The tyranny of distance? Not today.

We were delighted to welcome Paul Costello as a guest speaker to our MA module “Terrorism, Conflict and the Media”. Paul enthralled the class with his experiences within the peace-making processes in Northern Ireland, South Africa and Israel/Palestine...

Paul Costello joined us live from his office in Maryland

The programmes Paul ran for a number of years involved inviting young people from either side of conflict situations to Washington DC, bringing them together for what he describes as “an intense, interpersonal experience”. For 8 weeks, young men and women from “opposing” sides are paired up and billeted with a host family. By night they talk and learn about each other’s lives, and by day they work as interns alongside some of the world’s most powerful policymakers, lawmakers and politicians inside some of the world’s most iconic buildings. The basis of the idea is Paul’s mantra that when peace is absent, the problem is not the people, but the traditional stories that they find themselves trapped within.

Paul talks about the power of changing stories

Bringing folk together in this way says Paul, means that not only are they able to gain an understanding of the story from the other side of the conflict, they are also able to imagine new ones for themselves.  After all, he says, before you can go changing the world, you might need to change the story. One of his former programme members is Leo Varadkar, the former Taoiseach and still an influential Irish politician. For him, the programme “helped make me the politician and the leader I am today”.

New Story Leadership – details here

Many others from the programme have moved into eminent roles with journalism, media, diplomacy, education and politics. The programmes are still running, but are now stewarded by his former alumni as the next generation of story changers. Stories, Paul reminds us, were responsible for the conflicts in the first place, and new stories can be the way to end them.

But not all conflicts are the same, he reminded us. The sectarian conflict that divided Ireland had a much different dynamic to that between Israel and Palestine. It’s hard to broker peace and to change the story he says, while the guns are still firing, the bombs are exploding and the checkpoints represent such bitter, bloody and ongoing strife. Moreover, he says, the role of the US was key to Northern Ireland, but their interventions in the Middle East are more problematic and complex. He reflects that this is not a one size fits all model.

The Wall of Stories – the story changers on either side of the conflict

The session was also a chance for two cousins to say hello. The mothers of Paul and Module leader Dr Richard Thomas were sisters. They were both born across Swansea Bay in Port Talbot and separated in age by a dozen or so years. In 1946, Paul’s mother sailed to Australia to marry the Aussie Airman (Paul’s dad) she had met during her wartime service as a nurse. The sisters would keep in touch but would not see each other again for 27 years.

Big sister says goodbye to her little sister

Despite being on opposite sides of the world they remained close for the rest of their lives. Paul refers to such geographic separation as “the tyranny of distance”. But how wonderful it was that Zoom technology meant that today, the “tyranny” was removed from the “distance”. The family connection has now also extended to Media and Communications students at Swansea… Here’s to the next time Paul.

Sisters parted, then reunited in 1973…