A tense, cautious hope for a peaceful future in Northern
Ireland emerged with the cease-fire called on August 31 by the
Irish Republican Army, ending its 25-year armed campaign against
the British presence in Northern Ireland. It is an abrupt shift
of tune in an ancient conflict over land, religion, culture,
political power, repression, colonial manipulation, economic
scarcity, and even names of places.
Majority Protestants, most descended from Scots brought in by
the British in the 1600s to displace the Irish, look warily to
the 98-percent Catholic Republic of Ireland in the south.
Catholics in Northern Ireland fear the majority Protestants,
pointing to a long history of officially condoned mass
starvation, military repression, and cultural prejudice that
continues with contemporary politicians, police, and employers.
Economic scarcity and anxieties about the political future
raise the stakes: Cultural identities are clenched so tightly by
both sides that the defining edges of the conflict blur and
shift, forming the motions and movements of war.
This has been the dance of young British and Royal Irish
Regiment soldiers on the street: twisting and turning their
machine gun partners, always moving in sets of fours. They bend
low on one knee and swivel outward. Pairs move forward, two
glance back, all four advancea war dance down Falls Road
(Catholic, Nationalist, Repub-lican), down the Shankill
(Protestant, Loyalist, Unionist), through the check points of the
Then the paramilitaries dance: Catholic
"provos" or IRA, the Irish National Liberation Army,
and others; Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force, Red Hand
Commandos, Ulster Freedom Fighters, and more. They have danced
with nightmares, bottomless grief, blind hatred, and conflicting
histories beating like an anxious storm against their hearts.
Theyve burned and bombed innocents and each other. They
twist each other with a fiery twine of brutal
"justice," knee-cap each other into a particular
Belfast gait as they dance along the neighborhoods painted
curbstoneswhite, red, blue for Protestants; green, orange,
white for Catholics.
There is surely much to celebrate in the easing, at least
politically, of tensions between these communities.
Many families in the Catholic community, with brothers,
sisters, husbands, and fathers caught up, willingly or not, in
the IRA, and the eye-for-an-eye rhythm of Northern Ireland, are
relieved at the laying down of arms. Likewise, Protestant police
and security force members breathe a little easier; the chances
of a bomb under their car or a sniper ambush are much less now.
And while the British government has not yet expressed official
trust in the IRA cease-fire, they have eased back, just a bit, on
the security measures that make Belfast a surreal mix of
cosmopolitan center, home town, and prison camp.
But while many Protestant politicians, church people, and
community workers are encouraging their people to accept the IRA
gesture and support peaceful negotiations, other Loyalists have
utterly rejected the cease-fire. Protestant paramilitaries have
launched several violent attacks.
"This cease-fire has seemed almost miraculous," says
Sister Noreen Christian, a Belfast community worker. "But we
also know that behind the scenes there are still mountains and
mountains of work to be done.
"The Loyalists need reassurance that theyre not
being cut out of things. And all sides are struggling to hold
their own people together." Christian, who is founder of
Currach, an ecumenical community on the "peace line"
(Belfasts Berlin Wall) between Catholic and Protestant
neighborhoods, adds, "We need to try to keep including the
extremesthey are real people, with real fears, founded or
PEOPLE OF FAITH in Northern Ireland were working to include
all and build trust long before the current political hope
Corrymeela, a 180-member community founded in 1965 to address
the religious divide, has meeting sites on the beautiful north
Antrim coast and in downtown Belfast. People of differing faiths,
classes, and backgrounds come to share their lives and support
one another in their work for reconciliation.
At Corrymeela, Protestant and Catholic teen-agers go on
retreat together, encouraged to explain the emblems of their
respective cultures, to ask why they believe what they believe,
to find out, often despite themselves, how much they have in
common. During the summers, families escape to here from the city
on holiday, a respite from the noise and the rigid, anxious
movements of the everyday.
In groups like Corrymeela, Cornerstone Community, and Currach,
Protestant and Catholic Encounter, Quakers, and the Peace People,
Gods Word is, at last, given the dance in muscle, bone, and
beating heart. Catholics and Protestants touch fingertips in an
arch over the desolate cyclone fencing, razor wire, and bricks of
the "peace line." These Christian communities are a
place where this memory-carrying people can remember yet forgive,
where human frailty and weighted histories might turn in a fresh
step, where the bones of Northern Ireland, dry for so long in
broken tenements and divided suburbs, may yet raise themselves
Even as the political stage begins to shift, it is through the
radical vision of these dedicated Christian communities that true
healing and reconciliation will come. They have endured despite
pressure from politically entrenched churches that consider this
vision to be "dangerous ground," as Corrymeela founder
Ray Davey puts it.
In this very religious country, these communities return to
the central message of the gospel, "that Jesus came to
unmask the violence we do to one another, and invites us to
choose a different path," Davey says. They strive to
translate small reconciling gestures into oratorios of movement.
The dry bones of Ulster, of the Northern counties, of Northern
Ireland, long for a home of flesh, for the warmth of breath on
the neck, for strong hands, backs, legs, and memories for
building up a new people who dance the words land, peace,
community, and home together; who weep the grief of ages on each
others shoulders, moving forward to clasp the intertwining
fingers of the other, twirling, and stepping with a
breath-filled, passionate partner in their arms, reeling on feet
of faith toward peace.
Rose Berger and Julie Polter
ROSE BERGER and JULIE POLTER were hosted by the Corrymeela
and Currach communities during their July visit to Northern
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Berger, Rose Marie
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