Quaker House Belfast 1982-2010
Quaker House Belfast was set up in 1982 ‘to further the work of reconciliation and of befriending all parties in Northern Ireland’.
From the first outbreak of sectarian violence in 1969, Quakers had responded, setting up the Ulster Quaker Service Committee, (now Quaker Service) to assist displaced and threatened families. The two Quaker Meeting Houses in Belfast had several times opened their doors to provide sanctuary to those escaping riots in the city.
However, in 1981, Friends were asked to set up a permanent centre for peace work, to include mediation at a political level. That Friends were trusted in this way reflected a long history in Ireland, beginning with their Famine Relief work in the 19th Century 1845-50.
Initially, Quaker House Belfast was a project of the Quaker Peace Service in London. They set up a management committee consisting of three Friends from Northern Ireland, three from the Irish Republic, and six from Britain. This joint ownership of the project by both Britain and Ireland Yearly Meetings has been recognised as one of its strengths over the years.
Quaker House Belfast followed a model first outlined by Carl Heath in 1917 and subsequently used in conflict situations around the world, which involves establishing a house as a meeting place in a safe neutral location. Informal meetings are held over a shared meal, allowing the representatives to listen to views from all sides of the conflict and make contacts across the community.
Throughout the 1980s in Northern Ireland, there was a level of deep suspicion between the unionist and republican communities, very little dialogue between the parties and continuing violence perpetrated by paramilitaries on both sides. During this time, the Quaker House representatives fostered a dialogue by meeting all parties without discrimination, and providing a safe place for people to meet who could not otherwise do so.
Ann Bennett, one of the last Quaker House representatives, said in a lecture given at Ireland Yearly Meeting in 2010, “Quaker House didn’t organise conferences, publish reports or ‘think papers’. It engaged quietly and slowly in processes of dialogue…Dialogue was achieved through active listening as well as talking… It is not trying to provide answers but does hope to leave people questioning their own position, the position of others and looking at the shared and conflicting underlying needs.· This requires trust, confidentiality and a commitment to long term work with no immediate outcomes.”
In the 1990s, the first steps were being taken in the formal peace process. Paramilitaries on both sides called ceasefires in 1994. The work of the Quaker House representatives during this time remains confidential. But it is known that a large part of the work involved informal and off-the-record meetings between politicians.
Mo Mowlem, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the British government during much of this time, said in a lecture at Friends House, London in 2002:
“They did an incredible amount in a house where everyone knew they could be trusted. I wouldn’t have been able to talk to such a cross-section of people except for being able to meet in that house. They told me who to listen to. Without them my life would have been much tougher than it was.”
Following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998, the role of Quaker House Belfast changed again. In 2006 the original House was sold and the Quaker House moved into an office setting. The project also became more autonomous, allowing it to raise more of its own funding.
In this period, Quaker House worked with church and other groups on anti-racism issues. They brought small cross-community groups together to consider the future of Northern Ireland and hosted seminars looking at the issues of truth and reconciliation. They worked with women’s groups in Belfast on the cross-community quilt, Shared Visions.
Quaker House Belfast was finally closed in 2010. By then, the once unique role it had held in cross-community dialogue and peace-building had been taken up by many others.