Northern Ireland, Across the Divide

Our community in Ireland is located in a small town about 20 miles from Belfast. 
The three!The three!Three little sisters live there: Emiko (from Japan), Jocelyne and Helene (from France).  They sent us this invitation:

Come and visit St. Patrick’s beloved land—Ireland. 

In the Republic of Ireland, the south (“Eire” in the language of the country), you will buy things with Euros and measure your trip in kilometers.

In Northern Ireland (“Ulster”), which is part of the United Kingdom, you will pay in pounds sterling and measure your travel in miles.

We live in the North, in a forgotten corner where there were once barracks of the British Air Force.  When the camp closed, Catholic families from Belfast moved here to escape the violence.  Now our neighborhood is more mixed.

We inherited the friendships begun by the little sisters who were here before us.  We were warmly welcomed and supported.  We are building community out of our own different cultures and backgrounds and our different temperaments.  And, we’re trying to improve our English too!

Background:

One part of the peace wallOne part of the peace wall

Visiting Belfast, you will discover the “peace walls,” built over the years to separate Protestant and Catholic areas.  You will recognize which neighborhoods are Catholic and which are Protestant, with their separate streets, taxis, hospitals, schools, and graveyards…As you walk along the streets, look at the flags: British or Republican (Irish) flags—they will tell you which area you are in.

Here and there on both sides of the divide you will find “gardens of remembrance” where you can read the names of all who were killed in “the Troubles” [inter-communal violence dating back to the 1960’s.]

You will need time to look at the murals painted on the walls of many houses.  They reflect the true history of the people here. Each side has its own history!  Each side committing violence against the other…Slowly, these murals are changing and becoming less violent, showing more concern about social issues and about other countries where people are struggling for peace.

As you visit you will understand how this time of “the Troubles” was hard for both communities, and for the Irish and the British, because in fact they were not a question of religion.  They were first of all a question of civil rights (housing, work, education, etc.)  The Catholic people had become second-class citizens in their own country.

With Fr Gerry near the wallWith Fr Gerry near the wall

This was a heritage of the local history.  After centuries of colonization by the British, Protestants and Catholics no longer had the same rights.  That is why these “Troubles,” the “Struggles,” began…The years from the 1969 riots until the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement were very bitter years.  But with the Agreement came the sharing of power among elected Protestants and Catholics for the first time in the history of Northern Ireland.

Today:

Now, persons who had been enemies for years are trying to work together as a government in this small corner of the world!  And we are witnesses to it.  It is a joy for us because we are conscious that, through our own diversity as a community, we are living the same kind of challenges in our daily life as little sisters.

Now, more and more, we can see the consequences of the change as people work together:     Roads are being repaired and other public services being maintained after years of neglect.

Last year real power was actually transferred from London to Belfast.

Before, the police were almost entirely Protestant, but this is changing and there are now Catholic policemen on the streets as well.

Even if only 2.5% of children attend integrated schools, they are now encouraged to do so.  Catholic and Protestant pupils mixing together will help the peace process go deeper.

A Peace Studies program has been started at Belfast University, and this is a sign of great progress as we strive to be ONE (at the funeral of a Catholic policeman who had been shot, the Protestant prime minister told everyone he wanted to be present because “we are now one community.”)

Even if some dissident Republicans are still going on with “troubles,” many Catholics want to be friends with Protestants and vice versa.  No one wants to return to violence as a means of getting justice for Catholics.      

Here are a few signs of hope from our personal lives:

From Emiko:

Emiko at workEmiko at work

I work as a cleaner at Glebe House, a residential center operated as part of an inter-community peace program.  The center welcomes groups for weekends or week-long programs.  Since the center began during the time of the “Troubles,” the staff has tried hard to promote reconciliation and peace.  People from all different backgrounds and denominations have stayed here, including children.  There is something called the “cross-border project,” where the staff organizes groups from diverse backgrounds to visit the South, where most of the people are Catholic.  In return, people from the South visit Northern Ireland. That way, they get to know each other, and understand each other more.

This simple way of exchange can change our world.  My part in this work of reconciliation is as a cleaner: making beds, preparing tea to welcome those who come.  This work of reconciliation is my joy.

From Helene:

Helen at the Mustard SeedHelen at the Mustard Seed

I am part of a small cross-community group, Protestant and Catholic together.  Once during Lent the group had a 24-hour fast and prayer.  I was so glad to see Sandra (from an Evangelical background) leading the group for a time of Gospel sharing.  Then later, as we began the rosary, I saw her come and pray with us.

There are many small groups like that, which enable people to meet between Catholics and Protestants—like “Unity Pilgrims,” “Clonard Fitzroy Fellowship,” etc.  They work for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.  Last year we were invited for a long week-end with them, people from many different churches studying several chapters of Pope Benedict’s book Jesus of Nazareth together.  Beginning in January, the ministers from all the denominations in Downpatrick began meeting once a month to share what the Churches are living in this small town nearby.

Slowly, slowly…friendship builds peace, as we come to know each other better and there is less fear between people.  I could tell you many other beautiful little stories of links forged across our divide!  Are they not signs of hope?  Come and see!


This is the prayer at the end of an ecumenical service in the Church of Ireland (from the Anglican Communion) on 17th March, feast of St Patrick:

“We commit ourselves

To make the ministry of reconciliation a priority in our prayers,

To build relationships of trust and mutual respect with those from whom we differ,

To work for justice for all, not just those with whom we identify as belonging to "our community",

To support all who build peace and promote reconciliation in our divided society”.

Message of hopeMessage of hope