The Blanket

Neutral Environment?

Billy Mitchell

A few weeks back I was shown a Letter of Offer from one of the Intermediary Funding Bodies responsible for the disbursement of European Funding (Peace II). One of the conditions demanded in the letter was that programme participants had to meet in a neutral venue acceptable to the Funding Body.

I have been engaged in inter-community and cross-border projects for some ten years and have never seriously considered looking for a neutral venue. Indeed I am not sure that such a place really exists. I believe that this search for neutrality is rooted in a misguided belief that good community relations can be fostered by the development of so-called neutral venues and programmes where participants are required to divest themselves of their religious, political and cultural identities. This is a legacy of the false ecumenism and psuedo liberalism that seeks to sacrifice personal belief and individuality in a vain search for corporate togetherness. It has never worked before and I see no prospect of it working in the future. Beliefs need to be expressed and you cannot build genuine community relations by seeking to ban the public expression of those beliefs.

The demand for neutrality has no place in any genuine conflict transformation process. On the contrary, it underpins the failed process of conflict management and perpetuates the cowardly retreat from reality engaged in by those who prefer to “manage” rather than to “transform” bad situations. These are the same “conflict managers” who are satisfied with an “acceptable level of violence” - so long as it doesn’t really affect them.

When Liam Maskey and I set about developing the InterComm initiative, one of the first things that we agreed upon was that there would be no neutrality. We agreed that InterComm would seek to create “safe space” in which loyalists and nationalists would work together, but that we would never seek to insult colleagues from either tradition by demanding neutral space. We bound ourselves to a position where we would never ask ourselves, or any one else, to water down our beliefs in the interests of either friendship or neutrality. This same policy has been followed by participants in a number of other projects that I am involved in.

The conflict transformation process demands that people are allowed to be “who they are” and “what they are”. Above all, it demands that people are allowed the space to express who they are and what they are. If I cannot accept my republican or nationalist colleagues for who they are and what they are without taking offence when they express it, my sincerity as a peace-maker must be questioned. Likewise, if my colleagues take offence when I express my Protestant-Unionist identity a question mark must be placed against their sincerity.

Genuine community relations and conflict transformation is based on understanding, respect and tolerance. You don’t get that by demanding that people meet in neutral venues or by insisting that people suppress their religious, political or cultural beliefs in the interests of neutrality.




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Words are seductive and dangerous material to be used with caution.
- Barbara Tuchman

Index: Current Articles

19 July 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


The Sorry Truth

Anthony McIntyre


Neutral Environment?

Billy Mitchell


Sectarianism and How It Can Be Fought
Hazel Croft


Support Irish Glass Bottle Workers


14 July 2002


A Case for Class Politics

Billy Mitchell


Tim Lopes - Poor, Black, Journalist

Anthony McIntyre


Pretty Vacant





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