal lives

  • Families and friends
  • Individuals

Each of these levels offers an avenue for the peace process - together they represent many paths to peace. Growing points already exist at all these levels.


Many paths to peace:
Attachment 2

Examples of growing points - the seeds of peace *

Despite continuing problems in the peace talks and in some local areas I discovered far more positive people, situations and processes than I expected, even at the peak of the marching season and in the grief of the Omagh anniversary.

These are some of the "growing points" or seeds of peace I have found so far. They are based on personal discussions and observations on three brief visits so there may be many more examples, particularly at higher levels that I have not had access to. These situations are untypical of many stereotypes about life in Northern Ireland. They probably represent only a small proportion of people in Northern Ireland at present. But their actions as catalysts or facilitators in the peace process are highly significant - pioneers of hope:


  • Individuals with courage to break taboos and offer help or make friendships with neighbours across traditional religious divides. Some of these had survived multiple traumas and bereavements and reached a point where they seemed immune to political or physical threat. Their cheerfulness, calmness and courage seem to be respected by both sides in their communities (in Belfast, Fermanagh and Tyrone). Many also find courage in their faith, of whichever church.
  • Families getting on with life, actively involved in community and cultural activities, supporting injured or traumatised relatives and friends.
  • Single parents from different communities supporting each other, whose greater concerns were about employment and housing problems more than religious differences.


  • Communities exercising great restraint and retaining dignity when faced with parades that would not enter into dialogue.
  • Parades conducted with dignity and minimum provocation, except for lack of dialogue with residents in some areas.
  • Residents’ group leaders controlling parade protests with tact and authority to control potential disruption by distressed or subversive individuals.
  • Local councillors working in new, inclusive partnerships.

Community support organisations

  • Local religious leaders and groups working for peace and reconciliation,
    and running ecumenical projects, especially for young people.
  • The terrific response of health and community workers and volunteers to the trauma of the Omagh bomb over the past year. Omagh's recovery is a story in itself.
  • Many individuals and small groups who have been working on low profile reconciliation and victim support projects for several years. Over 100 organisations representing possibly 1000+ community support workers, plus many more independent facilitators combining mediation with other roles.
  • High quality interdisciplinary research into sources of conflict, victim support and community reconciliation processes at both universities, with support from overseas institutions.
  • Requests for advice from other countries to community support workers and researchers in Northern Ireland.

Economic organisations

  • Businessmen who see the mutual importance of the peace process and economic growth.
  • Unions maintaining a social justice agenda over political and religious differences.


  • RUC commanders recognising the importance of minimum-threat policing of parade protests to reduce tension. Also involving mediation resources in parade planning.
  • Individual RUC officers with respect for local community differences and problems despite great resentment by residents over past events, and uncertainty over future reorganisation. Also talking calmly with local residents after a disputed parade passed off with dignity on all sides.

Political organisations

  • Some Republicans who see better prospects for their communities by participating in the peace process rather than traditional conflict strategies.
  • Some Nationalists and Unionists working on partnership projects.
  • Some Loyalists who are gaining respect from Nationalists for expressing their views calmly and clearly.

These people and initiatives seem to represent many potential growth points in community relations and the peace process. But they are rarely acknowledged in the media or in political debates. They seem to represent a grass-roots peace process parts of which have been developing for at least 10 years.

* The notion of Seeds of Peace comes from a poem on the Omagh tribute CD,
Across the Bridge of Hope © 1998 White Records

The Bridge

Orange and green it does not matter.
United now, don't shatter our dream.
Scatter the seeds of peace over our land
So we can travel, hand in hand
Across the Bridge of Hope

Shaun McLaughlin, age 12, died 15 August 1998, Omagh


Many paths to peace:
Attachment 3

Changing values and culture in Northern Ireland

One common theme seems to run through these growing points: a gradual shift in values from the divisions of the past to a new order. In traditional societies social values are prescribed by institutions and imposed on individuals and communities. But in times of change some old values become obsolete, challenging individuals and institutions to redefine or replace them. The growing points seem to represent a fundamental change in values across society in Northern Ireland, already recognised and encouraged in some parts of the wider peace process. Table 2 summarises some the contrasts between past values and situations and the new order emerging:

Table 2: Changing values & culture - old and new order


Old order

New order

Basic ethos

Sectarian division
- self-interest
- self preservation
- focus on the past

- mutual interest
- growth
- focus on the future

Social control

High control culture
- discipline, compliance, fear
- individuals disempowered
- resistance to change

Respect culture
- liberation
- personal confidence
- participation
- embracing change

Social identify & awareness

Strong for own tradition
Distrusting others
Mutual suspicion
Marches symbolise conflict

Wider awareness
Valuing other traditions
Mutual respect
Marches celebrate culture

External factors

UK state control reinforcing
the status quo.

Limited external support

Republic a threat

UK state recognises need for change (huge cost of Troubles to UK economy)
and offers Devolution
Growing EU and US influence & resources
Co-operation with Republic.


Highly polarised by sectarian divide and history of conflict. Both extremes accept paramilitary violence to maintain balance of fear and control own communities.
Ethnic cleansing.

Extreme positions counter-productive.
National dialogue.
Local partnership.
Redefining objectives for
Devolution opportunities
Emerging vision - new era.

How these changes take place in individual lives and communities is a crucial issue for the peace process. Individuals rarely make radical changes to their values or beliefs except after a major trauma or life event when the need their world view becomes imperative. This happens through the process of transition described earlier. Transitions can be enabled but not demanded. Commitment needs consent.


I am grateful to all those who have given time to explain their understanding of life and events in Northern Ireland, shared their own experiences and given me great hospitality. These included people involved in local and national mediation, and from business, local councils, political parties, churches and religious groups, universities, the media, medical and victim support roles, the Assembly, RUC and local residents in Belfast, Fermanagh and Tyrone.

Many more communities, groups and organisations need to be considered in a full review of the wider peace process, including those who oppose it.

I have tried to understand each point of view, knowing that my comments may be interpreted in different ways by different traditions. I seek to respect and value all traditions and experiences, including some that are controversial. By trying to represent views from each side I risk offending both, no offence intended. If this study highlights areas for further discussion it seems a risk worth taking for a happier future.

The Author

Dai Williams is a Chartered Occupational Psychologist. He worked with Shell in the UK and Canada from 1971-86 in staff development, industrial and community relations and international recruitment. He set up Eos (the Greek image of dawn) as an independent consultancy in 1986, advising individuals and organisations on staff and career development, and ways of coping with trauma, stress and change. He is a member of the British Psychological Society (BPS) and the UK Forum for Organisational Health.

Since 1992 he has related work psychology and the experiences of individual clients to wider community issues including psychological effects of Recession, the effects of change on politicians following the 1997 election, and potential effects of mass trauma and change on communities in Northern Ireland and the Balkans. He has run workshops for the BPS and lectured part-time at Surrey University.

Other papers and publications

Recession fatigue: psychological effects of the Recession on people and organisations in the UK (June 1992)
Handbook for unemployed support groups (1994) co-author, for Surrey Churches Support Group for the Unemployed.
Parliament in transition: honeymoon, crisis and recovery (1997) - a guide for MPs and parties working through major career and organisational changes. Review edition 1998.
Life events and career change: transition psychology in practice (Aug 1998)
Winter of Hope: the transition to peace in Northern Ireland (Dec 1998)
Human responses to change (1999) - report of symposium at the BPS Occupational Psychology Conference, Blackpool, Jan 1999 published in Futures (31) 1999, 609-616.
Balkans aftermath: the post-war transition and world peace (July 1999)

© Eos Career Services 1999
Price £5. Copyright reserved. This Internet version may be copied for community consultation, education or research but not for resale or publication without prior permission from the author. Further details from Dai Williams at:

Eos Career Services
32 Send Road, Send
WOKING, Surrey GU23 7ET

Email: eosuk@btinternet.com
Website: http://www.eoslifework.co.uk
Comments about these issues can be made on the Eos Life Work Forum internet discussion group.

page updated 9 July 2000

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