Healing for Northern Ireland

Readers will be moved by the following comments delivered by Bernadette Canning recently at a parish Mass in Wilmington, Delaware, attended by 17 Irish teenagers and their American host families.

Ms. Canning was speaking in her capacity as a director of the Ulster Project of Delaware (UPD), an enterprise which for each of the past 37 years has brought teenagers, Catholic and Protestant, from Northern Ireland to Delaware where they could spend a fair portion of the summer on “neutral” territory getting to know each other and their American hosts. The idea – successfully realized – is to build bridges, a challenge nearly impossible in that troubled corner of the world.

There is a fund at the National Catholic Community Foundation that supports this noble organization and we at NCCF are proud in some small way to be party to the cause. After reading Ms. Canning’s remarks, consider this wonderful news passed on to us after the Mass: the newly elected mayor of Belfast years ago was one of these kids who came to Delaware under the auspices of the Ulster Project.

Here’s another thought that will make you smile. The Mass was celebrated at a parish which historically and currently serves mostly African-American Catholics. The choir was the diocesan “Gospel Choir” and their lively contribution to the liturgy extended the celebration for two hours. The Kiss of Peace itself took 15 minutes as everyone in the small church had to greet everyone else. What an experience for these youngsters! Indeed, for all of us! Bernadette’s comments follow:

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Good morning everyone, my name is Bernadette Canning and I live in County Derry in the North of Ireland and I am one of the UPD leaders from the Coleraine area. I’m delighted to join with you in your worship and prayer this morning and would like to thank Ms. Kathleen Kennan and Pastor Tom for inviting me speak with you today to share my perspective of life in the north of Ireland.

Before I go any further, I’d like to ask you a question. Does anyone here know what religion I am and what my politics are and where my relatives rest based on what I’ve just said? If I was speaking to a group in Northern Ireland, everyone in the group would be able to tell you I’m Catholic because my name is Bernadette and I’m a nationalist and would support a united Ireland and end to British rule and have no allegiance to the throne. It has nearly become universal practice in Northern Ireland to try to find out which side a person is on when we meet them. Our name, our address, our accent, our appearance are all clues to help determine whether you are a unionist or a nationalist.

Ulster Project Delaware was established in 1976 as a way to build understanding and trust between Protestant and Catholic teenagers. Since 1976 at the height of the troubles and violence, Northern Ireland has changed and grown and as a people we are continuing on our journey to break down the barrier’s of division and sectarianism to secure lasting peace in our communities. The recent handshake between Nationalist Sinn Fein Martin McGuiness, an ex-IRA commander-in-chief, and Queen Elizabeth II recently would have been unthinkable as recent as last year and yet it happened in Belfast. While we have come a long way, assisted by the incredible work of organizations like Ulster Project Delaware, we still have bridges to build and hurdles to overcome.

From the late 1960s until 1998, fierce and violent clashes involving paramilitaries and security forces, dominated the conflict, leaving more than 3,500 people killed among them nearly 2,000 civilians. I’m old enough to remember the violence that occurred, the daily news reports of shootings and bombings and loss of lives. I’m old enough to remember the fear that existed. I remember my mother praying beside a blessed candle waiting to hear the list of names of people who had been shot in a bar in her hometown of Greysteel. I vividly remember the images of the Omagh Bomb atrocity which my friend Shauna survived but she sadly lost her mother. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 brought together political enemies in an agreement that offers hope for a sustainable, peaceful future for Northern Ireland.

The Good Friday Agreement has often been taken as the end point of ‘The Troubles,’ as the conflict in Northern Ireland is known, however, peace in Northern Ireland is not as secure as widely perceived. Sectarian activity continues in Northern Ireland and our communities remain segregated in housing, schooling and in the workplace. In a survey carried out in May by Trademark and the Irish Council of Trade Unions, 44 percent of people interviewed said that they had experienced sectarianism in the workplace. The continuum of sectarian activity is wide and varied, in certain areas; communities are separated by so-called peace walls and are marked by violent clashes and sectarian attacks, band parades and police protection murals on the wails and flags on the lamp posts and painted curb stones, be they red white and blue or green white and, are visible signs of the division that exists between nationalist and unionist areas, in other areas, the divide is just as visible, and can be difficult to recognize, even people find it difficult to recognize within themselves.

In his book, “The Glass Curtain,” Carlo Gebler examined many aspects of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. He tells this story which illustrates how, although we know sectarianism and other ills exist in our society, we often find it hard to pin it down or to recognize it in ourselves. He writes about the house with the blue door. “If you live in Northern Ireland, and you think of trouble, you think of it as happening in certain towns. And if you live in those certain towns, you think of it as happening in certain districts. And if you live in those certain districts, you think of it as happening on certain housing estates: And if you live in those certain housing estates, you think of it as happening in certain streets. And if you live in those certain streets, you know that the trouble is being caused by the man at the end of the road in the house with the blue door. It is all too-easy to attribute the problem of sectarianism to somewhere safely ‘elsewhere,’ behind the blue door. It is unfortunately, not so easy and sectarianism in all its forms is something we in Northern Ireland – and beyond – must address.

Unfortunately, many people in Northern Ireland still live in a world of politeness, denial and avoidance and don’t talk about anything controversial. Not talking about division does not make it go away, in fact as recent research by the Community Relations Council in Northern Ireland suggests, denying that division exists and not talking about our difference will ensure-sectarianism does not go away.

Ulster Project Delaware gives young people from Northern Ireland an opportunity to discuss differences in culture, belief, religion and politics in a safe environment without fear of offending each other. It gives them the opportunity to try to understand other people’s points of view and gives them the confidence to share their own beliefs. I believe that interdenominational work should never be about diluting identity, instead it should be about finding a solution that will allow us to move forward together in our diversity.

The divisions that exist between in Northern Ireland are widely perceived as being religious. However, the dispute in my opinion is not at heart religious nor has it ever been. In the 1960s it was about civil rights and bringing about an end to political and economic discrimination against Catholics. Today, it is rather about allegiances, one community to “Britain” and “Britishness.” This community tends to be Protestant and the other to ‘Ireland’ and ‘Irishness,’ who tend to be Catholic. Others consider themselves to be British and are loyal to the queen and wish to maintain union with Britain. Furthermore, it is about respect for each others cultures and resisting provocative acts such as loyalist band parades marching through Catholic areas.

When people say, ‘we are all the same,’ that is not true. While there is much that unites us, we are very different in our cultures, our beliefs, our sports, our music and our festivals and celebrations. This is a fact of life in Northern Ireland that cannot be ignored and needs to be discussed. This is why the work of organizations like UPD is so invaluable and must continue. Speaking of work for justice in the world, Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said, “We know only too well that what we are doing is nothing more than a drop in the ocean. But if the drop were not there, the ocean would be missing something.” We in Northern Ireland would be missing something if it were not for the hand of friendship that Ulster Project Delaware has extended across the Atlantic for the past 37 years.

Jesus said, Blessed are the peacemakers. My prayer today is that work for peace will continue and that lasting peace will be secured in every corner of the globe. Amen

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3 Comments

  1. What a wonderful presentation by Bernadette. Whether or not the divide is related to politics, skin color, or religious beliefs, the issue(s) NEEDS to be discussed. In the Deep South, where I work and live, there are a multitude of differences in how people act, believe, look, and live. We need to embrace the differences and look for common ground. We need to respect our cultural and yet reach out to find common ground.

    Thanks Dana for sharing.

  2. Bernadette’s presentation was remarkable. We now live in a world that our neighbor is nor longer the person(s) living next door, but around the corner, and around the world. The world is indeed getting smaller and our thinking must grow with understanding and respect for one another regardless of religion, color, culture, creed or sexual orientation. We must go beyond being tolerant to full respect for each other if we are to truly live a peaceful, positive full life. It is time to reach out and find ways to help your neighbor.
    Many thanks for posting the presentation.
    I am a Protestant working with a Catholic organization.

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