An Interview with Fr Padraig Devine SMA on a recent visit to Washington DC
“When Religion becomes energized by achieving quantitative institutional membership rather than qualitative spiritual transformation, the potential for it becoming a destructive factor… escalates.”
The Irish Times religious affairs correspondent, Patsy McGarry, has reported on the nomination of Fr. Padraig Devine for the Tipperary International Peace Prize. Fr Devine told the correspondent that the nomination came as “a total surprise and shock” that “people in Ireland are even aware of what we are doing in some of the remotest parts of Africa, near the Kenya-South Sudan, Ethiopian, Somali borders.”
The SMA missionary told the Irish Times that the visit to the Shalom Centre by Minister for International Development Joe McHugh’s last December “was the first major diplomatic visit into the conflict environments to see Shalom’s process in action.” Fr Devine also expressed the hope that the nomination might help draw attention to a “severe drought escalating at the moment in Northern Kenya”.
Patsy McGarry’s Irish Times report may be accessed by clicking here.
The following interview was conducted with Fr Padraig Devine SMA by Sheena McMullen, M.A., a Consultant at the Shalom Centre for Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation, Nairobi, following a visit to Washintong DC in January 2017. Sheena is from Northern Ireland and her Masters is in Peace and Reconciliation Studies.
Fr Padraig was invited to give a keynote address to ‘Tuesday’s Children’s COMMON BOND’ project, hosted by the Irish Embassy. ‘Tuesday’s Children’ is an initiative that arose out of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC.
Fr Padraig’s US visit also included meetings with the Chair of the Congressional Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organisations, Congressman Christopher Smith and members of his staff; with John Heffernan, Executive Director, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights; and Will Kennedy, Senior Program Officer, the United Nations Office for Partnership (UNOP).
The interview was conducted at the request of the SMA Communications Office, Ireland, which assisted Fr Devine in securing some of his meetings in Washington DC. Our sincere gratitude is extended to both Sheena and Fr. Padraig for their generous response. What follows is a fascinating insight into an initiative by an SMA missionary that is gaining the respect and interest of political and NGO sectors around the world.
The interview highlights the key themes addressed during Fr Devine’s keynote presentation and also his meetings during which he outlined SHALOM’s (SCCRR) innovative methodology to conflict transformation and sustainable development.
Now almost 30 years in Africa, Fr. Devine began his contribution to peace and development work first as a field worker and executive administrator of the Society of African Missions (SMA) and the Religious Superiors Conference of Kenya (RSCK) in Eastern Africa, engaging with poverty and conflict-stricken environments in Western Tanzania, Rwanda, and the border areas where Kenya interfaces with Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan and Uganda. In 2009, he founded Shalom Center for Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation (SCCRR) in an effort to strategically and effectively reduce and manage conflict in Eastern Africa. The motivation behind this project was centred on a desire to see peace, truth, justice and mercy be allowed to flourish in order that different communities would be able to secure peace and sustained development for themselves and the generations to come. Advocacy in word and deed for basic human needs and rights are at the heart of the process.
SMcM: Father Patrick, thank you for agreeing to this interview – please could you provide some context for this event; who are Tuesday’s Children and what do they do, and specifically why did they invite you to present at their event?
FP: It was an honour to be invited by Tuesday’s Children, who are an international organisation that formed in the aftermath of the terrible events of Tuesday, September 11, 2001 in the USA. It is a response and recovery organisation that aims to support youth, families and communities impacted by terrorism and traumatic loss. My sincere appreciation to their executive director, Terry Sears. As the impact of terror and its associated trauma is unfortunately now, a global issue, their COMMON BOND project seeks to expand their reach to young adults from different parts of the world, impacted by terrorism, violent extremism or war and to build skills in the areas of conflict resolution, peacebuilding and counterterrorism. Their organization had heard about the work and unique approach of SHALOM in Africa through various public mediums, such as the publicity generated by the International Caring Award 2013 and the feedback from the lectures in Harvard Law School in 2016.
At an issue level, I was invited to present on SHALOM’s peacebuilding work and conceptual perspectives concerning conflict, radicalisation and terrorism in Eastern Africa, as we share the understanding that prevention and reconciliation are fundamental components of conflict management, requiring the optimum in analytical skills and conflict transformation techniques. Overall, I think the basis of the invitation from Tuesday’s Children was an understanding that our organisations are basically addressing two sides of the same coin, placing different emphasis on various components whilst also recognising the overlap.
SMcM: The event was hosted at the Irish Embassy in Washington D.C., what was their role and can you tell us something about who was there and what happened at the event?
FP: Yes, there was a very gracious genuine welcome from the Embassy of Ireland personnel led by Her Excellency, Ambassador Anne Anderson. Michael Lonergan, the Deputy Head of Mission, opened the event and pointed out the special emphasis that the Irish government places on the promotion of peacebuilding worldwide. We, in SHALOM, of course, can enthusiastically validate that position and have felt the positive impact of this supportive stance through the recent visit of the Minister for Overseas Development and the Diaspora, Joe McHugh to some of Shalom’s peace and development projects in persistent conflict areas of Kenya. They witnessed how after three years of intense engagement by SHALOM with the Turkana and Samburu communities, a vital road connecting the communities had opened, the representatives of all sides were consistently meeting and agreeing on joint action plans, and how already a joint market and four inter-ethnic schools were now operational.
Returning to your original question concerning the event in Washington, there were also participants there from various conflict and post-conflict zones around the world, such as two young women affected by violence in the Northern Ireland conflict, one of whom spoke of their involvement with the COMMON BOND project and its positive impact. There were also various diplomats, peace practitioners, geo-political security advisors and many others from diverse academic disciplines in the audience of around 100 invited guests.
SMcM: Thank you for providing that context, perhaps now you could outline some of the main points that you raised in your presentation concerning Shalom’s work in the prevention of conflict, radicalisation and terrorism in Eastern Africa?
FP: Certainly. I began by offering a brief history and context of our organisation’s approach to tackling the root causes of conflict and extreme violence in this region. I outlined how our vision entails aspects of prevention and transformation and that the process involves delving deep into the social, economic, historical, cultural and religious factors that contribute to extremist behaviours that cause significant destruction and trauma to individuals and communities. This transformative process is informed by up-to-date knowledge in conflict management theories and practices, followed by the appropriate application of this knowledge, working at the grassroots level where the impact can be felt in the everyday lives of the people we are working with. However, I stressed the point that no conflict in this region can be adequately analysed or understood without a wider comprehension of the geo-political context affecting realities on the ground.
SMcM: Could you expand on that point? What are the geo-political factors that you see impacting on your work in conflict prevention?
FP: What I mean is, conflicts are usually influenced by both External and Internal factors. A conflict system perspective has to be applied to any analysis of conflict and its management. No conflict is isolated from these facets and their interconnectedness. For example, in this region, the presence of the major powers, multinationals and extractive industries contribute immensely to various points of tension in the region. Issues concerning their interests, security, resource-needs play a significant role in determining conflict and peace orientations.
There are also inter-state dimensions and the pressures that come from conflicts in different areas such as forced migration, not forgetting the potential for conflict contagion across borders, where often ethnic, religious and other aspects of contention straddle borders. Similarly, there are often Internal factors such as domestic governance, institutional weaknesses or infrastructural insecurities contribute to an environment more susceptible to messages that promote violent behaviour as an appropriate response to affect change. Intra-State conflict is also often centred on scarcity of resources and its management, environmental degradation and its impact on economies and communities. Within this sort of sociological context, it is increasingly common to find radicalisation and extremism of one sort or another. This can manifest along ethnic lines, political affiliations or religious identities – and sometimes it is even a combination of all of these!
SMcM: Okay so you’ve touched on an important angle in the global conversation about conflict prevention. Religious Extremism is seen as a major threat to Peace and Security in the world today – did that feature in your presentation at this event? In your opinion, does religion sometimes play a role in contributing to radicalisation and extremism?
FP: This is a highly significant and sensitive topic and the first thing I should say is, context is crucial. In addressing this perspective at the event I don’t think you can make generalisations on this matter that hold across the board. However, I do think that when certain conditions exist, the intense propagation of the religionization of politics and often simultaneously a politicisation of religion become prevalent in communities. When Religion becomes energized by achieving quantitative institutional membership rather than qualitative spiritual transformation, the potential for it becoming a destructive factor in conflict generation escalates. Within this environment, the propagation of religious institutions becomes the focus rather than the core message of various religions with respect to peace, truth, justice and mercy. This context often breeds a form of religious ideological extremism which predominantly fosters exclusivist, violent tendencies, violating fundamental human rights. This has been evident in the bombing of the USA Embassies in East Africa, the more recent attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi and the horrific beheading and killing of 147 students at Garissa University in Eastern Kenya. However, the same point that I made before is valid here also, that there are other influential factors operating interdependently in the sociological, political and economic spheres.
SMcM: Could you give an example of this relationship and its interplay from your experiences?
FP: In Washington, for example, I addressed the issue of environmental security and resource scarcity, a topic consistently well addressed by authors such as P. Gleditsch, (2001, 2007, 2015)- Environmental security can be defined as the freedom from environmental destruction and resource scarcity. Scarcity in reference to the environment is an important factor generating or exacerbating conflict to various extremes. Population growth is causing an increasing demand on scarce resources. In terms of supply, environmental degradation and climate change are also escalating the depletion of resources. These demand and supply perspectives are further compounded by being embedded in contexts where the structural systematic unequal distribution of existing resources prevails, and so the potential for violence and extremism is obviously exacerbated.
These three dimensions of demand, supply and distribution are critical to understanding the impact of the environment on the causes of conflict, radicalization and extremism. Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato SI, and a variety of other documents from other religious and academic institutions, are more and more, addressing these issues from various viewpoints. That is also why in our work we stress the relationship between peacebuilding, justice and development as a crucial one whereby truly tackling the root causes of conflict involves making an impact in all of these areas.
SMcM: Yes, it is clear that there is often multiple factors at play in creating the environment in which extremism or violence can emerge – how does Shalom engage constructively towards promoting enduring peace and sustainable development in these complicated environments?
FP: This involves working in a collaborative way with a variety of essential parties in conflict environments, particularly seeking out partnerships with critical stakeholders in terms of presence, inclusiveness, knowledge and professionalism. Shalom has a number of signed MoUs with States-Regional Organizations (IGAD), Religious Conferences (AMECEA), NGOs, local community associations in impoverished conflict environments, and with Academic Institutions around the World, including the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University in your own home city of Belfast, where I will be giving a lecture later this year.
This is not only about sharing information but also endeavouring to invigorate in a mutual exchange all concerned with perspectives, skills and techniques necessary to make a profound impact and enduring difference in respect to peace, justice and reconciliation. It involves knowing the process whereby manifest conflict can be transformed first to a cessation-window, then onto conflict settlement, understood as negative peace or the absence of violence, onto conflict resolution through interdependent development processes whereby positive peace, understood as reconciliation depicted in all sides committed and working for the mutual wellbeing and security of each other, can be achieved.
SMcM: I have read some of the very positive reactions to your presentation in Washington. Before finishing, have you any final thoughts on challenges facing conflict management institutions and the possibility of Shalom and Tuesdays Children’s Program Common Bond working together going forward?
FP: At the end of my input in Washington I outlined several challenges for both organizations, the audience present and indeed for people everywhere in respect to conflict and its transformation. Regarding Operation Common Bond Project and SHALOM, I mentioned that there is no shortage of challenges facing both organizations in respect to addressing the underlying causes of conflict, dealing with issues of radicalization, the aftermath of conflict and terrorism, and the need of being competently equipped to make an enduring positive impact in so many emerging conflict situations.
Without a clear vision and capacity to realize conflict transformation there is always the danger of being unwittingly part of a conflict generating process and perhaps just talking to themselves in a comfort zone . If the vision is right, relevant and inspirational, both organizations will provide the avenues for so many generous people around the world to get proactively involved and not hindered by insular petty self-interests. In the domains of NGOs, Religions institutions, and community organizations addressing conflict and development issues there is the continual need to be professional, qualified and authentic about the vision and its implementation. There is the need to safe guard vigilantly against processes and methods becoming parasitically corrupted. Of course the human factor is a vital part of this equation! While recognizing the tension between the best short term politics and the right long term policies, there is no excuse for not persistently striving to ensure our institutions and members are authentic in delivering on the vision they proclaim or live off. So much manifest conflict in Africa, and around the world, has its roots in the governance-institutional dynamic. We should constantly keep in mind that theory without practice is empty and practice without theory is blind’ and keep in focus that ‘the arrogance of ignorance and the ignorance of arrogance’ need to be attentively critiqued in conflict management processes.
Going forward I believe Shalom and Tuesdays Children’s Program Common Bond are vitally important in the quest for democratic societies where the dignity of life and human rights underpin positive peace and coexistence. In this context, progressive ingenuity and creativity find expression for the good and freedom of all humanity. It was a privilege to be associated with Tuesdays Children’s Program Common Bond, the vitally important work they do and we believe there is real potential for partnership in the future. It was a distinct pleasure to be hosted by the Embassy of Ireland and meet and engage with all the various organizations and invited guests present . Furthermore, we are ever grateful to the many Americans who support and value our work in building peace in this region. For the wellbeing of Africa, it is vitally important for the great nation of the USA to remain proactive in issues concerning security, human rights and development.
SMcM: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.