13/04/2021 - Published by

The Peace Foundation works to promote mediated dialogue to resolve conflict.  In his forthcoming book, On Burnley Road, Mike Waite, who works with the Peace Foundation, looks at what happened in northern industrial towns in 2001, and how that learning is applied in Peace Foundation programmes to this day.

  A crucial tradition

 Blog by Mike Waite, Peace Foundation (in personal capacity)

Twenty years ago, I was doing a straightforward job in a straightforward local council – helping run community centres and youth projects in Burnley.

Then, in quick succession, unexpected and controversial events: racialised riots in summer 2001 (along with similar disturbances in Oldham and Bradford) and then the election of far-right councillors from the British National Party. In 2003, the BNP gained more seats and became the second-biggest political group in Burnley Town Hall. There was a serious surge in racist crimes, and multiple signs of increasing social polarisation.

By this point, I had become the council’s ‘community cohesion’ manager. We needed help to respond effectively, and one of the most useful initiatives we developed was a ‘good relations programme’ led by ‘civic mediators’ from Northern Ireland who had played a part in the Peace Process.

As part of this programme, myself and a few other council workers – along with people from voluntary sector organisations – were trained to run ‘community dialogue’ events. We made several visits to Belfast to find out about what was happening there, and to take part in training sessions. On a couple of these visits, a colleague came along from the Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Peace Foundation, and our work in Burnley benefited from the approaches used by the Warrington-based charity.

When I left Burnley Council a couple of years ago, I began writing up the ‘inside story’ of the work I had helped with in the years after the riots. On Burnley Road is out next month, and combines ‘memoir’ writing about what happened when the BNP gained seats in Burnley with discussion of social policy areas such as multiculturalism, and my personal left-of-centre political opinions on issues from Brexit to populism.

I was also lucky enough to begin working at the Peace Foundation, where I’ve been able to apply and develop some of the things I learned in Belfast. The charity founded in memory of Tim and Johnathan has sustained for far longer than the Burnley good relations programme did. One of its strengths is the fact that it is not politically aligned, and can therefore combine and make use of the diverse views and values of different board members and workers, united in a shared commitment to work for peace.

As Colin and Wendy Parry know all too well, it is not always easy to keep the work going: changing priorities by funders; short-term programmes and grants; the ‘famine or feast’ contract rhythms which can mean that jobs have to be put at risk one year, and there are staffing shortages the next.

Partly because of uneven levels of government funding for work to promote cohesion and integration, one of my book’s arguments is that ‘community dialogue’ has not yet been used on a sufficiently large scale to make its full potential impact. Nevertheless, such ‘civic mediation’ approaches remain available as a way of helping ‘address popular grievances, foster a problem-solving culture and reanimate a healthy democracy’.

This is partly because of the long-term determination of the Peace Foundation to sustain this crucial tradition of work – a commitment that deserves and needs further substantial support if our society is going to address and resolve some of the divisions and difficulties that are all too evident today.

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