By Rebecca Franklin
Michael Doherty is a community leader and peace activist born and raised in Derry. Mr. Doherty started full-time community relations work in 1987. As a Nationalist, Non-Republican he has committed himself and his efforts to ending the sectarianism and violence to help build a peaceful community. He serves as the current Director of the Peace & Reconciliation Group whose mission is, “To promote the development of community understanding and co-operation through the delivery of community relations and community development programs.” He also serves as the Vice Chairperson for The Junction, a community relations resource and peace building center.
Mr. Doherty was inspired and moved by three specific events in Northern Ireland’s history. First, The Troubles in Derry, which began in August of 1968 with the Civil Rights Parade that was banned, but occurred regardless of the banning. Second was Bloody Sunday, which occurred January 30, 1972, where 13 people were shot and killed. Mr. Doherty recalls the memorable moment and had previously marched with some of the victims. The bombing of his family-owned barbershop in October 1976 was the final pivotal moment, which truly motivated him to go into community relations work. The IRA targeted his family’s barbershop because some of the customers were police and British Armed Forces. Luckily, no one was injured or killed; everyone happened to step out of the shop seconds before the bomb was detonated. After that incident, Mr. Doherty decided he was going to do something to help end the violent conflict and stop the killings.
In order to be successful in his calling to help build peace and end the violence in Derry, Mr. Doherty knew he needed to obtain a formal education. He had not finished school as a young boy, so as an adult he went back to school. In 1979 he enrolled in Magee University, obtaining a degree in Social Administration and eventually a Masters Degree in Public Administration and Legal Studies. Mr. Doherty swells with pride as he recalls the many opportunities he has had to travel. In 1990 he had the chance to travel to Boston and Philadelphia to study mediation from the Mennonite community there. In 1996 he was one of twenty invited by United States President Bill Clinton to study mediation at Fordham Law School in New York City.
When asked about the current state of the conflict and the status of peace in Northern Ireland, Mr. Doherty replies, “The conflict has been transformed to be less violent.” He outlines many of the current challenges for peace building in Northern Ireland to include: The definition of who is the oppressed and who is the oppressor; Republicans and Loyalists not fully engaging in the peace process; the Republican/Nationalist Communities not understanding what the Loyalists have lost or given up; the continued segregation of communities and schools; and the fact that the local community has always been two separate groups, and never been united as one society.
While Mr. Doherty does not see true peace and the final end of the conflict being achieved in his lifetime, he does see that progress can be made through storytelling and dialogue. Though dialogue is a slow process, he feels it is the only option for peace building in Northern Ireland. With storytelling and dialogue, the goal is, in his own words, to “decommission the current mindsets, not weapons.” This method allows the people to see each side differently and to see the struggle and pain their counterparts on the opposite side have lived through. For Mr. Doherty the only way out of the conflict is when all sides can fully engage in non-threatening and meaningful dialogue. Through this process of understanding, peace is created.
In his upstairs office at the Peace and Reconciliation Group office in Derry, Mr. Doherty sits at his desk, the walls around him covered with family photos and artwork he has done. He accepts that true peace will not be found any time soon, but by his starting the process now, future generations will not have to live through the violence he lived through. Progress towards peace is being made thanks to people like Mr. Doherty.