The Churches and the Peace Process in Northern Ireland by Laura Coulter

Laura-CoulterThe latest issue of Mediation Northern Ireland’s newsletter, Media-tionfeatures a contribution from Irish Churches Peace Project (ICPP) Good Relations Officer Laura Coulter, ‘The Churches and the Peace Process in Northern Ireland’ (page 8). With permission, I am reproducing it here.

The ICPP has also recently set up a Facebook page, which features updates on its work around Northern Ireland and the border counties. This looks to be a good resource for following the wider work of the project, and learning about some of the ‘good news’ stories about what is happening within grassroots peace activism.

The Churches and the Peace Process in Northern Ireland by Laura Coulter

In December 2013, the Haas/O’Sullivan talks failed to deliver a way forward on outstanding contentious issues of flags, dealing with the past, and parades. This is one of numerous examples of top-down political processes in Northern Ireland that have sought to pursue a way forward without success. However, despite the lack of progress, it is a positive sign that this process, unlike other past initiatives, was instigated at the request of our politicians.  Maybe it is a hopeful sign that they are continuing to meet to discuss further the Hass proposals and beginning to take more seriously the need for leadership.  For any peace process to succeed, it is widely recognised that a macro-process must also be complemented with grass-roots work to build good relations between communities in Northern Ireland.

Churches, schools, businesses, sporting organisations are all part of the social fabric which impact our sense of interconnectedness. As Jaqueline Irwin points out, a myriad of small peace processes at grassroots levels are essential to larger peace projects.[1] In Western European terms, Northern Ireland retains a relatively high level of church attendance. Churches are present in every community making significant contributions to social capital through voluntary work and despite declining numbers, the social fabric of the country cannot be understood without reference to churches.

Religion often plays an ambiguous role in conflict transformation and this indeed has been the case in Northern Ireland.

One the one hand, religion has encouraged prejudice re-enforcing community divisions. On the other hand, religion can be a force for good, with churches working together to lessen the religious and political extremes. To love your neighbour as yourself is a huge challenge and a very old, wise, design for life.[2]

In 2013 the four largest churches in Northern Ireland (Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Church of Ireland and Methodist) launched a new initiative to promote reconciliation in Northern Ireland, The Irish Churches Peace Project (ICCP).  It aims to encourage inter-church work at both macro and grassroots levels which are innovative models of good practice. ICPP works in six strategic locations in NI and the boarder counties to help build new relationships between local churches and communities. To my mind, ICPP is a natural and innovative development from the Hard Gospel Programme in the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Peacebuilding programme, the Clonard reconciliation programme and the reconciliation work of the Methodist Church, which operated from 2006 to 2009. These projects were the first substantive projects to promote the importance of peace-building within single-identity church communities. ICPP seeks to build on this work and is encouraging church leaders to promote reconciliation and to address the legacy of our conflict.

I’ve been working since August 2013 as a Good Relations Officer with ICPP. I am based in North Belfast and am working with different clusters of clergy  who are working daily with difficult and sensitive issues around suicide, trauma, poverty and, of course, the on-going sectarian tensions and flags protests. My role involves encouraging more co-operation around these issues and promoting opportunities for dialogue.

ICPP encourages clergy, churches and communities to work together on issues of concern or social need and also to develop cross-community dialogue.  I have discovered that some clergy and church members are not keen to cross religious boundaries.

Sometimes this may be the result of an individualistic interpretation of Scripture which leads to little interest in social engagement or a theological emphasis on staying pure which again leads to separation of church and society. In my experience it is often more helpful to encourage both clergy and church members to get to know their Catholic or Protestant neighbours through joint social activities or dialogue programmes.  I have facilitated a number of these programmes in the past and have often been surprised at the incorrect perceptions and beliefs people hold about each other. Professor Brandon Hamber recently spoke at an ICPP event for clergy where he said that the driving force of separation is more about attitudes rather than resources or other factors.[3] Hamber reflected my experience when he argued that short-term dialogue processes are often not helpful as they can re-enforce stereotypes whereas longer term programmes that allow people to develop relationships and build trust are much more effective. [4] Conflict destroys social connections and our sense of belonging. Churches, schools, businesses, sport, the social fabric of town life – these are the engines that drive our sense of interconnectedness or separation.[5]  They all have a vital role to play in building peace at the grass-roots level and this requires sustained cross-community relationships.

Archbishop Martin[6] recently said that churches as well as other civic organisations have a responsibility to model positive relationships and challenge sectarianism. The search for peace is too often left to our politicians. Leadership is needed at every level of Northern Irish society including the grass-roots level to re-energise the search for lasting peace that will help to build a shared future. Peace is a choice and the challenge for churches is to accompany, nurture and resource the difficult journey of building peace for people around them. In the words of St Columbanus, Irish saint and peacemaker:

The knowledge that peace is good is of no benefit if we do not practice it.’

Laura Coulter currently works as a Good Relations Officer in North Belfast with the Irish Churches Peace Project.

[1] Irwin, J, Speech at ICPP launch, 27.09.14

[2] Irwin, J, Speech at ICPP launch, 27.09.14

[3] Hamber, B, Address at ICPP Conference, 26.02.14

[4] Hamber, B, Address at ICPP Conference, 26.02.14

[5] Irwin, J, Speech at ICPP launch, 27.09.14

[6] Address by Archbishop Eamon Martin in Ballymena, 04.02.14


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