Lessons from Northern Ireland

(And You Thought You Had Problems!)

 Some years ago, I read Senator George Mitchell's book on the Northern Ireland peace process [Making Peace, ISBN 0-375-40606-9, Alfred A. Knopf 1999]. It wasn't an easy book to read, but not because it wasn't well-written and not because the subject wasn't fascinating. It's just that the underlying situation is so amazingly complicated that there is no easy way to tell about it. Luckily, on "Public Radio," I heard Senator Mitchell give a speech about the issues and process, and also heard him interviewed about his book. From the three presentations, I gained some insights that have application to other public involvement processes.

Picture your most fantastic problem solving/negotiation/public participation nightmare, and it would likely have some of the characteristics of the Northern Ireland situation. But, no matter how awful your problem seems, could it possibly be as bad as Northern Ireland?

Here's a problem that has been getting steadily worse for hundreds of years; a problem that has its basis in philosophy, religion and politics, so that there is no obvious goal, no one "right answer;" a situation that has become so polarized that some participants in the problem-solving effort won't speak directly to one another - even to villify! - after sitting side-by-side in meetings for more than three years; a situation where the "sides" seem so mutually exclusive that they don't just call one another names, they kill one another!

Is a problem with these characteristics solvable? In this case, we may not know for sure for many, many years [right at the moment, things don't look very good], but it is clear that - largely because of the workings of an appropriate process - peace in Northern Ireland has come closer than most people ever dreamed was possible. If there is a process to bring peace to Northern Ireland, then there must be a way to satisfactorily resolve even the wildest problem you can conjure up. Here are a few thoughts I gleaned from Senator Mitchell's work that seem worthy of consideration in any problem-solving process.


Like most people called in to "facilitate" problem solving, Senator Mitchell initially knew very little about the problem he would be addressing. We often hear that specific knowledge of an issue is not necessary for a facilitator - because the facilitator is just helping with the process of conflict resolution or decision making - but it doesn't follow that knowledge is detrimental. In some cases, even if you are "neutral," your chances of guiding the participants to a solution improve greatly if you understand the issues.

Senator Mitchell recalled that, at first, he found it extremely difficult to chair discussions because   he couldn't comprehend the depth and complexity of the issues. His immediate reaction was that both sides (actually, all sides; see below) were acting irrationally, and he couldn't find any handle to the problem. As he interacted with the participants, and learned more about the way they thought and the way they expressed themselves, he found that he was better able to ask pertinent questions and to steer the discussions in profitable directions.

[Remember, the way that people think and the way they express themselves are not characteristics of language or national origin, alone; what about regional, geographical, occupational, or educational "languages?"]


Senator Mitchell had two strikes against him even before his part in the discussions began. First, he is a Catholic, and virtually everything that happens in Northern Ireland is colored by hundreds of years of Catholic-Protestant conflict and misunderstanding. The Protestants were not prepared to take his fairness and impartiality for granted. Had he been a Protestant, I'm sure the Catholic contingency would have had similar concerns.

The second strike against him was that he had been invited into the process by the governments of Britain and Ireland, not by the grass roots participants. Distrust of the motives of "Government" seem to be universal, and Senator Mitchell was immediately suspected of bringing with him a particular agenda, or of seeking to move the group toward a particular pre-arranged solution. Just as he had to prove that he was not an advocate for either Catholic or Protestant, he had to show that he and his co-facilitators were not really "from the government." [Actually, it's pretty clear from reading his book that the British government did initially expect Mitchell's team to guide the participants to a particular conclusion. There were some pretty tricky periods during which he had to make it clear to everyone - the Government, included - that he was "his own man."]

No matter what the issue or the process, every facilitator comes in with some "baggage." Everyone has to prove at some level their fairness, impartiality, and neutrality.


Senator Mitchell followed a policy of letting everyone involved in the discussions speak for as long as they wanted. He apparently never cut anyone off, regardless of the length of the talk, the pertinence of the subject, or how rational or inflammatory the delivery. This must have driven some of the participants crazy at times - I know I would have often been bored to tears, and often would have been climbing the walls - but Mitchell felt that it was an important proof of his impartiality, and of his desire to get everything out on the table before any final decisions were made. He also felt that, when the time finally came to close the proceedings, there should be no room for accusation that the subject had not been fully aired and discussed.

His approach should make us wonder about some of our own projects, to which we devote a few hours or a few weeks, and think that we have exhausted the possibilities. Why do we so often put artificial time constraints on ourselves, when a more open or more prolonged process might mean the difference between a good or a bad resolution?


One topic that Senator Mitchell covered in all three of the presentations I heard was that, throughout the process, he was dealing with ten different political groups, each with its own leadership, and each with its own clearcut philosophies and desires. Clearly, this came as a surprise to him, and he felt that it made resolution much more difficult than what is faced in most problem-solving situations. Granted that bringing peace to Northern Ireland is a bigger issue than most we will face, I wonder if he hadn't "discovered" something that shouldn't ever be overlooked, no matter what the issue.

Whether we come to a process as an advocate or a facilitator, I suspect it is human nature to think in terms of "the two sides." In an election, we vote for one candidate and against the other, or we vote for or against a proposition. But remember that a final election is often the culmination of a process during which a slate of potential candidates (each of who represented a "side") has been winnowed down to a simple "for" or "against" vote.

This concept of every issue having many "sides" first became clear to me when I was involved in developing a plan to save the few remaining California condors. Our proposal involved capturing some of these giant birds and putting them in zoos, where we thought we could increase their egg production, and so eventually have more condors than if we left the birds to survive entirely on their own. In a situation where one might expect there to be two sides - catch them or don't catch them, or maybe save them or don't save them - we ultimately identified eleven major "publics" who had ideas about the condors' survival. Even having eleven "sides" turned out to be a simplification, because several of the groups that we would have expected to "vote" as a bloc turned out to be strongly divided into "pro" and "con" camps.

Even though we did a pretty good up-front job of identifying our "publics" and anticipating their concerns, we missed a couple of them whose presence and influence were to prove critical to the outcome of the entire planning process.


Senator Mitchell and his team were extremely liberal in allowing debate and discussion to go on and on (and on and on and on and on, it must have seemed to many participants!). But once they were sure that no new issues were emerging, they set a definite termination point for their part in the proceedings. They couldn't force a decision by that date - it obviously isn't that kind of an situation - but they felt obliged to put the participants on notice that possibilities for meaningful facilitation were running out. As the deadline approached, Mitchell was willing to (and did) work around the clock to help finalize a plan, but he refused to extend or otherwise renegotiate the end of his personal involvement.

As a facilitator, you don't have control of the final product, but you do have both the right and the responsibility to say "when" when you feel you've done your best. If everything has been said, a friendly ultimatum may be just what's needed.

To the Writing It Down Homepage

New and Used Books - Many Topics

Leave a Comment

© Sanford Wilbur 2017