Dialogue and shared experiences are key for trust building

Published on Tuesday, 7th of February 2023

In celebration of St Brigid’s Day – marking Ireland’s female patron saint and the traditional arrival of spring – a lively discussion on trust-building and on the roles women play in peace building took place at the residency of the Ambassador of Ireland to Finland.

The event was organized through cooperation between the Embassy of Ireland in Finland and CMI – Martti Ahtisaari Peace Foundation. The main speakers of the event were Shona Bell, Programme Manager for sectarianism at Corrymeela, the oldest peace organization on the island of Ireland, and Johanna Poutanen, Head of the Women and Peacemaking programme at CMI.

Ireland’s Ambassador to Finland Ruth Parkin opened the event by highlighting the importance of this discussion at a time when war has returned to Europe, and on the year marking 25 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

Some of the key issues touched upon at the event included how trust can be built or broken, the role of communities and women in trust-building and peace building, and how these processes can best be supported from the outside.

The role of women has been critical in the Northern Ireland peace process. For instance, the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition played an important role in building consensus, the party had members from across religious and political communities, and was able to add key issues such as civic participation on the agenda. Still today, this issue remains an important question in Northern Ireland.

Shona Bell, who first arrived in Northern Ireland in 1998, has a long-term perspective on the process of stabilization and trust-building in the post Good Friday Agreement era in Northern Ireland. She also has extensive experience in working with local communities.

Bell believes that trust between groups and people can be enhanced by building relationships. “Contact and exposure, the experience of being around each other, can make a difference and move us forwards”, she said.

In the work of Corrymeela, trust-building means community empowerment; helping communities to work on past issues, e.g. through civic dialogue. Among the many issues within the communities of Northern Ireland are questions of safety, polarization and trauma, but also questions of humanity – who we are and how do we talk about each other.

A lot of progress has been made. “Civic community can often move us forward when politics is stuck”, Bell believes. This is also how CMI often works; by bringing actors together informally when the official process is not advancing as hoped.

Johanna Poutanen highlighted the importance of informal chats and experience sharing. Bell shared the view and stressed the importance of telling the story of the process of reconciliation. Often reconciliation might not be perceived by outside actors, but only by those involved in the conflict. This, in turn, may make the peace process more difficult as the wider community are not aware that the direct actors are in a process out of conflict. There is a need to close the gap so everyone is on board. The forum for such information sharing can be as simple and every day, as chats around the kitchen table, here, women are once more important and active agents.

Dialogue and trust-building are inseparably linked. According to Poutanen, there are three elements to trust-building. The first element is attentiveness: it is important that the participants get the sense that they are treated with respect and equally. Second, transparency is key: it is important to be clear about the values one brings to the table one can never be truly impartial. This also means being transparent about the roles played by women.

The third element is patience. Shona Bell echoes with Poutanen: peacebuilding is a marathon; it takes a long time and requires being calm and being persistent.


From left to right: Laura Hendry (CMI), Shona Bell (Corremeela), Ireland’s Ambassador to Finland Ruth Parkin and Johanna Poutanen (CMI)