In N. Ireland, Grass-Roots Peace Rises Pew to Pew

Sister Celia Clegg, a Scottish Roman Catholic nun, arrived in Northern Ireland in 1994, just after a cease-fire had created a taste of peace.

She set out to break the mistrust and stereotypes that have persisted for ages between Catholics and Protestants. While official negotiations faltered, she tried to create a grass-roots peace.

"It tends to be people in very tense areas who are looking for help, because they see the need for it more than folks in the more comfortable areas," she says.

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) has since ended its cease-fire but Sister Clegg's technique of bringing Protestant and Catholic church congregations together is on track. Her project, "Moving Beyond Sectarianism," is backed by the Irish School of Ecumenics in Dublin.

It differs from a traditional model of reconciliation, which follows the line of "let's all get together and get to know each other." Research at the University of Ulster showed that this approach does not break down group stereotypes. In fact, it typically leads people to make exceptions to the rule, such as: "I don't like Catholics, but Seamus is OK."

In this traditional model, divisive issues like religion and politics are not discussed. Indeed, that mode of coping seems to be much the way life is lived between the two communities here, where the folk saying is, "Whatever you say, say nothing."

Crossing the 'invisible line'

Joe Liechty, director of Clegg's project, says there is an "invisible line" defining what people say and do. "Nobody talks about it, but everybody knows it," he says. "You know where to go, where not to go; what to say, what not to say."

In relatively normal times, the invisible line helps Protestants and Catholics coexist. "It serves the positive function of preventing chaos," says Dr. Liechty. "It gives people a structure, a way of handling interaction between the communities. But it can't handle any exceptions" to the "normal" way of doing things.

By contrast, the method used in "Beyond Sectarianism" encourages Catholics and Protestants to air their different beliefs, religious practices, social lives, and political aspirations.

Clegg says that the process brings them to the point where they can say to each other: "We recognize we don't agree, and we want to continue to be friends. We don't want to fight, but we don't want to trade in our beliefs and views either."

At this point, they are discussing "the hoary questions like parades [of the Orange Order, a Protestant marching organization, through Catholic areas], policing, a united Ireland."

When they began the project, in the early months of the "fragile peace" in January 1995, people were slow to respond. "It was a question of pushing doors until one of them opened," Clegg says. By now, they have worked with 1,000 people, through weekend workshops and seminars as well as through an intensive, 10-week program. And they are in demand.

One church group they work with is on the Cliftonville Road in north Belfast, a road known as "murder mile" because of the number of killings of Catholics that took place before the cease-fire.

Drumcree violence

Many church groups canceled their courses last July in the immediate aftermath of a violent confrontation near Drumcree parish church between members of the Orange Order and the police.

Drumcree sparked a wave of rioting, intimidation, hijacking of vehicles, road blocks, and boycotts, and the burning of homes, schools, and businesses. Two people were killed.

The initial reaction following Drumcree was to back off from projects involving the "other" community. But by Christmas 1996, there was "a huge upsurge of interest" in the process, Liechty says.

While the work of "Beyond Sectarianism" is useful, says the Rev. David Stevens, general secretary of the Irish Council of Churches (a Protestant-church umbrella group), "the problem is in moving it from a micro level to a macro level. And I don't think that is easily going to happen."

Dr. Stevens sees the work of the project as a "conversion" experience in which people learn a new way of looking at things. For change to happen, "some form of external pressure," or even "exhaustion" must take place, he says, until people begin to feel that "there has to be a better way."

March on July 6

There is an air of uncertainty as to what will happen this year at Drumcree, where a march is planned for Sunday, July 6. But although neither Clegg nor Liechty expects immediate, widespread results from their work, they hope it will "empower the middle ground to become more than hand-wringers," Liechty says.

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