Living Through Chaos, Seeking the Gaps and Creating Spaces for Learning:Learning for Change in Northern Ireland

Derick Wilson

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To live through a violent conflict is to have been in the midst of chaos. Chaos, by definition, has no order but yet in human relationships we know deeply that much chaos is resolved in seeking identifiable scapegoats who are blamed yet are not responsible, driven out, killed or maintained within our midst as identified patients.Through such mechanisms a degree of order is maintained, the order secured in the loss of human possibilities for the scapegoat. The scapegoating process is deeply hidden within successful societies. Girard spoke of “human beings must become reconciled without the aid of sacrificial intermediaries or resign themselves to the imminent extinction of humanity…The definitive renunciation of violence, without any second thoughts, will become the sine qua non for the survival of humanity itself and for each of us” (Girard, 1987,pp136 -137) Though a conflict in Western Europe, nurtured in what many modern European citizens believe to be a religious, and therefore remote historical conflict, we have all been part of making ‘our sense’ in that conflict by scapegoating others different to us. Stability and Secrets no MoreIn Northern Ireland one learns the essential truth that is hidden within the structures of stable societies. That is that states, nations and religions have violent edges and that, in their formation, violence has been a very present reality that is readily drawn on, when all becomes uncertain. Chaos has no order; in chaos there are no relationships of a lasting quality, except those that get me through today. ‘Today’s allies can be tomorrow’s threat’. Conflicts feed adaptation and separation more than the generation of new and bold steps together. Conflicts generate an internal logic for each of the fighting traditions and almost all centre on the denial of the other having a place. “A future without the other” is still implicit in most political ideologies in conflict. Those that do speak about the other being involved, in reality mean ‘you are in after we win’.The dynamics of life in Northern Ireland are, for me, best understood in interpreting where I live as an ethnic frontier, a term proposed by Frank Wright. (Wright, 1992) Here you cannot just be a citizen, you are forced to be either a member of the ‘loyal’ group or the ‘disloyal’ group; you are a member of one group with a national identity opposed to all others (Wright, 1996).People adapt and are cautious and fearful of being with ‘the others’. Adaptation has also meant a learned caution, or even fear, when dealing with the political leadership of the communal enemy. In the midst of political violence, relationships between people from different sides of the division in question take place within the shadow of that violence. Even where there is no personal hostility, the potential for violence arising from politics justifies defensiveness, evasiveness, diversion, avoidance and caution. Group identity is secured.One central reconciliation task is about carrying the knowledge and experience that space for understanding between people and traditions needs secured for the whole society and that this involves personal and organisational risk taking (Morrow, 1991).A second reconciliation task is that we advocate for this practice to be modelled not just in and between faith tradition groups, trades union groups, women’s groups and work with children and young people in the different communities but secured as core experiences within the policies, programmes and practice of the central organisations and institutions in our society with a political mandate to promote trust and secure a plural society. Reconciliation work is about promoting new ways of being together that contrast with the separating ways we have learned. Reconciliation is about demonstrating that sometimes deeply estranged people can take risks in relationships and build new and inclusive organisational cultures in the midst of a society where most are more readily prepared for separation’
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)205-223
JournalStudies in World Christianity
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 2003

Bibliographical note

Reference text: Eyben, K., Keys, L., Morrow, D., Wilson D., [2002] “Learning Beyond Fear: New Events Seeking New Habits” in Reflection, The SoL Journal on Knowledge, Learning and Change, Vol 3, No 4: Cambridge MA: MIT Press. (pp 42-51)

Eyben, K., Morrow, D., Wilson D., [1997] A Worthwhile Venture – Practically Investing in Equity, Diversity and Interdependence in Northern Ireland ,Research Report supported by the Central Community Relations Unit and the University of Ulster

Fitzduff, M.(1989) From Ritual to Consciousness, D Phil Thesis, University of Ulster.

Girard, R., [1977, 1979] Violence and the Sacred, Baltimore: John Hopkins

Hamber, B (1998) Past Imperfect, Dealing with the Past in Northern Ireland and Societies in Transition, United Nations University.

Kaptein, R. with Morrow, D J (1993) On the Way of Freedom, Dublin: Columba Press.

Lederach, J.P., [1997] Building Peace and Sustainable Reconciliation across Divided Societies, USIP Press

Morrow, D., & Wilson, D., [1996] Ways out of Conflict - Resources for Community Relations Work, Belfast: Corrymeela Press

Morrow, D., [1991] "Teaching and Learning with Adults in Northern Ireland" in Poggeler, F., and Yaron, K., eds Adult Education in Crisis Situations , Jerusalem: Magnet Press

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Wilson,D.A. (1994) Learning together for a Change, D.Phil Thesis, University of Ulster.

Wright, F., [1992] Northern Ireland - A Comparative Analysis, Gill &Macmillan Ltd

Wright, F., [1996] Two Lands on One Soil, Dublin: Gill & Macmillan Ltd & The Understanding Conflict


  • Mimesis
  • Scapegoating
  • Conflict Resolution
  • Relationships
  • Reconciliation


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