Sunday, 23 February 2014

February 23, 2013
More questions ...

Friday morning we had a meeting with Pat Sheehan, Sinn Fein MLA for West Belfast. ( I had heard Pat speak two years ago when he met with the Saint Mary’s group, and knew that he was an engaging and informative speaker. He didn’t disappoint.  He gave us two hours of his time, and wove together a history lesson (from a republican viewpoint, of course), his own personal story as one of the 1980 hunger strikers in Long Kesh prison, and political ideology and philosophy in our time together. He was 55 days on a hunger strike, near death when the strike was called off. We met at the offices of Tar Anall, an organization that offers a wide range of support to republican ex-prisoners and their families (, and has an IRA museum on the bottom floor.

As usual, most of us left with more questions to ponder. When asked about Sinn Fein’s platform, he stated that it is a party that advocates equality, and is a party of independence. Sheehan stated openly that Sinn Fein sees The Good Friday Agreement as a route to a united Ireland through political and peaceful means. However, he also said that didn’t necessarily mean one government, for example, the government in the south, which many regard as corrupt. Sheehan stated that Sinn Fein has always had socialist principles, with basic human rights as a cornerstone of its platform. Since being in the government, Sinn Fein has always held the education portfolio because of their belief that education is the key to addressing issues of poverty.

When asked about a possible emerging Northern Ireland identity, he was doubtful, but pondered the possibilities. On the current partnership government in Stormont, he asked what many are asking – can you have an effective government without an opposition? Sheehan contends that yes, you can, and that many effective governments around the world have the same model. On what he calls a “truth recovery” process, similar to truth and reconciliation processes in South Africa or Canada, he said that unless there is some kind of investigation process at the top, ie with the British state, he did not believe that folks would have much investment in the process.

I expressed my confusion about the way an outsider might refer to the north/Northern Ireland outside of this country. What were we to do with all of our “Northern Ireland Dialogue for Peace” t-shirts? Is there any non-biased way to refer to the region? He laughed and said perhaps we could alternate ... also that I could probably let myself off the hook a bit – the most important thing was to understand and be aware of the difference.

After a quick tour of the IRA museum downstairs, most of us headed off to catch a “Hop On Hop Off” tour of Belfast, then home to Farset to watch the Canada/US hockey game.

Saturday was a day off – most went off in groups to explore more of the city. Many (including myself) ended up at a Belfast Giants hockey game. I was amazed at the packed arena – mostly filled with kids under 10. It was an excited and animated crowd that was there to cheer for their Elite League champions. Today, we evaluate and reflect for a couple of hours, then head to Robinsons where we have been promised a TV set to watch the Gold Medal game ... that is until 1:30 when the advertised football game starts. Then we will have to watch the game without sound – a small sacrifice I suppose. Will post some pictures of the Canadian infiltration of ice hockey into a Belfast sports bar. Go Canada Go!

Saturday, 22 February 2014

February 22, 2014
Wednesday and Thursday – two days chock full of stimulating conversations, curiosity, confusion, questions, great food, and at the end of the day ... immense pride in our Canadian womens’ hockey team for winning the gold.

Wednesday began with a visit to the East Belfast Mission (, a project of the Methodist church, which has in one way or another occupied the site since the late 1700s. The present building, which has won awards for its architecture and elements of sustainability, is home to three stages of housing – a shelter, transition housing, and separate apartments - numerous offices and studios, rooms for dance, yoga, workshops and classes, a sanctuary, and a wonderful cafe called "refresh", with very affordable and delicious food.

Megan Miller, manager of Compass (one of the organizations of the East Belfast Mission), gave us a presentation on “Skainos”, which is the manager, or landlord, for the mission. This is from their website: “... the word is from a biblical Greek word and rooted firmly in Christian tradition and history, the name Skainos speaks of the importance of practical engagement with a community by figuratively pitching a tent in its midst, and it hints at the notion of hospitality and the extended family.  An alternative meaning for the word is as a description of the frailty of human beings. It stands therefore as a useful counterbalance to the temptation to focus solely on new building to the detriment of serving people.” Megan, said that folks loosely translate the word to mean “God’s living among the people.”

This concept is evident in the structure of the building, and in its philosophy and theology of operation. Megan said that the original vision was to have an “urban village” ... where all would be welcome. One can see this vision lived out in the one of the outside walls, a living wall (pictured with the group, below), in the small details of architecture that give a nod to the industrial heritage of the area, and even in the sanctuary, where large windows purposefully look out to the homeless shelter (also pictured below) to remind folks inside that they are not separated from their community.

For anyone interested in church development, and what is possible, Skainos is a dream. They have many programs for children, youth, families, and seniors, including a highly successful Irish language program called “turas”, which has participants from both loyalist and republican backgrounds. The word “turas” actually means journey in both Irish and Scottish language. Another amazing part of the organization is its commitment to social enterprise. Again, from their website: “A social enterprise is also known as “not–for–profit” as profits are used to further social and environmental goals rather than distributed to financial investors.” Some of the current social economy/enterprises of Skainos are a cafe, a for profit daycare centre, and a used clothing shop.

After the East Belfast Mission, we had another lively and informative session at the Andy Tyrie Interpretive Centre, a museum of the UDA. I wrote about this organization on last years trip (check out the February 2013 entries) but it’s safe to say we were all engaged by Billy Rowan, Mark Anderson, and Alan Price, former combatants who talked about present day challenges and engaging youth in the community. As we heard last year, their challenges are in continuing to advocate for the renouncing of violence, and in engaging young people in the political process to work for change.

Thursday we visited the Corrymeela Belfast office for a time with Sean Pettis, whose role is Programme Coordinator for the Facing Our Past Shaping our Future project, part of the larger Facing Our History and Ourselves project. This is a project that engages high school youth and teachers in conversations about ethical decision making and citizenship, using the Holocaust as a case study. Sean said that using a distant case study often helps people look at their own context more easily, helping folks to first explore universal themes and then move into the particular themes that apply to their own context.

We learned a lot from Sean, and he packed much into an hour and a half, including several short videos, one about Facing Our History and Ourselves:
We left quite energized, and with lots of materials and ideas for our work with Halifax high schools in March.

Ivan Cross, youth worker for Corrymeela, then hosted us on a tour of the peace walls and interface neighbourhoods of Belfast. Although we had seen many of them before, it was great to have Ivan’s commentary and explanations of some of the context and history of the walls.

Filled with information, more questions, and lots of ideas for connecting our work in Canada with the work of peacebuilding in this area of the world, folks headed off in different directions to explore Queen’s University, the Botanical Gardens, the Ulster Museum, or the charity shops in the area before dinner at one of our favourite restaurants, The Bird Cage.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

February 20, 2014
Goodbye again ...

Tuesday morning was spent getting packed up, changing the bed linens, a final worship which Yvonne led and introduced us to Jesus and Peter (picture below), a trip to the Giant’s Causeway and Finn McCool (see a blog entry in August 2011 for the legend of Finn McCool ...), and the drive to our next destination, Farset International in Belfast.

I was introduced to this amazing place through the Saint Mary’s University group that also travels yearly to Belfast, in partnership with Peaceful Schools International. Farset is a cross between a hostel and a hotel, is run by Ruth, and has many interesting people that come through its doors, both to stay and to meet. We settled in, had a rest, and then headed out to Robinson’s for dinner. Some kept going, finding live music at Madden’s and Fibber McGee’s ... but some of us came home to prepare for the next phase of our journey – visits to community groups in Belfast.

Pictured below – Jesus and Peter leading worship; the group with Yvonne, our facilitator from Corrymeela, and our two volunteers Conor and Anni; me and my “blog buddy”, Deryk from Brazil, now a long term volunteer (for the full story, see last year’s blog); saying goodbye and getting on the Corrymeela bus; first night in Belfast at Robinson’s.

February 19, 2014
Bloody Sunday

It was a roller coaster of emotions on Sunday ... from the Olympic hockey game we went right into watching the movie Bloody Sunday in preparation for our trip on Monday to Derry/Londonderry. The movie is a raw and factual account of the events of January 30, 1972 in the Bogside area of Derry, when 13 innocent civilians were murdered by British soldiers during a civil rights march to protest internment – imprisonment without trial or evidence.

Some of us had seen the movie before – but it was an entirely different situation watching it with Yvonne, who is from Derry, and one of our volunteers, Conor, a young man from the north of Ireland who says he grew up in a non-sectarian household, and feels that he has not absorbed the hatred towards “the other side” through his schooling and upbringing. However, he admits that when he sees movies like Bloody Sunday, it stirs up his anger towards those that perpetuated the atrocity. Even Yvonne, who has seen the movie several times, and has lived and breathed the work of Corrymeela for decades, was visibly upset at the end of the movie. It was hard for all of us to sit in the pain and helplessness of it all, over 40 years after the fact.

Our trip to Derry began with meeting Jon McCourt, a peace builder for over 30 years, on the walls of Derry for a tour and a bit of history. He was engaging and had many stories to tell as we walked around the walls. He then took the group down to the Bogside to recount the horrors of that day ... which he witnessed first hand. I was not able to accompany the rest of group on that part of the walk, but all said it was very powerful. Jon had pictures of that day, and had folks stand on the very spots where some were killed as he talked about them, many of them folks he knew.

We then heard from Maureen Hetherington from The Junction, a brand new building that holds the offices of a number of smaller community organizations. Maureen’s work involves working with people to help them tell their stories in a way that leads to healing. It was one of her statements that will stay with me for awhile – she said she wasn’t sure if reconciliation was ever really possible, which is why she didn’t like to use the word. She preferred the word “healing’, or even “moving forward”, to indicate that perhaps some people might never be reconciled to perpetrators, or violent events of their past, but they at least might be able to live with their memories and experiences without pain and dysfunction.

Our shared reflection that night was very deep and powerful, made possible by our volunteer Anni who led us through an art activity that helped us name and talk about our feelings from the day.

In four days, I am amazed at the transformation of this group. Their body language is different, more open, more relaxed, more inviting of others. In our closing circle Monday night at Corrymeela, many gratitudes were offered to Yvonne and the volunteers for creating and holding the space to learn and go deeper within ourselves. The hospitality that oozes out of every nook and cranny at Corrymeela reaps many benefits, including the ability to receive new information, challenge one’s own assumptions and long held beliefs, and radiate hospitality oneself. We all felt blessed by each other, and the experience of the last few days.

Below is a picture of the group with Jon McCourt on the walls of Derry

. Also in the picture are Yvonne and Richard Naylor, and Anni and Conor, our volunteers from Corrymeela.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

February 17, 2014
Is that Northern Ireland, or the north of Ireland?

It’s a question that has been on my mind these past few days, and brings with it the discomfort of knowing that even the name of our group, the Dalhousie Northern Ireland Dialogue for Peace, has a clear bias to it. Since partition in 1921 when a separate country of Northern Ireland, part of the UK, was created, there has been a huge difference of opinion as to whether the division of Ireland into north and south (referred to as the Republic) was a good thing, or the worst thing that has happened.  Republicans, or nationalists, make no apologies for articulating a goal of the future that includes a united Ireland. On the other hand, loyalists, or unionists, see themselves as British citizens with a distinct identity from those in the south.

It’s complicated, and confusing. And to someone who still doesn’t quite understand the difference – and it’s taken me over two years to finally just start to “get” it – it would be easy to miss the subtle difference between Yvonne’s introduction (I’m from Northern Ireland) and Conor’s (I’m from the north of Ireland). Both are making a statement about their identity.

And it’s all complicated by the fact that Northern Ireland as a country is nearly a century old, and has its own distinct history, currency, and government. Some of us heard folks say last year that they believed that there was a new “Northern Ireland identity” that was emerging that was different from the identity of those in the Republic of Ireland, or either the nationalist/loyalist/catholic or unionist/loyalist/protestant identities.

It hit home to me when we had a discussion with Allistair Little and Gerry Foster, both ex-prisoners working actively for peace and transformation, both in Ireland and around the world. Little, whose story is partly dramatized in the movie Five Minutes of Heaven, is a unionist who calls himself a British citizen. Foster, a nationalist, said politically he would be in favour of a united Ireland. However much they differ politically, it is clear that they have a strong friendship that has developed over a decade of working together to help bring about change. There is a lot of pain in their stories, but also humour, and they challenge and poke fun at each other often during the conversation.

When asked about a vision for the future, Allistair said he would prefer to use the word “aspiration” ... and talked about a society where differences are celebrated instead of feared ... where men can let go of their need to be “macho” ... where violence is not seen as an answer to problems. Both men talked about their daughters, and of making the world a better place for them, and about the universal aspect of their work, whether it is Northern Ireland, or in Afganistan, or Israel, or Palestine.

It was a very moving few hours to sit in their company and see that indeed, transformation is possible.

And from the deep to the not so deep, early Sunday evening was spent trying to watch the Canada/Finland hockey game ... after many attempts, the system that finally worked was Skyping Pat Martin in Halifax, having him turn the computer around to the live game on TV ... ain't technology grand?

Sunday, 16 February 2014

February 16, 2014
Let the wind and the rain and the hail go high ...

This line, from the popular Irish song “Mairi’s Wedding”, was stuck in my head after we heard it at O’Connors, one of the favourite local pubs, last night. We had it all yesterday – wind, rain, and some even experienced hail on their afternoon walk into Ballycastle.

It was a wild and crazy day weather-wise at Corrymeela yesterday. Always needing to find something to worry about, I worried that someone might be blown off the cliff if they got too close. The wind was that strong. Now I wonder if it’s possibly a metaphor for our time here ... a metaphor for the shared new experiences that blow into our old asumptions and preconceptions, for the water that refreshes and quenches our thirsty souls in the form of friendships, coastal beauty, and community reflections, and even for the occasional discomfort that comes from being pelted with new ideas, stories of pain and hurt, and facing our own unresolved conflicts.

We arrived at Corrymeela about 6 pm on Friday night – somewhat later than expected because the bus driver assigned to us wrote down the wrong day for pick up. When Alana called him, he was surprised to hear we were waiting at the George Best Airport – he thought we were to be picked up on Saturday. He assured us that he would be there within the hour, which he was, but initially it was all a bit anti-climatic after our long journey. Upon arrival, we were greeted in the pounding rain by Yvonne Naylor, our faciliatator for the four days in Corrymeela. I worked with Yvonne many times during my summer stay in 2011, and she worked with the group of students on last year’s trip, so it was great to see her again.

We also met Conor from Northern Ireland (or, as he would say, the North of Ireland ... more on that later) and Anni from Germany, who were the volunteers assigned to our group. And, Paul Hutchinson, former Director of the Corrymeela Centre, who met the group in Nova Scotia just two short weeks ago, joined us for early conversations and dinner. It was also a wonderful reunion for Alana, who had been a mid-term volunteer from October to December. Both volunteers and staff alike came running through doors and hallways to greet her upon our arrival.

Saturday was spent in some fairly intense content sessions on sectarianism, the History of Northern Ireland, and a video about Corrymeela’s work in the schools and the community. Yvonne explained sectarianism as “a system of attitudes, actions, beliefs and structures at personal, communal and institutional levels which always involves religion and typically involves a negative mixing of religion and politics.” She explained that sectarianism arises as a distorted expression of positive, human needs, especially for belonging, identity, and free expression of difference. It is expressed in the hardening of boundaries between groups and in dehumanising or demonising others. We all agreed that although sectarianism is not a word that is used much in Canada, the concept and existence of sectarianism certainly exists as we related stories from our own experiences of groups in Canada that have excluded others because of a difference.

After evening reflection in the Croi (the Irish word for heart), it was decided that a trip to one of the 19 local pubs in Ballycastle was in order. To our delight, O’Connors was jumping ... live music, filled with people, and Guinness on tap. It was a great end to a wonderful first day.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Waiting for my flock ...

For the fourth time in two years, I am once again in Belfast with a group interested in learning about the peace and reconciliation process in Northern Ireland. This time, however, I am alone, waiting for my group to arrive this afternoon. There have been many times in the past six months when I thought this moment would not arrive – that in fact my dream of building relationships between Dalhousie University and the Corrymeela Peace and Reconciliation Centre in Ballycastle, Northern Ireland, where I spent three months while on sabbatical in the summer of 2011, might have run its course.

In fact, this trip should probably not be happening ... from a slow start last fall as we struggled to find enough participants to make it a go, to fundraising challenges, to my own personal health concerns and major surgery in December, to flight cancellations and snow storms, the odds have been against this trip happening. But ... it is.

As I write this, I am watching the Olympics on BBC in a Belfast Hotel – waiting for my flock to arrive this afternoon. I booked my flight later than everyone else because of the very real possibility that I might not be able to travel with the group this year, so I was on a different flight than the others (the one that got cancelled on Wednesday!) I did finally get out, being re-routed on a different airline. Although hard on my psyche – being separated from the group, and of course giving up total control over everything – it has been good for my body to get a head start on acclimatizing to the new time zone.

Despite our challenges this year we’ve also had many joys and moments to celebrate – a wonderfully keen group of seven Dalhousie students and one Dal alumna who have come together and worked hard as a team doing fundraising and educational activities for six months, a great visit to Halifax two weeks ago from Paul Hutchinson, former Centre Director of Corrymeela, and an amazing team of folks who supported the group during my recovery period. There are many people behind us - family, friends and colleagues – who have kept things moving forward when things got tough.

And so the journey begins again – and this time, the Canadians may even commandeer a local pub in Belfast for the Gold Medal Olympic Game (assuming, of course , that ... well, you know ...)  ... perhaps a study in itself of peace and reconciliation. Below is the group at the Halifax airport, ready to go – from the back, Bridget Graham, Claire Chilelli, Kendra Wilcox, Adrian Lacson; middle, Alana Martin, Marisha Pluta; front, Brennan Low and Daniel Whitten.