The Common Good
November 1994

Dancing Toward Peace in Northern Ireland

by Julie Polter, Rose Marie Berger | November 1994

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...

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 advance—a war dance down Falls Road (Catholic, Nationalist, Repub-lican), down the Shankill (Protestant, Loyalist, Unionist), through the check points of the city center.

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. They’ve 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 curbstones—white, 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 they’re 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" (Belfast’s Berlin Wall) between Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods, adds, "We need to try to keep including the extremes—they are real people, with real fears, founded or not."

PEOPLE OF FAITH in Northern Ireland were working to include all and build trust long before the current political hope emerged.

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, God’s 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 up.

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 Ireland.

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