Photo Credits: Dani Blaco

An Interview with Brian Currin

Final Year Politics and International Relations student Alex Polkey Interviewed South African Lawyer Brian Currin, on his instrumental role in mediating the disputes between Catholics and Protestants during the Drumcree Parade scandal in the early 2000s. 

Photo Credits: Dani Blaco
Photo Credits: Dani Blaco

Alex Polkey: Firstly, I’m interested after your experiences about 15 years ago, how you think the impasse at Drumcree has progressed up until the present day – very broadly speaking

Brian Currin: Well, to be honest with you I haven’t kept myself absolutely informed about the impasse particularly since I last worked in Northern Ireland in about 2012. But I suppose one can say that in terms of violent conflict that is gone, but there is still an impasse and it hasn’t really progressed because – well my understanding is that the Orange Order continue on their very particular date in July to walk down, obviously symbolically to a barricade and object to not being able to parade and then turn around and walk back again.

AP: I would agree with that I’d be interested in knowing if you think this new habit of meeting each year and having that impasse forms a new rule of the game, a negative peace where that becomes the institutions.

I suppose it have, I don’t know if you indent on asking me whether I think the conflict has ended, I think that is an inevitable question but it relates to what you’ve asked now and to me the conflict has not been resolved in the sense that on the one hand the Orang Order want to parade on Garvaghy road and on the other hand the residents object to that and have essentially used whatever bar they might have to stop them. One could say they’ve used the law to stop the parade. In that sense the conflict has not been resolved – symbolically there continues to be a conflict. But I suppose where one can say that the mediation was successful in that it managed the conflict and took the violence out of the issue. Some time mediators play that role – to manage the conflict rather then to resolve it in a way that is acceptable to both parties

AP: So what would be the appropriate relationship between a mediator in your position and an org like the Parades Commission?

The PC has a particular mandate and they have a particular set of criteria that they need to use in order to make a decision on a parade. I think the two should be totally independent of one another and … I need to think about this very carefully because there are complexities. When one is engaged in mediation, it’s a private initiative and the parties’ objective is to try and reach an agreement, which would enable a resolution in which both parties have ownership and to which both parties have consented. On the other hand, you have a body like the Parades Commission that sits as an arbiter. When a private mediator engages with the Commission and is given a report back to that structure and the arbiter uses the information that the mediator provided through engagement, and based on that information takes decisions, can decide well given the progress that has been made, given the information we are getting, we will either grant or not grant –either agree to or not agree to a parade. It’s complicated because it can certainly undermine the mediation and discredit the mediator who has given information to the Parades Commission. That information may have been received on a confidential basis and I’ve never done that, but of course what happens is parties that are mediating participate in both processes. They participate in the mediation but at the same time they are obliged to or pressurised at least participate in the Parades Commission process, because if they refuse to the Parades Commission could make an adverse finding that well one party is not participating, and not sharing information and therefore we are going to take a decision which may well be to the prejudice of that party… So inevitably I think to be running joint processes of mediation and parallel arbitration is a very difficult thing to do.

AP: On the basis of that, would you fundamentally change the way the PC works, would you get rid of it in the event that you have an external mediator or should they just be separate from one another?

I think they need – the mediator in that process can be completely separate from the work that the commissioner is doing. I never formally engaged with the Parades Commission, but the parties are obliged to. So I suppose the parties could say: for as long as we formally engage with the mediator we are not going to engage with the parades commission and we are going to request the PC not to make any adverse findings against either of us. But on the other hand, how can the PC make a determination one way or another each year? As the date of the parade gets closer, both parties wans a determination in their respective favour. So given the mediation of the nature of Drumcree which could go on for a couple of years – and it did, it would mean that the Orange Order who would want a determination that there IS a parade, would probably insist on engaging with the Parades Commission. I’m not sure that one can do the one but not the other, because depending on what the Status quo is, if the status quo is that there will be parades, then obviously the Garvaghy road residents will go and try to persuade the Parades Commission that they ought to change their decision and in order to do so they will present all the evidence about the wonderful work that they are doing in participating in a mediation process and say that they are more then willing to meet with the Orange order in an open Process. If the Status quo was that there is no parades, the Orange Order would want to go and appear before the Commission, whereas the residents would be quite happy not to because the status quo is no parade. S I don’t know how you could separate the two as long as there is a body that is adjudicating on whether or not there should be a parade. My feeling is for as long as the Parades Commission is there –and it seems to be an essential body, well as an independent mediator obviously I have no power to do that. And one can’t even persuade the government to get rid of it because it does play an essential role.


AP: I want to turn now to the opposite, and look at peace making below the community level. I’m thinking in terms of organisations such as the Corrymeela community and other cross-community initiatives that don’t focus on symbolic issues like a parade but involve more general peace building work. How does this affect your work as a mediator in Drumcree?

I would say that they make a positive contribution because essentially they work through out the year, and that sort of a structure plays an important educative and development role. I would think that sort of an organisation – and I don’t know what they’ve been doing since 2001 when I was involved with Drumcree but, those sorts of community structures that work on the ground with communities and not necessarily the representatives of the groups in conflict do play an important educative role around resolution and conflict management.

AP: Do you think that mediators need to have a spiritual, deeper impulse of non-violence and are very committed to a particular peace in their own life or do they simply need to be committed to neutrality?

That’s an interesting question. You know I think that if mediators have peace within their own lives and that is reflected in the way in which they do things, in the way in which they engage with parties that are in serious and deep conflict with one another, it may be possible that that sort of spirit of peace can be transferred to parties, sometimes. But you know when I think about the Drumcree issue, what one needed there more then anything else was professional mediation. People that were able to extract the issues and engage professionally with the parties, and have a huge amount of patience, understanding and empathy. Empathy is very important, its much more then neutrality. For me it’s the most important quality that a mediator needs to have because the way in which you build trust – the must important thing, not just between the parties but between the mediator and each party. And the only way you can do that is through empathy. One way to do that is to have some sort of deeper, inner peace and spiritual feeling about the issues. Once again I’m having to reflect back on the process that I was involved in here.

AP: Picking up on the fact that you say you are reflecting back, I know that you are doing work with the Basque [country], and I would be interested to know if there are any really striking differences in that context relating to what we’ve talked about, and whether there is any general advice that can be given to third party mediators?

In the Basque Country I have never mediated, what I did is to facilitate engagement. I was brought in on behalf of the Basque pro-independence movement initially and clearly in that context a relationship tat they had at least in terms of political policy and position being pro-independence. My job there was to try and bring them into the political mainstream so that they could in fact engage in a negotiation process, in a peace process. So there was never really a mediator role. And that’s quite a different role because what one does in those circumstances especially when you are representing indirectly in this case an organisation like ETA that, when I went in initially was still involved in the armed struggle, it was to try and persuade them that there were better alternatives. And to do that you have to build confidence and create space for them to be able to engage in a democratic process so they are constantly looking to alternatives to violence. So one is there working and building trust with a particular party and again I suppose having empathy is important because they need to believe that you really do understand what there position is so that when you give them advice they trust you enough and hopefully they would take the advice. In this case you know you need to end the armed struggle because you wont achieve your objective if you don’t. But you cant just say those words, they need to believe that what you are proposing is indeed a better alternative to violence. Here you are not working with two parties.

AP: Do you think that your work in Drumcree was possible because of the esteem that was given to the protestant communities there and because there was a higher level political process going on. Do you think that you could have still been able to do your work prior to the Good Friday Agreement for example?

It could not have been possible. Even after the Good Friday Agreement, one of the difficulties that I felt that I had was that the Orange Order, and broadly speaking the protestant community believed in their own minds that they could when necessary withdraw from the process and make an appeal to a higher authority because I think at that stage they still saw themselves possibly a notch or two above the Catholic community and that they therefore would be given special treatment. This undermined the mediation, them thinking that, because when the going got tough they would withdraw and make an appeal upwards, and mediation would stop.

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