Religion, Reconciliation and Reconstruction in Northern Ireland Part 3 – The Role of Education for Reconciliation

efr onlinemoduleOn Monday I started a series on this blog on Religion, Reconciliation and Reconstruction in Northern Ireland, based on a paper I gave last week at the ‘Religious Conflict and Difference’ conference at Stranmillis College in Belfast. Today I continue the series with a post on one of the three of the ‘grassroots tactics’ that I think Christians (both lay and clerical, as Fr Martin Magill has reminded us) could adopt when advocating reconciliation and reconstruction:

  • Educational Programmes
  • The Principles of Neo-Monastic Living
  • Liturgical Reforms

The full version of the paper, which is still a work in progress, also drew on the work of three prominent organisations – Corrymeela, the Irish School of Ecumenics (ISE) and Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI) – and discussed their educational efforts throughout the Troubles.

Grassroots Tactics for Christian Activism for Reconciliation and Reconstruction?: Educational Programmes

The experience of Corrymeela, ISE and ECONI (now the Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland – CCCI) has been that through community-based education, people have experienced the transformation of their own identities, and established relationships with people from ‘other’ backgrounds. Their programmes have involved the critical deconstruction of ethno-national-religious identities, and included analysis of how Northern Ireland’s sectarian system mitigates against meaningful relationships with the ‘other.’

As discussed more fully in the long version of this paper, their programmes also have examined components of reconciliation and sought to put it on the public agenda. But in recent years, it seems the value of community-based education has not been recognised.

The sense that the worst of the violence is ‘over‘ means that some people no longer see the need for encouraging critical reflection on one’s own identities or for making an effort to build relationships with the ‘other.’ The ‘credit crunch’ and the phased withdrawal of much European Union funding also has had an impact.

For example, CCCI has been operating at a much-reduced capacity at least since 2008, while ISE’s Education for Reconciliation programme ended in 2012 due to lack of funding. Funding has also run-out for denominational educational initiatives like the Church of Ireland’s Hard Gospel project and the Presbyterian Church’s Gospel in Conflict Programme.[1]

That said, some examples of good practice are still being developed, such as CCCI’s ongoing centenaries road show initiative, which features a drama production and discussion about the divisive events of 1912.[2] Facilitated in some cases through church fora (associated with ISE), these events are consciously grassroots and orientated towards helping people to remember the past honestly and to work through how to live together in the future.

Surveys of faith leaders and laypeople conducted by ISE in 2009 revealed that most Christians in Northern Ireland think about reconciliation in individual (between individuals or between individuals and God), rather than in collective (i.e. between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland) terms (Ganiel 2009a, 2009b).

It would seem then that the work by Corrymeela and ISE over the last generation of conceiving of reconciliation in terms of relationships between groups, and as having socio-structural aspects, has not trickled down to the Christian grassroots very effectively – at least among those who responded to the surveys.

Given that some qualitative studies confirm that individuals have experienced transformative change through their educational programmes, this is regrettable (Mitchell and Ganiel 2011, Ganiel 2008, Power 2011).

At the same time, the lack of recognition of the collective aspects of reconciliation in the surveys points to the continued need for anti-sectarian, education for reconciliation.

The educational resources developed by Corrymeela, ISE and ECONI over the years remain available; indeed the final EFR publication by Johnston McMaster and Cathy Higgins (2012) includes a list of areas for further educational development.

It is feasible that congregations or small groups could pick up on and develop these resources, preferably in ecumenical or ‘cross community’ settings. Education in and of itself does not automatically motivate people to strive to dismantle or live outside Northern Ireland’s sectarian socio-political structures. But gaining awareness of these structures could be an important first step.

(My next post in the series will discuss principles of neo-monastic living)

Other Resources:

Religion, Reconciliation and Reconstruction in Northern Ireland: Some Initial Reflections (Part 1) – includes a bibliography of academic research on religion and reconciliation in Northern Ireland

Churches and Reconciliation: Challenges for Christian Leadership? (Part 2)

Irish School of Ecumenics Education for Reconciliation Programme

Review of Event Celebrating ISE’s Education for Reconciliation

Review of Johnston McMaster and Cathy Higgins’ Doing Community Theology

Download-able Text of Doing Community Theology

Online Courses Produced by ISE’s Education for Reconciliation


[1] See Wells 2010: 148-171 on the Gospel in Conflict and the Hard Gospel.

[2] See http://www.contemporarychristianity.net/joomla/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=76&Itemid=98, accessed 5 March 2012.

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