The first ‘Challenging Conversations’ programme took place over three weekends with eight participants: three veterans, two bereaved relatives, someone originally from Northern Ireland and two refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Three speakers were brought into the process for one day; a former Republican prisoner and a former Loyalist prisoner from Northern Ireland, and a man who believed his friends had gone on to commit suicide bombings and he had chosen not to become involved.  The programme was designed to allow participants to explore how people can become involved in political violence.

The first day of the programme was spent preparing the participants to meet the speakers. The next day participants heard the stories of the three men, asked questions and discussed commonalities of experiences. The final day was spent reflecting on the experience and preparing people to go home.

During follow up calls, many participants spoke of how difficult it had been, expressed feelings of betrayal and a desire to leave the room during the dialogue. Overall however, it was found to be a positive experience although they had more questions to ask.

The second weekend took place two months later and the speakers were asked questions about their motivations; whether they would take the same actions again and what the consequences on themselves and their families had been. By the end of the day both participants and speakers shared a common connection that they had all been impacted by conflict regardless of whether they have been engaged in violence of been on the receiving end of it. On the final day, participants reflected on the two weekends and started considering future actions.

The final weekend was held two months later and participants and speakers submitted questions beforehand about loss and forgiveness. This time the speakers joined the participants for the whole weekend, as all parties were comfortable to do so. The first evening was spent reflecting on what had been personally significant. Much discussion and understanding took place throughout the process and the desire to do something positive with this experience was clear. The following morning was spent examining what actions participants could take, how they would share the learning with others and how they would look after themselves following this experience.

Quotes from participants:

“I felt able to discuss subjects I could not talk openly about in my own community, having that safe space in which to be able to listen and try to understand … being able to ask a question I’ve had in my mind for years.”

“I feel further along in my journey of trying to understand what makes a person take up arms for their cause.”

“It was helpful to hear the ‘other side’s’ stories as it gave you a different perspective.”

“What I found useful was understanding the issues that other people also carry around… because it helped put my own feelings into context.”

“On a personal level attending dialogue weekends have completely changed my understanding of the past and current situation in Northern Ireland. Having met people from both sides of the divide I now realise the scale of the human suffering involved in what was and still is the ‘Troubles’. My one hope is that having met me, other people’s perceptions will also have changed for the better.”