Magazine article The American Prospect

A More Civil Society: NGOs at Work for Peace in Northern Ireland. (Gazette)

Magazine article The American Prospect

A More Civil Society: NGOs at Work for Peace in Northern Ireland. (Gazette)

Article excerpt

NEWS OF UNRELENTING VIOLENCE in the Mideast may suggest that it s utopian to expect peaceful resolution of abiding ethnic and religious hatreds, but some less visible efforts at cross-ethnic cooperation are getting results.

Consider Northern Ireland, watered by many rivers--the Lagan, Bann, Ballinamallard, and Cam--but none so powerful as the river of religious hatred. Regularly overflowing its banks, drowning Catholic and Protestant communities alike in violence, it has cost more than 3,600 lives in the last 30 years. The recent decision by the Irish Republican Army to decommission arms is an important step in flood control, but what's really needed are bridges connecting the two communities so they can take the further step of decommissioning hatred.

Who can build those bridges? Listening to the Northern Irish, one gets the sense it is probably not the political leadership. People are skeptical of the shenanigans that surrounded decommissioning. Catholics feel that giving up arms reduces their safety from gun-toting Protestant extremists, while Protestants feel that the IRA has made only a symbolic gesture, for which it has received wildly disproportionate political gains. As a result, neither side has reaped the potential joint benefits of reduced arms--less violence, more economic growth, and policies crafted to reflect some of what each community wants.

Hope for decommissioning hatred now rests mainly among the nongovernmental organizations of civil society. Fortunately, Northern Ireland has just such groups--so-called "concord organizations"--committed to building common worldviews and skills necessary to work effectively across communities. Though they rarely get much press outside of Northern Ireland, these groups provide crucial democratic assets for the new society that Northern Ireland wants to become. Among a population of 1.6 million people, there are some 2,000 concord organizations and projects--large and small. Their work helps to achieve the closer connections between Catholics and Protestants, an aspiration held by more than two-thirds of the Northern Irish in every public-opinion poll.

"Effective intercommunity work at the local level can act as a break on the zero-sum-game approach to politics that is often found in divided societies," explains Avila Kilmurray, the director of the Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust, which supports scores of community projects that fit the concord model.

A few examples give the flavor of this work. In a country where Protestants of some denominations do not consider other Protestants, let alone Catholics, to be Christians, Corrymeela, an organization of about 250 Protestants and Catholics, is committed to the transcendent idea of the discipleship of Christ. Each year, Corrymeela brings together several thousand people of all faiths to learn from one another in .structured, small-group conversations. For many participants who live, go to school, and work in highly segregated settings, these occasions are the first time that they have met or talked with people from the other community in anything other than a highly formulaic way.

The Belfast Interface Project takes another step. It works with leaders on both sides of "peace lines"--the often violent boundaries between religiously defined neighborhoods--to communicate accurate information and reduce sectarian bloodshed. …

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