BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND — The Corrymela ecumenical center sits on the Antrim coast, one of the most rugged and inhospitable spots in Northern Ireland.
But Derick Wilson, the center's former director, likes to describe it as a "house of space" where the feuding Protestant and Catholic communities can feel safe to express themselves.
During 30 years of political violence, Corrymela was one of the few places where the two sides could comfortably meet. Today the center also serves as a place for respite and self-discovery, as was evident at a retreat earlier this year for former Loyalist prisoners, Protestant paramilitaries who fought to preserve Northern Ireland's link with Britain.
Sitting in a Corrymela annex, Colin Boyd recalls that while jailed for possession of firearms with intent to murder for the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF), he met his ideological counterpart: a young Irish Republican Army (IRA) prisoner facing similar charges.
Though enemies, the two spoke openly about the struggle in Northern Ireland.
Mr. Boyd recalls listening to the IRA activist quote chapter and verse of Irish history, citing battles and statesmen that structured his view of the conflict, with its goal of a united Ireland.
When Boyd tried to reply with his own justification of Loyalist violence, he found himself almost at a loss for words.
"It was purely hatred against Republicans," Boyd explains, adding that he felt he was acting in "defense of culture and country."
Boyd says he attended the retreat to help Loyalists develop a "stronger vision ... and broader perspective."
Some Loyalists are still pursuing a violent campaign. The dissident Red Hand Defenders claimed responsibility for the murder of prominent human rights attorney Rosemary Nelson in March.
LOOKING to the future, the British and Irish Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern recently offered a proposal to overcome the thorny issue of disarming Northern Ireland's paramilitary groups and imposed a June 30 deadline for an agreement.
The proposal was accepted by Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, whose party is the IRA's political ally. But it was greeted coolly by David Trimble, leader of the pro-British Ulster Unionists, who may be ousted if he convenes the self-rule Northern Ireland Assembly set up under last year's Good Friday peace accord, before arms "decommissioning" begins.
While politicians thrash out political agreements, many former Loyalists are looking to the promise of peace. Some are experimenting with a new identity that combines their working-class background and Scottish heritage.
Frank Gallagher, director of the East Belfast Prisoners Aid Center and an instructor at the Corrymela conference, points out that many of Northern Ireland's Protestants descended from 17th-century Scottish planters. Becoming aware of cultural identity is part of his plan for "transforming conflict."
The only way to sustain the peace, Mr. Gallagher argues, is to address the underlying issues of the conflict: poverty and a lack of positive guidance. He is seeking funds to hire a family support worker to give parenting advice and two full-time staff to help the chronically unemployed find jobs.
Jim Neill, another retreat attendee, joined the UFF in 1990. Born in the Loyalist heartland of West Belfast's Shankill Road, as a youth Mr. Neill threw stones over the 12-foot peace wall that separated his community from Catholics and remembers his father being intimidated out of work by Republicans.
Neill later served nearly nine years in jail for murder, but believes there is no further need for violence. "Jail learns you," he says, explaining the end of his paramilitary involvement.
Neill hopes the peace will last, partly for himself and partly for his son, James, who joined him on the retreat.
"I don't want him to have to go through what I went through," Neill says. "I don't want to have to visit him in jail."