BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND — It was like being in a dark tunnel for a long, long time," says Mary McCarron, a mother of eight from Londonderry, or simply Derry, to Catholics like her. "All of a sudden, there was light.
"That's what the peace agreement was like. It's a wonderful thing," she adds. "It would be terrible if it came apart."
Mrs. McCarron speaks for most citizens in Northern Ireland, whichever their allegiance during "the Troubles" of the past 30 years. As politicians today struggle to break an impasse over implementation of the peace agreement, polls show that more people now support it than in the May 1998 referendum.
And while the euphoria that spread across the province last year has bumped into hard realities, people for the most part seem out in front of the politicians - in mood and in actions.
It's not just Belfast's bustling city center - empty when the Europa became the most bombed hotel in Europe - where people lounge and laugh in the sun on the lawn outside City Hall. It's not just the ease of travel on the new high-speed train between Belfast and Dublin without a sign of security forces on watch. Or the air of normalcy along Falls and Shankill Roads, where a paramilitary mural touts compromise.
It's that active "peace-building" is going on at the grassroots here in many forms, as imaginative and committed groups aim at transforming a society bitterly divided by centuries-old political and cultural differences, long-standing inequities, and years of vicious violence.
Some 3,600 people have been killed in the Troubles, and 40,000 injured. Proportionally, the deaths are equivalent to 495,000 in the United States. Both sides nurse deep grievances and have seen themselves as victims and as a threatened minority: Catholics in Northern Ireland, and Protestants on the island as a whole. Protestants have long dominated the Catholic minority through inequitable institutions. And economic deprivation on both sides has fueled the conflict. In some poor Belfast neighborhoods, estimates say as many as one-third of the men live out their lives without holding a job. Joining a paramilitary group has given some both income and status.
During the 1990s, efforts have mushroomed to bridge the divide, confront the sectarianism that has stymied past peace efforts, and begin to build a new future.
Some 140 groups now work at the process of reconciliation. They are teaching new skills for mediating differences, helping victims and perpetrators come to terms with the past and get a new start, nudging communities and institutions to embrace diversity, and encouraging churches to become part of the solution rather than part of the problem. (Part 2 of this series will look at ending violence and Part 3 at religion as part of the solution.)
"We're probably optimistic for the long term that ... the process of peace is a societywide phenomenon," says Brendan McAllister, director of The Mediation Network of Northern Ireland. "And that while the political process has gone into a state of crisis, the wider process of peace is at work and is unstoppable. Even though, like a train journey, we may have to go through tunnels and periods of fear, we're still moving forward."
"One of the lessons we've learned here is that it's not enough just to hope for peace," says Mari Fitzduff, who in 1990 helped found the independent Community Relations Council (CRC). "You have to be very strategic - as strategic about peace as the warmakers are about war." The CRC has spurred planning for change in institutions and villages across the province.
Since the cease-fires in 1994, the European Union has donated funds for "peace and reconciliation," giving a boost to local efforts. Yet the challenges of reconciliation remain so daunting that many shy from the term.
"There's been so much hurt on both sides over such a long period that reconciliation remains an aim, but it's over the long term," says Joe Campbell, Mediation Network's assistant director. "There'll be a number of steps in reconciliation. Ending violence is only a first step. We use a phrase here: 'remember and change.' We need to remember how we got ourselves into this, we need to remember all that's happened, but in such a way that allows us to change."
Remembering in the right way isn't all that easy. Those who study reconciliation in "societies in conflict" say memory - individual and collective - is a powerful factor. In Northern Ireland, it has seemed an obsession. The sacrifices over centuries of those who fought to secure Ulster for the United Kingdom or the Irish Republic have been the living stuff of politics, bedeviling past peace efforts. The 3,000 annual parades - which, along with policing, remain the most contentious issue - involve commemorations.
Now with peace, the voices of those who have suffered most from the violence are rising. At a public hearing of the police review body set up to consider reforms, a man stood to thank the chairman for listening. Then he said, "But my son was murdered, Mr. Patten, and the man who killed him is sitting just a few rows from me. How do we deal with that?"
The question here is how to deal with the past. Some are recording victims' stories, and a Victims Commissioner has issued recommendations; so far, an official truth and reconciliation commission seems unlikely. To those who question the need to remember at all, Paul Arthur, a professor at the University of Ulster, says that "burying the past will only bury the future."
One institutional change that will help reshape the collective memory is under way in the schools. While the system is still segregated, a five-year effort has brought major change to the curricula. Protestant and Catholic schools now have cultural-heritage programs and cross-community exchanges, and, most important, common curricula for history and religion. And surveys show, Dr. Fitzduff says, that parents (80 percent of Catholics and 70 percent of Protestants) want integrated education.
A long journey of building relationships
All agree reconciliation is a long and complex process. Some key steps involve telling the truth and acknowledging past wrongs; addressing attitudes toward "the other" that perpetuate hatred and conflict; and envisioning a future that recognizes interdependence and reforms institutions to provide equity or collective ownership.
For many in the thick of it here, the steps in reconciliation need to be understood, too, as relationship-building. "Where people have been hurt by each other - and in our society whole groups have been hurt by other groups - then people need to have help to have difficult conversations as a way of building relationships and rebuilding shattered relationships," says Mr. McAllister.
And in helping people face their differences, he finds it more realistic to expect "recognition" of wrongs than "acknowledgment," which can seem like requiring one side to accept the other's definition of the past.
"The family of a dead policeman might want republicans to say 'Yes, we accept responsibility for murdering your loved one,' " he explains. "But republicans don't believe they've murdered; they've taken part in an act of war. And to accept forgiveness or reconciliation with people opposing them, the republican may need them to accept that he was taking part in a war. So 'recognition' enables each side to recognize the other for whom they think they are, as opposed to whom the opponent says they are."
McAllister, a Catholic former probation officer, and Campbell, a Protestant former youth worker, work closely together in "conflict transformation," trying to "encourage a cultural shift in how our people think about conflict." The network is active in many sectors of Ulster life, training mediators in "interface areas" of Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods; helping churches set up conciliation services; engaging a largely Protestant police on cultural diversity and community policing; regularly visiting both political factions in prison; and advising on "the single most important communal dispute," parades.
"The ghosts of our grandparents come back to haunt us in the parade issue," says Mr. Campbell.
"Some people say the answer to parades is simple: People shouldn't parade where they aren't wanted," McAllister adds. But that's simplistic in a society that has to change from segregated and sectarian to integrated and pluralist, he says. "We must promote the idea of cultures interrelating, building relationships so parading can continue, but in a way that is sensitive to the other tradition."
Learning to live with difference
Sensitivity to "the other" may be the most elusive yet vital goal for Ulster society. Sectarianism is understood by many here as a pervasive attitude - often enmity - tied not strictly to religion but a to broader sense of identity.
A CRC paper says: "The dispute is not at heart religious. It is rather about allegiances - one community to 'Britain' and 'Britishness' and the other to 'Ireland' and 'Irishness.' Clearly religion is a major part of the identity of the two communities, but it is much more important as what has been described as a 'stereotypical cue.' "
What strikes one here is the vigorous effort under way to counter sectarianism. The CRC broadly pushes anti-sectarianism, college students campaign to "Stamp Out Sectarianism," trade unions sponsor a group called Counteract, and faith-based groups, either through witness or teachings, work to transform attitudes (Part 3 of this series, June 17, will look at the role of these groups). A project of the Irish School of Ecumenics focuses on "Moving Beyond Sectarianism" (see story right).
It's not enough, some say, to be nonsectarian. "It implies," the CRC paper says, "that religion and politics should not be discussed and that 'normality' should not be disrupted by unpleasant talk.... There are equally compelling reasons to suggest that while talking about political and religious differences may not make sectarianism go away, not talking about them will certainly ensure that it does not go away."
The CRC has urged towns, businesses and unions, sports and church groups, and public bodies such as housing, health, and social services to examine practices in employment, distributing services, and allowing both cultures to be expressed. "Some of it has been quite difficult and tentative," says Fitzduff, now director of INCORE, a research group on conflict and ethnicity. "But many institutions now think in inclusive terms, and have written into their programs an antisectarian policy that has to be taken on by the next management group."
Envisioning the future has also been part of CRC work with local communities. Since many didn't even have places where Protestants and Catholics felt comfortable meeting, early funding sometimes went to building "mutual venues." But it moved on, she says, to where some "were brave enough to meet one night in the Orange Order hall and the next in the Catholic church,... being in somebody else's cultural place." They then considered what their town would look like if reconciliation had already occurred, and what steps could be taken in the next year or two to head in that direction.
Rebuilding a community together
But community relations "isn't just for the 'nice people,' " says Billy Mitchell, who with his wife, Mena, runs LINC Resource Centre in North Belfast, one of the areas most devastated by the conflict. "We felt real community relations had to be built through the people who were killing each other. We needed to get political enemies working together."
Mr. Mitchell served 14 years in prison. On his release, the couple formed an ex-prisoner program, and now are building bridges between loyalist and nationalist groups. A Progressive Unionist Party member, Mitchell has co-workers on the other side, including in Sinn Fein. They develop projects around what they have in common.
North Belfast is a patchwork of Protestant and Catholic areas; almost 22 percent of the deaths have occurred there, he says. "We disagree on whether to stay in Britain or join the Republic," he adds, "but the things we have in common are bad housing, high unemployment, low job skills, and low investment in our area." One program is "to work together to refurbish part of the interface between nationalist and loyalist areas, rebuilding the derelict houses." Mrs. Mitchell runs education and job-training programs, and is expanding one in the arts, to help young people deal with trauma and conflict.
Despite the encouraging signs, those on the front lines are cautious and cleareyed. In a situation where there remain deep hurts, distrust, and much unacknowledged grief - where people need to learn the art of having difficult conversations, and some still see no reason to do so - the journey will be a long one.
"We've learned that the nature of conflict in our society is cross-generational," McAllister says, "and we are like runners in a relay race. For the most part, we are not the people who will carry the baton across the finish line. But we are responsible for our stage in that race."
Still, most see reason for hope. Sam Cushnahan, director of Families Against Intimidation and Terror, says: "We are moving toward the year 2000, and I'm optimistic. The world has got fairly small, and those that may have claimed in the past they were fighting for Mother Ireland or God and Ulster, now realize there is a much bigger picture: We are part of the European Community now - a US of Europe. There's no border here anymore."
What remains is to get rid of the border in people's hearts and minds.