Peacemaker Documentary Focuses on UMass Boston Professor
September 18, 2011
In 2008, Boston-based filmmaker James Demo was enjoying a beer at the Plough & Stars in Cambridge, when he heard a story he assumed was blarney.
The bartenders told Demo that the pub’s low-profile proprietor, Padraig O’Malley, taught at UMass Boston and had an unusual side gig: global peacemaker. O’Malley, they said, had facilitated peace processes worldwide, from Northern Ireland to Iraq to South Africa.
Demo was skeptical.
But on another trip to the Plough, one of its other owners lent him a biography that O’Malley had written about Mac Maharaj, a South African politician. As Demo read the book and learned more about O’Malley’s work, he was fascinated, realizing that his accomplishments far exceeded the casual talk he’d heard. When he finally met O’Malley in person, he asked for permission to tell his story on the big screen.
Demo’s film, The Peacemaker, is a project still in the works; he won’t be done filming until next year. When it is released, it will document O’Malley’s involvement in settling some of the most fractious conflicts in the world.
“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a documentary filmmaker,” says Demo, who has written and directed independent short films. “And I’m not an advocacy filmmaker. But this could become an advocacy film.”
O’Malley, the John Joseph Moakley Distinguished Professor of Peace and Reconciliation at the McCormack Graduate School for Policy and Global Studies, has been plying peace since he was a graduate student in Boston in the 60’s and 70’s. An ocean away from his hometown of Dublin, he paid attention to the deteriorating political situation in Northern Ireland, and was horrified to hear of Bloody Sunday, when peaceful protesters were shot and killed by British soldiers in Derry/Londonderry.
“When Bloody Sunday happened, friends and I held a concert for the families of the victims, in Boston,” he says. “We raised $1,000 for each family, which was hand-delivered to the families.”
Two years later, the violence spread to the Republic of Ireland: a car bomb killed 27 people commuting home in rush-hour traffic in Dublin. Seven more were killed by a car bomb in Monaghan, a southern county on the border with the North. Another concert was held to raise money for the victims’ families.
“In one of those crazy moments, I thought, ‘Why are we giving rewards [for violence]?’" O'Malley said. "Being naïve and idealistic, I thought, ‘Why not do a conference that would bring all the sides together?’ That was the beginning of my lifelong work.”
Somewhat improbably, in 1975, O’Malley followed through on his idea, and held a conference at UMass Amherst, inviting leaders from all sides of the Northern Irish conflict to participate.
More than 20 years later, inspired by the end of apartheid in South Africa, and still invested in the Northern Irish peace process, O’Malley had the idea to bring political leaders from the two countries together, hoping that the united African government could provide a model of reconciliation for the Northern Irish government.
This is what James Demo calls “the genius behind [O’Malley’s] work”: using different cultures that have worked through ethnic and/or religious conflict to show the way for cultures still in conflict.
O’Malley began to see conflicted societies as addicts who could only come to peace through an unorthodox and rather untried means: the help and counsel of other addicts. He now bases his work on addiction treatment models.
“Addicts have certain behavioral attributes that non-addicts don’t understand,” O’Malley says. “That’s why Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are so successful. A bonding process takes place – the addict is among people who understand.”
“Similarly,” he continues, “people in deeply divided societies have behavior and traits that are similar to addicts. They act in a way and see things in a way that people from non-conflicted societies won’t understand.”
In 1997, O’Malley was able to test out his model, bringing two delegations of Northern Irish leaders to South Africa for a conference with Nelson Mandela and the South African unity government. O’Malley was right: the Northern Irish were inspired by Mandela and the South African reconciliation process. Less than a year later, the Good Friday Accord that brought peace to Northern Ireland was signed.
Based on that success, O’Malley now asks the Northern Irish government to serve as a model for societies that are, as he says, on the lower rungs of progress toward peace, such as Iraq and the former Yugoslavia. In May 2011, Derry/Londonderry hosted the Forum for Cities in Transition (FCT), a conference that O’Malley helps organize each year that brings together community and political leaders from cities in conflict all over the world.
Cameras rolling, James Demo attended the most recent FCT conference.
“The FCT [allows] the cities to learn from their successes and also from their failures,” Demo says. “Mitrovica, Kosovo can learn from Derry/Londonderry and Belfast. They see themselves in these [other] conflicts and start dialogues about ways to improve their situations.”
In his film, Demo hopes to convey O’Malley’s doggedness in his pursuit of world peace.
“He’s been called a peace hustler – that has some truth to it. He’s always able to move forward when others might retreat. He’s able to adapt in a very quick way where most people would give up,” he explains.
His subject is mostly unfazed by the attention.
“In the story of my work, I am irrelevant,” O’Malley says. But Demo sees a singular quality of determination in O’Malley, and a modern-day hero’s quest in his efforts to spread peace.
In his dedication to negotiating with both sides of religious and ethnic factions, “[h]e’s driven to do these incredibly complex and dangerous things,” Demo says. “He gets into a car with insurgents in Iraq, goes out of the Green Zone, and drives away with them.”
Demo says that the research he does on conflict is his favorite part of working on The Peacemaker.
“To understand the Balkan and Iraqi peace processes has been challenging. I often joke that I should get a PhD after this job is over,” he says. “But my job is to explain why the work Padraig is doing is relevant. These problems are so complex that there needs to be a telling, so that other people can learn from them."