Let Peace Begin With Me

Blog, Essays, Featured — By on August 6, 2007 at 12:00 am

For nearly three decades, Northern Ireland made international headlines. Terrorist bombings, paramilitary shootings, and political turmoil branded the tiny country as a place of division and bloodshed. Yet in April of 1998, the historic Good Friday Agreements helped Northern Irish politicians broker a peace accord that officially ended The Troubles. Paramilitary ceasefires soon followed and in the summer of 2005, the Irish Republican Army began decommissioning their weapons and formally ended their armed campaign.

Despite the steps forward, many wonder if the coming of “peace” through political means actually represents the end of division for the people of Northern Ireland. It’s no doubt they feel safer without the threats of bombs and shootings in the city centre. But while peace agreements and political maneuverings have done a sufficient job taming the scarier edges of sectarianism, some argue its people remain as deeply divided as ever. As Belfast Writer John O’Farrel notes in a recent 2005 editorial:

“The apartheid is vivid on the ground, and it is there that its effects are most poisonous and long lasting. Territorial markings such as painted curbstones and graffiti screaming ‘Kill All Taigs’ (Catholics) or ‘Kill All Huns’ (Protestants) act as frontiers, intimidating outsiders and keeping insiders in line. In the Ardoyne district of Belfast, four out of every five Protestant residents will not use the nearest shops because they are located in Catholic streets, and the same proportion of Catholics will not swim in their nearest swimming pool because it is in a Protestant street. Most 18-year-olds in Ardoyne, of both religions, have never in their lives had a meaningful conversation (about, say, family or sports) with anybody of their own age from the other side of the “peace line” that runs along Alliance Avenue.”

Changing Hearts and Minds

While the sectarian shootouts have slowed, what governments haven’t done, nor should we hold them responsible for, is transforming the hearts and minds of actual citizens. Political parties may be able to change laws and implement policies from the top down but they can’t alter opinions on the street with shifts in political strategy. Similar to racism in this country, by no means has it been obliterated with the passing of legislation. Therefore, in a place like Northern Ireland, a sustainable peace process, from this point in time, has less to do with bureaucratic power and more to do with grassroots peacekeeping and peacebuilding from local organizations and the citizens themselves. I saw neighborhoods plagued with sectarian tension begin to slowly loosen their grip when individual people took great risks to creatively engage the other and chip away at division.

Last April on the night of Pope John Paul II’s death, hateful graffiti emerged in a Catholic area of Belfast that read, “Where the f*** is the Pope now. Ha ha ha.” Obviously scrawled by neighboring Protestants, the timing and viciousness of the vandalism was sure to cause an uproar when the community awoke. But before the morning came, a group of mainly protestant peace activists fearfully snuck into the Catholic estate at 4 a.m. to spray paint “sorry, sorry, sorry” in big white letters over the sectarian prose. Their act of courage, while undoubtedly controversial, defused the situation by reminding the Catholic community that not all Protestants were out to get them.

Soon enough, “sorry, sorry, sorry” began popping up in both Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods alike. Spray paint, a medium most often used in Belfast for spewing hatred, temporarily redeemed with messages of empathy and reconciliation.

Everyday Peacebuilding

During my time in Belfast, I worked at a community center in a small Catholic enclave located in one of the most contentious and economically deprived areas of Belfast. The Nationalist Catholics in the area are a proud but cautious people, as they have suffered a handful of sectarian attacks on their community by the neighboring Protestant housing estates. The community project employs neighborhood residents in their café, holds trauma support groups, and runs extensive youth programs. In 1995, unemployment in the area for young people ages 18-25 was 65%. Now, because of the community center’s dedication to job-training programs, it’s at 16%. The center has won awards for its transformative efforts in South Belfast and is seen as an important part of the peace process due to its cross-community efforts in the area. Surprisingly, Ken Humphrey, the man who started the project, is a Protestant who, 16 years ago, chose to move his Protestant family to the Catholic neighborhood to serve its people. As expected, many Catholics have been skeptical of the Protestant involvement in the center. At one point, the high command of the Irish Republican Army considered driving them out but came to a 51% – 49% vote in favor of keeping the project intact because of its effectiveness.

It is examples like these that extend the idea of what “peace work” means. While I think we should continue to lobby, persuade, and motivate our governments to pass just laws and policies, it doesn’t end there. From what we’ve seen in Northern Ireland, as peacemakers, we must make daily and dangerous choices to engage the other and pursue peace both internationally and domestically. We can’t be against injustice in Iraq, at Guantanamo Bay, or in Sudan if we are not for justice in our own cities, local neighborhoods, and in our hearts. While Northern Ireland is a place with much work to be done, the success stories of revolutionary peace building rival what any government can achieve.

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