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Belfast's Paul Hutchinson shared his message of conflict transformation at Law Hour and Mini Law School

Posted by Jane Doucet on October 24, 2016 in Community Interest, Speakers, News, Events, Speaker Series
Paul Hutchinson spoke at Law Hour on October 18. (Photo: Rachael Kelly)
Paul Hutchinson spoke at Law Hour on October 18. (Photo: Rachael Kelly)

In an October Law Hour and Mini Law School, Paul Hutchinson shared personal stories about growing up in Northern Ireland surrounded by cultural, religious, and political unrest and violence. The mediator and restorative justice advocate, who was born and raised in Belfast and still lives in Northern Ireland today, also teaches a short course in conflict transformation and mediation at the Schulich School of Law.

Professor Diana Ginn helped organize Hutchinson’s visit, his fifth trip to Nova Scotia to share his message about how people can strive for healthy engagement and (sometimes) resolution to conflict. She says that his contribution to the Schulich School of Law is significant.

“Besides teaching the course, which has become part of the school’s regular academic offerings, and giving the public lectures at the law school, Paul has also engaged with the legal community more widely,” says Ginn. “This fall, for the second time, he led a session for the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society, and in the past he has led sessions for the Nova Scotia Young Lawyers Section of the Canadian Bar Association. The law school’s ongoing relationship with Paul reflects an interest in exploring the role that law can play in the work of restoration and reconciliation.”

‘I don’t believe conflict is right or wrong’

Hutchinson cautioned his audience not to expect to avoid conflict altogether. “I don’t believe conflict is right or wrong,” he said. “Do you only want to hear lovely, fluffy stories? Every relationship is full of conflict and risk. In open and healthy relationships, you explain how you feel, risk injury, and build trust. Understanding your own response to conflict is foundational to handling it better. Conflict can be destructive, but it can also be incredibly healthy.”

Hutchinson made the audience laugh when he said, “The only way to avoid conflict is to not be in any relationships. Work away on that. Have a good life!”

A former director of Corrymeela, Northern Ireland’s oldest peace and reconciliation centre, Hutchinson has been working for over 20 years to make his country more peaceful. He is the founder/director of Imagined Spaces, a company that explores creative community relations, and he worked for 12 years with the Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health as a manager, advocate, therapist, and researcher.

At his Mini Law School lecture, titled “These Are the Rules: Law, Reconciliation, and Restoration,” Hutchinson told stories about growing up in Belfast during “The Troubles” amid shootings, kidnappings, murders, and intimidation. “I was taught not to talk to strangers or tell them my name or where I lived. What message did that send?”

Hutchison has worked with the law and with people who have broken the law. “Some of my work was with people who were intent on breaking the law,” he says, “sometimes because they felt the law was corrupt, unjust, and illegitimate – they had weapons and they knew how to use them.” He noted that most people have now moved away from seeing violence as the way to resolve difference. In Northern Ireland, some people who took up arms and went to jail are now in government, while others are peacemakers.

The law has a role to play

According to Hutchinson, good law is foundational for a healthy and prosperous society. “It builds confidence and democracy and seeks to promote justice,” he said. “It has taken a lot of legislative change to get Northern Ireland to where it is now. New laws around peaceful assembly and protest are allowing reconciliation to happen.”

Restorative justice has been part of the reconciliation process. “Sometimes restorative justice gets a bad rap,” said Hutchinson. “But I think sometimes it can be much more daring than retributive justice approaches, and it has the potential to revolutionize healing. In restorative practice you ask, what are the hurts and the needs arising out of those hurts, of both the victim and the offender? Restorative justice is about ‘right relationships.’ ”

Because Hutchinson is deeply committed to bringing peaceful change to his country, and he’s encouraged by positive changes that have been made to legislation and government, he doesn’t let fear hold him back from his often contentious work. Throughout his career he has been threatened, intimidated, and physically injured.

The law has a huge part to play in nurturing right relationships, but it also has limitations. “There will always be a question about access,” said Hutchinson. “How did you train lawyers to demystify the law for the public? Why doesn’t everybody know about the rights we have under the law?

Hutchinson hopes it doesn’t have to take more disasters on the scale of Northern Ireland for people to see sense. “When we understand how better to deal with conflict, studies show that this creates better grades in school, increased health benefits, stronger and more resilient relationships, and greater career prospects,” he says. “What parent, politician, and society wouldn’t want that for themselves and their children?”

For information about attending a week-long workshop with Paul Hutchinson at Corrymeela in May 2017, email Professor Diana Ginn.