Channeling Mediation into the Legal Practice. Member Spotlight: Anne-Marie Blaney.

Peace is certainly valued by most people, little doubt exists about it. However, for Anne-Marie Blaney who was born at the outset of the Troubles, the ethno-nationalist conflict that scourged Northern Ireland from the late 60s until the end of the 20th century, peace embodies an even more profound significance. The harshness of growing up in a society where neighbours and individuals from the same communities were divided and antagonized upon religious beliefs and cultural belonging left a mark on Anne-Marie Blaney, prompting her to embrace mediation and peacebuilding both as a career choice as well as her guiding vision in life. 

Anne-Marie’s curriculum is hard to describe in few lines, given the multiplicity of the roles and specializations that she earned along her 25+ years of career. First and foremost, she is an experienced mediator, solicitor and arbitrator. Particularly, she is specialized in Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) processes, seeking to facilitate parties to resolve differences and find successful solutions using non adversarial methods. She also acted as the Chairperson of the Irish Branch of The Chartered  Institute of Arbitrators, a centre of excellence, based in London for the practice and profession of ADR. She has just been appointed to the Board of Mediation Northern Ireland. Last but not least, Anne-Marie has been an active member of MBBI for several years, collaborating with the Women in Mediation Action Group as well as supporting MBBI’s efforts in other critical areas.

A legal practitioner leaning towards mediation and ADR approaches 

Growing up in the town of Newry close to the Irish border, Anne-Marie demonstrated an early interest for the legal field, driven by both practical purposes and a keen interest in the subject. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Civil Law at the University College Dublin, afterward training and qualifying to be a solicitor at the Law Society of Ireland. Initiated to the law profession, Anne-Marie spent six years working in the courts in Northern Ireland and dealing primarily with cases of litigation. Given the dire circumstances of the time, she also worked on criminal cases related to the violence of the Northern Irish conflict. 

Living in the 90s between Ireland and Northern Ireland, Anne-Marie progressed as a legal practitioner in the midst of the early development of ADR practice in the region. “I became curious hearing about mediation at legal conferences. I had had the experience of years with litigation, so mediation appealed to me because it was a peaceable and amicable approach to dispute resolution”. Inspired by this curiosity, Anne-Marie was trained in arbitration, mediation, and conflict transformation. This sparked a life-long interest in promoting more peaceful ways to help people and organizations in dispute with each other. As of today, Anne-Marie has supported hundreds of individuals and businesses getting through, and past, their confrontational issues in constructive ways, finally developing more resilient and pacific relationships. “The satisfaction of understanding the other’s position and reaching their own agreement in a voluntary way is an extremely powerful thing,” she says, “it is a way to maintain peaceable relations all across society”. Growing up in a period and place where conflict was seen as the ‘extraordinary normality’, Anne-Marie demonstrated since the beginning great appreciation for mediation as a possible catalyser for enhanced cohesion within society. 

The shift towards mediation

Anne-Marie reflected that it took a long time to make a real shift towards mediation, which however began to be included into her all-encompassing endeavour to find peace-fostering justice options for her clients. “For me, ADR and mediation have always had a very central role within my thinking and approach to legal practice”, Anne-Marie emphasises. While being accredited as a mediator, she continued her law practice as a legal aid solicitor at the Legal Aid Board. Here, she could make use of the principles acquired by the experience with ADR to table mediation options to her clients and within court trials, finding out less adverse solutions to settle legal disputes. Moreover, the interest in ADR drove Anne-Marie to become involved with the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators (CIArb), acting as a Vice-Chair and Chairperson of the Irish Branch. While covering these roles, she got involved in a wide array of activities, including organizing knowledge-sharing conferences, setting up trainings for practitioners and collaborating with various institutional stakeholders in order to improve the awareness of dispute resolution all across Ireland. 

Last but not least, Anne-Marie is engaged with passing her extensive knowledge on to future legal and mediation practitioners. In fact, she is currently an approved mediation trainer and assessor with the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators and tutored trainee solicitors at the Law Society of Ireland. She has also been a judge in various Irish, European and International mediation and negotiation competitions connected to the Kennedy Institute for Conflict Intervention at Maynooth University

Three beliefs on mediation

Overall, Anne-Marie is keen to underline three key aspects of mediation, which make it so powerful and necessary. According to the first, “mediation is a way to see through the eyes of others, to create understanding”. In other words, in a world where humans tend to be self-referred and individualist, and where communication is often undervalued, mediation comes in as an extraordinary tool of perception, helping to better understand each other’s emotions, feelings, and thinking; “in order to be humans, nothing more”. “Mediation is about civil and social justice, and how mediation is capable to orient our whole society towards more peaceable existence and co-existence with each other”. As Anne-Marie likes to say, mediation reveals itself to be a potent instrument to create more cohesive and peaceful societies as a whole. Lastly, mediation is linked to dialogue, and to the capacity of this latter to create real connections among beings. “Mediation is ultimately about the creation of a process of dialogue. The impact on interpersonal relations is just incredible”

Anne-Marie is convinced that such concepts could profoundly benefit the situation of Northern Ireland, whose society remains fragmented to some extent by the impact of the Troubles, although the political dialogue and pacific coexistence have achieved significant steps forward since the Good Friday Agreement. Still, “there is a lot of post-conflict peace work that has to be done”, she said. 

Engagement with MBBI

During the period 2017 to 2020, when political division caused Northern Ireland’s Assembly to collapse, Anne-Marie became involved in a grassroots movement that focused its efforts on getting the elected politicians to get back to work, serving the people.   Anne-Marie began her collaboration with MBBI, becoming interested in the Democracy, Politics, and Conflict Engagement Initiative.  Indeed, she shared a keen passion for some topic areas, such as the intertwine between gender and mediation, which were (and still are) crucial for MBBI’s engagement worldwide. Such a match led Anne-Marie to join MBBI first-hand, taking an active part in the Women in Mediation Action Group. The workgroup prepared a parallel event for the Commission on the Status of Women 65, in March. “My beliefs are very much oriented towards the importance of gender equality and getting women to the table”, Anne-Marie tells. Not just this, she additionally supports the ongoing European group and the Health & Conflict Working Group of MBBI. This aligns with her dedication to offer online restorative circles and mediation sessions to heal conflicting situations emerging within the healthcare sector.

As anticipated, Anne-Marie’s wide and extraordinary curriculum is difficult to resume in a few lines. Her background has led to her founding a business, Peace Essential, dedicated to peacebuilding, training and mediation. 

Written by Matteo Piovacari: MBBI Writer