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The Peacemaker: Padraig O'Malley

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Conflict Resolution Institute

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Padraig OMalley

In a quiet theater in Margery Reed Hall, students, alumni, faculty and community members took their seats to watch the documentary, The Peacemaker. The screening was cosponsored by the Conflict Resolution Institute and the DU Dialogues/Inclusion and Equity Education office. The film delves into the life, work, and mind of Irish peacemaker Padraig O'Malley who for decades has risked life, limb and finance to bring peace to some of the world's most intractable conflicts. Beginning with his days uniting opposing sides during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, to his most recent work mending relationships in divided cities around the globe, the film juxtaposes the peace which one person can bring to thousands against the struggle of one man to find peace for himself. Following the film, attendees were treated to a live Q&A with Padraig via Skype, where he explained his theories, methodology, and outlook on current conflicts.

"I always play the Irish card", Padraig explains in the film's earliest scenes. His Irish citizenship is important to his work because, as he explains, the Irish are seen as fairly neutral, and conflict and suffering are inseparable from the history of Ireland. Padraig is able to build trust and bring otherwise opposing positions together. A man captivated by the chaos of humanity, at first glance one might mistake Padraig for being detached. His face is calm, his speech imbues a sense of poetry, and yet his stoic exterior belays a visceral inner turmoil.

Early in the film, viewers follow Padraig through the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts where he works as a professor at University of Massachusetts, Boston. Alone on the dark streets, he walks through a set of wooden doors and enters into a large meeting room. These shots are overlaid by the voice of one of Padraig's friends who ruminates on why one would freely choose the path to which Padraig has dedicated himself. The voice posits that perhaps one does it out of a sense of obligation, recompense for a deal struck with a higher power. The next voice we hear is Padraig's, who has taken a seat amidst a circle of participants. Prefacing with his aversion to speaking about himself at length, he introduces himself to those present as an alcoholic, it has been 13 years since he has taken a drink. Today the addiction remains, albeit in a form which benefits those in need; an addiction to work, and more specifically, the work of peacebuilding.

Padraig's history with alcohol is complicated to say the least. At one point he describes a period during his collegiate studies where his entire existence was confined to the distance between his apartment and a bar across the street, an establishment which he now owns. It is under the influence of alcohol that he claims to have done some of his best work and has even used the communal nature of the pub as a launching point for peace agreements, specifically when he invited members of opposing Northern Irish political factions to join him in Cambridge for a week of discussion, deliberation, and drink. From this began a lifetime dedicated to the cultivation of peace which has taken him to Northern Ireland, South Africa, Kosovo, and Iraq.

These days, unable to stop working lest his anxiety gain the upper hand, Padraig attacks conflict with ferocity and precision, bringing together staunch adversaries in the interest of developing peace. Padraig's experience combating addiction lends itself to his hypothesis on peace development. Padraig's project, The Forum for Cities in Transition, brings opposing citizens from some of the globe's most entrenched conflicts together in an apolitical environment. The guiding principle of the Forum for Cities in Transition is that "one divided society is in the best position to help another". In his view, the violence and danger of conflicts generates an addiction in itself. The intensity of a conflict is what fuels this addiction and, without it, parties may struggle to transition into a life that seems otherwise mundane.

Padraig discusses the difficulties he has in forming connections with other people. He works to maintain a relationship with his former partner and his foster daughter, whom he spends one month with each year. It is stated that his relationships are formed through work, and that the work he does with others is what gives value to that friendship. When Padraig says that he loves no one the audience believes him, not because he appears cold or distant but because it is difficult to imagine an individual more introspective and willing to dive into the dark misery of this world than Padraig. The gravity of his work is juxtaposed against his own ticking clock, as Padraig is faced with challenges presented by his own health and age, and he rushes to make as much progress on his work as possible. The man who seeks not to talk about himself recognizes that his mistakes are ones that all of society can learn from, and so he shares his experience with others.

Once the film ended, the audience connected with Padraig via Skype for a virtual Question & Answer session. Guests asked Padraig about advice he might give to future peacemakers, projects that he was undertaking, and the role of government in forging peace. Padraig called his entrance into the field of peacemaking "unorthodox" and emphasized the importance of interpersonal relationships in addressing conflict. He described what he saw as an inability for large governmental powers to effectively resolve conflict because they are unable to do so without bringing in their own interests. Each answer was direct and fleshed out, suggesting these are questions Padraig has contemplated before. As he signed off one thing was clear, Padraig O'Malley, the peacemaker, is not finished with his mission.

~Colin Johnson