'Wee Glimmer of Hope' In A Troubled Land

Catholic and Protestant women in Belfast search for reason

Audrey McQuitty and Sandra Loughrin are neighbors. Their yards are separated by a 30-foot fence of corrugated metal and cement, called the Peace Line. Ms. McQuitty is Protestant; Ms. Loughrin is Catholic. The wall separates not only them but thousands of Protestants and Catholics in Belfast.

With the renewed violence in Northern Ireland, television has focused on the stones, burning cars, and bombings. Meanwhile, the majority of citizens are trying to go about their daily lives. Amid this environment is an organization, Corrymeela, trying to pull down the psychological walls that have developed between Northern Ireland's Protestants and Catholics.

Corrymeela brings together people from all religious and political groups to help them discover common ground.

Founded in 1965, before the violence of the 1970s and 80s, Corrymeela's director, Colin Craig, says, "Corrymeela is not defined by the troubles and is not a response to the troubles. It's a response to the recognition of a break in the community." That break, he contends, has been brought about by a "clash of cultural identity." "Corrymeela seeks to be a safe place where people can tell their story," says Mr. Craig.

Each year, over 6,500 people visit its coastal compound in Ballycastle, 60 miles north of Belfast. Corrymeela is an anglicized, Gaelic word meaning "hill of harmony." Perched atop a rocky, flower-covered promontory overlooking Rathlin Sound, the north channel to the Irish Sea, it offers a dramatic setting to many who have never been away from their neighborhoods.

Corrymeela is staffed by volunteers from around the world chosen to represent diversity, and a permanent staff of Northern Ireland's Protestants and Catholics.

Whether schoolchildren from Derry who attend segregated schools, or Catholic and Protestant neighbors divided by the Peace Line in Belfast, the goal is for them all to recognize their similarities rather than their differences.

"They're young women having a bad time like you," says Loughrin, a Catholic mother of three. The Peace Line is 10 feet from her house on a street where nearly every family has lost someone to violence.

"Both sides were near enough the same," agrees McQuitty, a Protestant mother of two. "We have the same problems." On an almost daily basis she faces rocks and bricks flying over the Peace Line towards her house,

These two women and 11 other young mothers, plus their 29 children were brought together by Corrymeela worker Mary Montague. When the cease-fire was in effect, Ms. Montague began to see changes in the local residents. "Before the peace, many families accepted housing in these 'interface' areas with a view to move out again as quickly as circumstances allowed," she says.

Montague approached a Protestant children's community group and a Catholic mothers and toddler group to see if they would participate in a "cross-community" relationship. Montague initially brought the groups together so the participants could get to know each other. Two months later, the mothers and children were brought to Corrymeela for three days of discussions and activities.

When Elizabeth Greer was a teenager, she and her Protestant family were burnt out of their home in a Catholic neighborhood. Josie Ferris, who grew up and raised her family of nine in a Catholic neighborhood of west Belfast, described nights when local army troops raided Catholic homes looking for men.

Those that were found could then be taken to jail and legally held up to six days with no formal charges against them. But, according to Patricia Doran, who has lived in Belfast all her life, "You get used to it. It's part of living here."

Another part of living there is the Peace Line. That, too, was discussed at Corrymeela. After the cease-fire, Protestants asked to have the Peace Line made higher. Catholics wanted to know why. "There was a cease-fire, but we were still waiting for something to happen," says Greer. "When they took the soldiers away there was a terrible panic. We took the army to be our protection."

The local housing executive added 10 feet to the wall's height. Now those on the Catholic side must keep their lights on all day, as the wall blocks out the sunlight.

When asked if the wall should come down, three Catholic mothers simultaneously shout, "I'd move!" Adding that they are too afraid of what might happen. On the Protestant side, McQuitty comments, "I just want to get a mortgage and get out."

The last day at Corrymeela is spent discussing next steps. "They had us write down what we want for the future," says Greer. "We'd written down the same things." That's a common occurrence at Corrymeela, according to Montague: "All sides have experienced sadness, deprivation, hatred, depression, and frustration with the situation."

These women hope, eventually, for the wall to come down, for a fair police force which all sides can trust, for a community center where all children can play, and for more jobs. With the renewed violence, their hope has become tenuous.

As for their opinions on the current peace process, viewpoints are nearly unanimous. Nothing will come of it. "What do they know anyway'?" asks McQuitty of the politicians. "Let them live the way we do, with windows getting broken," says Josie Ferris.

But Montague holds out, saying, "There's a wee glimmer of hope for the future."

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