Day 5 Fencing in or fencing out?
As is often the case, the days get longer and more intense as the week goes on here at Corrymeela. Once again I find myself writing backwards, filling in the experiences of the days.
Thursday when we returned to Corrymeela from Belfast we saw that one of the baby sheep had found a way through the fence and was by the side of the road, desperately trying to find a way back through to unite with its "tribe". Presumably it's mother was the sheep right on the other side, clearly distressed and trying to encourage the little one to find a way back through. There was even a crowd of other sheep nearby, concerned for what was happening. Happily, with a bit of human encouragement and shepherding, it found its way through.
I heard the wonderful theologian, storyteller and author Tex Sample at a conference once ask the question "are you fencing in or fencing out?" It's very hard for North Americans to fully grasp the concept of a "peace wall", which have actually increased in number since the Good Friday Peace Agreement. Dr. Jonny Byrne, a specialist in this topic from the University of Ulster, estimated there are about 75 peace walls in Northern Ireland. He led us on a walking tour of some of them Thursday morning.
The peace walls were first constructed by Stormont and the British army in 1969 as a military response to sectarian violence and disorder. Although many outsiders, especially North Americans, see them as symbols of a deeply divided society, Jonny helped us understand that they were also symbols of a community that only feels secure and safe with the walls in place. Although the government has committed to a program that builds improved community relations and a more cohesive society, and the NI Executive has a target date of for the removal of all peace walls by 2023, Byrne said that the walls will not come down until the communities behind the walls feel safe and secure. It is a hugely complicated issue, which if nothing else, our group began to understand the complexities of the issue instead of rushing to judgements based on our own assumptions and experiences in Canada. For more information, check out http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/11/03/peace-walls-northern-ireland_n_6093634.html or google Dr. Jonny Byrne to read about his work. Dr. Byrne took us to Alexander Park in North Belfast, where Belfast’s only divided park now has an open access point (pictured below), a huge accomplishment, he said.
That was only the beginning of the day. From there, we were all welcomed to the home of Padraig O Tuama, Leader of the Corrymeela community for a conversation about "faith in the public square" (more on that conversation in another blog), and then to Holy Cross Parish, in one of Belfast’s most contentious areas, where for 600 days there has been a protest in place about a decision to restrict a parade route for an Orange parade. The Ardoyne area experienced 99 deaths out of the nearly 4,000 attributed to “the Troubles”, and the work of this parish in the community over decades is well known and well respected, both locally and internationally.
From Holy Cross, we went to City Hall for a presentation from David Robinson, Good Relations Officer (see 2013 blog for a description of David’s work) and a tour of city hall. When speaking about the peace walls, David also suggested that sometimes it is necessary to “divide people in order that they can feel safe” and stated that sadly, 1.5 billion pounds a year are spent servicing a divided society, including the areas of education, health care, and policing.
We were all left pondering our own assumptions, the staggering amount of information we had received over the course of the day, the moving testimonials from the Holy Cross folks, and connections to our own society. Maybe we don’t have structural walls, but can we name the invisible walls in our own communities, the ones that help some feel safe and secure? Do they keep us safe inside, or others out? Perhaps a bit of both I’d say.