Patient Philanthropy in Northern Ireland

The recent news out of Northern Ireland, although momentarily obscured by the March 17 celebrations, signals such a profound change in attitudes there that it made me stop and think. A number of years, all right decades, ago, I first got involved in philanthropy because of the terrible conditions in Northern Ireland. “The Troubles,” and various eruptions of inter-religious and political conflict had caught children in the cross-fire, figuratively and literally. Children trapped in gritty neighborhoods, walled off from their counterparts of a different religion, had few safe places to play, and grew up with no opportunity to encounter other faces, different viewpoints.

Many Americans, with wonderful intentions, began to bring children from Northern Ireland to live with their families for summer holidays. Their hope was that the guests would begin to understand a more open outlook, and at least enjoy a brief respite from the violence and hatred that pervaded their lives. Elsewhere, in Irish-American communities, funds were raised for the care of children in the North, and for the welfare of families whose husbands and fathers were imprisoned or killed in the conflict – which took thousands of lives and inflicted pain on countless others.

The problem with these collections, though, was that some of them were simply vehicles to raise money for guns – literally perpetuating the problem, not the solution. And even the well-intentioned holidays for children had a downside: often the child returned home to resentment from siblings or playmates. And the conditions from which they’d had a brief respite hadn’t changed. Yet these children bore the burden of expectations that they’d be individual ambassadors for peace, all on their own.

So I welcomed the opportunity to work with some individuals who shared no common religion or political view, to raise funds in support of programs designed and operated by community leaders, to work with children and families where they lived: in Belfast, Derry and other towns. Safe play facilities, cross-cultural endeavors, social support programs – all vetted by both the Irish and British government – gradually began to make lasting headway, and attitudes began to soften. Later I worked with other organizations who developed job opportunities and small business incubation programs, getting Protestant and Catholic to acknowledge their economic interdependence as they worked side by side.

Most remarkably of all, of course, the political leaders of the parties who had fought each other so bitterly began to breach the deep sectarian gulf over the last few years. With pressure and support from American leaders, an uneasy power-sharing accord began to take root. It was often noted, though, that the people seemed way ahead of their leaders in embracing a life of peaceful co-existence. I felt, over the last several years, that so many of these community-based efforts had really laid the foundation for a promising change in the attitudes and the atmosphere in the North.

And today I am more convinced of that than ever. For despite the horrific, truly disgusting actions that took the lives of two British soldiers and a Northern Irish policeman in the past week, the community – a single, outraged community – has stood up in unison with their neighbors, and in support of their political leaders who’ve condemned the violence. It has taken decades, but the people have walked forward, and refuse to go back.

When we began our work in support of the children years ago, we thought about what lay ahead for them. What would they choose when they became adults: the ballot, the bomb?
So many factors would play a role: the shrinking globe, the Celtic Tiger, the broadened outlook that modern media would make inevitable. But I do salute those community leaders who patiently, stubbornly, pursued a way out of violence and bigotry to offer their children a better life.

When we look at trends in philanthropy today, there is tremendous emphasis on proving effectiveness, with measurable results. I doubt that any of those community-based programs would have been able to demonstrate short-term results, but over time, they have left their impact. It’s patient philanthropy, I suppose, that truly invests and waits for seeds to grow – and continues to support those investments through short-term disappointments. When they do at last demonstrate that they have not only taken root but yielded a thriving harvest, it’s worth it for us to take our attention off the next big idea for a moment, and savor the beauty of what patience has achieved.

Susan Carey Dempsey


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