Healing in Northern Ireland

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Finally here.

Much changes in a year. I wrote those words a year ago, just around this time last July, while looking over the city of Sarajevo as the sun set beneath the hills and washed the city in that beautiful orange glow I would come to love. In some ways those days don’t seem so long ago — I can still clearly remember walking along the river that cuts through the old town, or grabbing a sandwich at the little bistro down the street during my brief lunch hour away from work. It feels strange now that these memories are nearly a year old. They seem to exist in that tenuous middle ground of seeming so recent yet at the same time so far away, as if they were experiences that belonged to another person.

Life moves forward quickly, at times too quickly. Things that once seemed sure in the Balkans have since fallen apart, and new thoughts, relationships and experiences are only slowly rising to take their place. As I discovered in Sarajevo a year ago, I am no longer the person I was last summer, and that has come to both surprise and strangely sadden me — I feel both wiser and older, and these days strangely less sure of the ground that I stand on, or the direction I find myself going forward.

But starting over, taking a step forward even after stumbling several steps back — there is something to say about that. And this land, this island, is a healing place. A place to reflect, to heal, to begin again. A place to put the floating sensation I have experienced these past few weeks, of merely drifting in and out of each day, firmly behind.

I feel a strange affection for this land, which I have never before seen or set foot on. It too is healing, slowly moving forward from its past towards an unclear and still yet uncertain future. It is a beautiful country, one of the most beautiful that I have ever seen: a country of rolling green hills and rugged coastlines, of sheep grazing in the fields and little towns along the shore. Every day, I wake to the waves crashing against the rocks, and drink my morning coffee to the salty sea breeze rising up over the cliffs. It’s enough to make you never want to leave.

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Walking along the Antrim Coast

But this is also a country, like Bosnia or Serbia, with a lot of pain hidden just beneath the surface. Those who lived through the ’70s or ’80s would remember The Troubles, when (largely Catholic) nationalists clashed with (largely Protestant) unionists, and names like the IRA and the Ulster Freedom Fighters occupied the front page of the world’s news with bombings, assassinations, and other acts of terror and hate, claiming the lives of thousands. But for my generation — the post 9/11 generation — these events have become distant, far-off things, like the fall of Yugoslavia existing firmly as history, rather than in the memories and experiences of real, living people. And as with Bosnia, the world has seemed to have since forgotten about Northern Ireland and its conflict, our attention now so focused on the refugee crisis in Europe, the wars in Syria and Iraq, the Trump Administration in the States.

Meanwhile, the act of healing — called in some circles reconciliation, or conflict transformation, or resolution — has fallen by the wayside, incomplete and unfulfilled even as the world lurches forward from one headline, one conflict, to another.

I saw it in Bosnia, and I’ve seen it here. And something tells me that Rwanda, or Cambodia, or the Caucus nations along the Russian border all carry a similar story: of incompleteness, of needing always more time, more work, and above all more attention and resources from the world at large to become whole and healed once more.

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Corrymeela’s Ballycastle Campus

Which is why I’m at Corrymeela. Founded just before the Troubles began by Ray Davey, an army chaplain who witnessed the bombing of Dresden during WW2 only to return to Northern Ireland and witness the beginnings of a new conflict between Unionists and Nationalists, Corrymeela has for fifty years used a combination of faith, conflict theory and community building to be a part of Northern Ireland’s peace process, creating an open, nondenominational center for people of all faiths to learn, heal, and move forward together.

It’s refreshing to be in a place where people care so much for the work that they do. Some are here on religious grounds; others, like me, have come to be a part of the center’s work in peace building and conflict resolution; and still others come to be a part of the community here, which has developed over decades alongside life in nearby Ballycastle. Yet nearly everyone seems to believe in the work Corrymeela does, and has some desire to be a positive part of the future of this land.

This is a healing place. Every morning, a nondenominational faith service takes place in the Croí, or “heart”, defined by a long, sometimes twenty minute moment of silence to pray or simply reflect. During the day, I’ve found myself with groups that come to the center to learn from the community, such as Youth Scotland, a group of  high-school aged kids from Glasgow and the Scottish Highlands that I had the opportunity to work with last week. Working with high school students about sectarianism and engaging them in tough topics such as hate or how to break down the walls that develop between people is exhausting, but rewarding at the same time, especially given that Scotland has been lately struggling with it own divisions, whether it be because of immigration or the ongoing question of whether or not to remain as part of the United Kingdom. These kids are their country’s future, the ones who will be engineers and teachers and politicians, and helping them grapple with these issues feels important and valuable to me.

It’s work that I’m happy to be doing, and has been giving me an outlet to just work on something that I’m passionate about, something that seems to be making a small difference, even if it seems sometimes so small against the ongoing politics of Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom.

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The University Quarter in Belfast

Politics color everything here. In Belfast, some streets fly the Union Jack and the even more contentious Ulster Banner, symbols of their political ties to the United Kingdom, while a few blocks over the Irish Tricolor will be hanging from every post. Murals on street corners depict pro-Nationalist or pro-Unionist leanings and define who is or isn’t welcomed in certain communities, while politically charged marches such as the Orange Order’s July 12th parade, which celebrates the English King William of Orange’s conquest of Ireland, only serve to further cement this country’s divisions.

Even with the work of Corrymeela and several other well-meaning NGOs and faith organizations, politics — so often based on identity and religion — all too often still take priority, to the detriment of the country’s healing. Brexit has only caused these problems to amplify, with the British Conservatives allying with the unionist/protestant DUP after the last snap election, and the prospect of a hard border with Ireland a very real future possibility.

Healing takes time, whether it be in Bosnia or Northern Ireland. And, whether people intend for it to or not, the sudden jolt of divisive politics can send slow, hard-earned progress back years, or even decades. Brexit and the recent DUP alliance is still too recent to be able to tell how Northern Ireland’s peace process will be affected, but for now many on all sides of the political spectrum here are looking apprehensively towards the future.

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Botanical Gardens, Belfast

But despite the challenges, I want to be a part of the healing here, even as I find myself needing this country, this time abroad and away from Boston and the States, to heal myself. Even if it’s something as small as helping a few Scottish kids talk about sectarianism in their own country, I need to work, to do some kind of good. Too long have I been sitting in classrooms in Boston, learning about the problems of the world but feeling unable to really change anything. At least, here, I feel like I can make some kind of difference, if only for a little while and only on a small scale.

Bosnia, Jordan, Northern Ireland, the States — so much of the world that I have experienced has witnessed pain, and sadness, and hardship, and as each month passes it seems more and more sure that we are beginning to spiral into another, even more difficult phase of history. We too often don’t realize, with our politics and our actions, that it is so much easier to cause pain and to create divisions than it is to heal those wounds and bring people back together. I’m afraid, these days — afraid that the world we live in today is becoming defined more and more by destructive actions, actions that we will one day come to look back on with sadness, and not a little bit of regret and shame. Actions that will cause more Northern Irelands, or Bosnias, or Syrias.

Yet I still believe that, if enough good people are dedicated to making the world better, to healing rather than dividing, tolerance rather than ignorance, love over hate, we might still make it through these coming years. It’s something that’s been on my mind, as the world seems to grow slowly darker and sadder, the future more and more uncertain.

As is this: Love, and be kind. Love, and be kind. Love… and be kind.

That’s all there is, and all there ever needs to be. And here, in Northern Ireland, those two words are what are driving me as I myself heal, and move forward, and try to be a small part of this country’s own future and healing.

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Wind in trust
Wind in sleep
Wind in knowing what thoughts to keep
It’s not that damn impossible
Little wasteland farmer…

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