Breaking out of tribal ghettos

Spirit of the Age
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SPLASHING NOISILY up the river, waist-deep in water, the group of shrieking young women in their gaudy red and orange cagoules and grey wetsuits looked like any bunch of students on an adventure holiday. But they were not. The giggling group consisted of individuals from the hard- line areas on either side of Northern Ireland's sectarian divide. Most of them, until a few days before, had rarely ventured outside the clan enclaves in which they live. Almost all had never once met someone from the other side.

Now there they were helping each other out of a river in the rural glens of County Antrim, pulling off each other's wellingtons and sharing the few cigarettes which had not been soaked.

Ulster is no place for facile optimism. And yet it is an antidote, of kinds, to the bomb in Omagh that throughout the province there are some 133 peace and reconciliation groups, quietly going about the painstaking daily task of rebuilding the trust so brutally shattered.

Perhaps the seminal influence on these groups is the Corrymeela Community, which aims to create a safe space in which Catholics and Protestants can meet - most particularly residents of border "interface areas".

It works. "I thought I'd be frightened here, but nobody cares whether you're a Catholic or a Protestant," said 16-year-old Lisa Bradley. She spoke with amazement at having discovered what those of us who have grown up outside such tribal ghettos take for granted.

Corrymeela was opened more than 30 years ago on the wave of energy and openness which characterised the Sixties. But the idea had its roots in the prisoner-of-war camp experience of a Presbyterian minister called Ray Davey. Two things formed it - his attempts to build a sense of community among all ranks by getting soldiers together to swap life-histories and his harrowing experiences in a work-gang clearing bodies from the ruins of Dresden, where Allied firebombs had fried 50,000 people and disabused Davey of the notion that his own side had a monopoly on honour and virtue.

For the past three decades, the 180 strong Corrymeela Community, which embraces Christians of all denominations, has brought together around 8,000 people a year to exchange their stories. "Story takes you out of the arena where people lay claim to absolute truth," says the centre's current director, Colin Craig. Views of history are acknowledged as partial and subjective. "Then something new becomes possible."

It does not go for easy targets. Last week was typical. The centre housed three groups, each containing both Catholics and Protestants. One was of cases on the books of the NSPCC. Another was a lone-parent family support group. The third was a group from both sides of the border which mixed teenage girls from the Travellers' community with others from settled homes.

But it also has a safe house for families fleeing from paramilitaries and deals with riskier groups. A soldier injured in an IRA explosion was brought together recently with a group of Republican prisoners' families. And when the centre's social workers learned that police were planning to swoop on a group of troublesome Protestant youths who were constantly rioting, they brought the two groups together.

"There were the 16 riot ringleaders, six police and six loyalist community workers," said Colin Craig. "The atmosphere was sizzling." Craig put them through a series of physical exercises. "They had to touch each other. Then we divided them into three teams - with police, youths and former-paramilitaries in each - and had a Capture the Flag game. It was odd to see them crawl through the woods, pooling their street skills."

The subsequent discussions between the three groups took on a different tone. One of the things which arose was that when the police arrived on the scene of a brewing riot, their helmets and body armour made them a target. Some weeks later, the police were called to a simmering scene in their armoured landrovers. One of the officers, to the horror of his sectional commander, got out of the vehicle, took off his helmet and went over to two of the youths he'd met at Corrymeela and said: "Billy are we gonna do this?" The youth replied: "I'll see what I can do," and went off to talk to his peers. Moments later the riot dissolved.

But failure is also part of the everyday. Peacemaking is no soft option, as the plaque on Corrymeela's children's playground reveals. It is dedicated to the memory of Sean Armstrong, a cross-community worker killed by paramilitaries. And among the participants last week was one woman whose husband was shot more than 20 years ago, but - with her pain re-triggered by the Omagh bomb - was unable to bring herself to talk about it even now.

So the work of places like Corrymeela goes on, developing ever more sophisticated mechanisms for addressing the prejudice which it insists resides in group dynamics rather than in individuals. And disguising it all in activity holidays which allowed jaded and jaundiced adults to rediscover something child-like in themselves. "It has been great fun. When we first came, we were suspicious of the other side; many had never ever met anyone who was of a different religion; by the end of the week we were all kissing and hugging and crying," said Matt Harkin, a lone parent from Derry.

That night, the participants all retired to the pub in Ballycastle. High on the wall above them, a muted television set showed the funerals that had taken place that day in Omagh. Beneath the screen, the Catholic and Protestant drinkers laughed and joked with boisterous good humour. There was no disrespect in their behaviour. It was just that the ghost of the terrible past was giving way to the possibility of a different future.