A Peace Process that Cuts Deep in Northern Ireland
by Gary Mason & Mark Houston
This article was edited from a presentation given by the Rev. Dr. Gary Mason, mission superintendent, and Mark Houston, director, of the East Belfast Mission in Belfast, Northern Ireland. As the Peace Process in Northern Ireland matures, Houston and, particularly, Mason, have sought ways to apply their experience in conflict transformation to other contexts around the world.
Gary Mason: The conflict on the island of Ireland had been going on for almost 800 years when it flared up again in 1969. The northern part of the island, along with England, Scotland, and Wales, is part of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland has about 1.7 million people—900,000 to a million of whom are Protestants, who identify themselves as British. The other 700,000 or so are Catholics, who see themselves as distinctly Irish. The larger part of the island, the Republic of Ireland, has about 5 million people and is almost 90 percent Catholic. In all, there are about 6 to 7 million people on the island.
The Irish Civil Rights movement began in the late 1960s, primarily with Catholics in Northern Ireland asking for equality. Some commentators have said the movement was hijacked by people who wanted to use terrorism to achieve their goals. Loyalists, mostly Protestants, wanted the northern territories to remain part of the UK. Republicans, mostly Catholics, wanted to join the Republic of Ireland. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a number of terrorist groupings arose and a civil war broke out in Northern Ireland. It lasted almost 30 years, killing 4,000 people and injuring 40,000. Statistics indicate that half of today’s Northern Irish population was psychologically scarred in some way by the conflict, which has been described as having religious, political, cultural, and economic overtones. Even now, 90 percent of the people still live in segregated areas.
In Belfast, where we are working, 30 Peace Lines—or Berlin-type walls—segregate the communities. While Catholics and Protestants are both now represented in Northern Ireland’s government, they still live segregated lives. So our role as Methodists in the
East Belfast Mission is to bring about a meaningful integration and dialogue.
Years ago, I spent two years participating in a working party on sectarianism and theology. Specifically, the party looked at three doctrines: The One True Church, Error Has No Right, and Divine Providence.
The One True Church doctrine holds that there is only one way to salvation, and if you’re outside it, your chances of salvation are diminished. It is simply a truth claim, typical of most churches and religions. The doctrine of Error Has No Right is one originally developed by St. Augustine to justify the use of state coercion to suppress those deemed guilty of heresy. This doctrine gave rise to penal laws, inquisitions, forced conversions, and many other ugly stains in Christian history. As a doctrine, Divine Providence simply means: “God is at work in the world.” Individually, these three doctrines may look OK. But when One True Church is combined with Error Has No Right, the church sees tolerance as a deadly vice. In the Irish situation, these two doctrines are used together. Likewise, if One True Church is combined with Divine Providence—God is at work in the world—it becomes: “God is on our side.”
You can see this in the mottos of a number of terrorist groupings. The main grouping we have worked with is the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). Its motto is “For God and Ulster” (Ulster being a term for the northern part of Ireland). The theological aspect has fed into the conflict, though the church hasn’t really owned up to that. But, in the end, salvation is not attained through theology, but by God’s grace.
I have been in ministry for about 25 years. Like many young men and women in Mark’s and my generation, I could have ended up getting involved in terrorism. I often say that the many young people who did take up arms did the wrong things for allegedly the right reasons—assuming that this was the way to defend their communities. They were indoctrinated, to a certain degree, by godfathers and godmothers of an older generation, who had also been indoctrinated in their youth by their elders. Many who turned to terrorism have served long prison terms. That is one reason I have given myself to this conflict transformation ministry: I realized that I could have quite easily gone down the same path.
Probably 30 to 35 percent of my time is invested in conflict transformation ministry, which lies outside my job description. As the main Protestant paramilitary grouping, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) chose to give its decommissioning statement from the church hall of East Belfast Mission. That was very significant for us, so we continue to work with these leaders. In May, we took a group from UVF to Israel-Palestine, seeking ways to share our experience of peace building with folks in the Israeli and Palestinian communities. We told both communities that peace building is all about flexibility and compromise. In a true peace process, no one side is going to get its own way. It took Northern Ireland 4,000 deaths and 40,000 injuries to realize that.
Mark Houston: Behind any paramilitary organization are women, children, and families heavily traumatized by the conflict. Men who were radicalized to such an extent that they were able to carry out murder could not simply leave it at the front door when they came home. There was a lot of domestic violence, addiction to alcohol, and child neglect, which resulted in single-parent households. Children grew up making a weekly visit to their fathers in prison. That kind of passive trauma was communitywide, affecting many who were not directly involved in the conflict and thus ineligible for monetary help.
But for that passive trauma, there is no help. When men slowly drink themselves to death trying to cope with their past, their families are deeply affected.
Gary Mason: With any peace process—whether in South Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans, or Northern Ireland—you’re going to need transparency and honesty before you can get to trust. The pretense of politics doesn’t work. Instead, you need a hard, meaningful dialogue. It is not easy to get people who so deeply distrust one another into a room and then to get them to honestly say: “Let me tell you why I think I dislike you. Here are the reasons.” You have to learn to dispel stereotypes, myths, and prejudice.
Piet Meiring—a South African Dutch Reformed Church professor who was part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa—once said that reconciliation is not accomplished by papering over deep-seated differences. The way to heal a deep abscess of mistrust requires more than applying a bandage; it requires anesthesia and a deep cut into the bone.
Mark Houston: Eventually, when you get that deep, men and women on both sides of the conflict discover honesty, commonality, and an understanding that—I was fighting in the same way you were fighting, just for a different cause. Many consider that both sides were used by the political parties and perhaps the churches—Protestant and Catholic. Research shows that many believe that both sides were neglected by the church.
After honesty and commonality comes empathy. When each side understands the other, the two sides can empathize with one another. Once they develop empathy, they are less likely to go back to war the next day.
Despite a dissident threat in Northern Ireland at this moment, it is to the UVF’s credit that they have not gone back to conflict. Conflict would be their natural default position and they come under huge pressure from their community. To maintain their standing, they have to bring their community with them. I believe they have shown a high degree of courage in doing so.
Gary Mason: East Belfast Mission is one of five Methodist missions in Northern Ireland. It includes Newtownards Road Methodist Church, formerly known as the Ballymacarrett Methodist Church, with its worship services and groups for men and women, children and youth. But the mission also has a massive social arm. Of our 100 staff members (12 years ago, we started with 20), only five or six work in the church congregation. The other 94 are working within East Belfast on social justice issues. Another 150 people work as volunteers in the mission. We are currently in the middle of a $40 million building project to erect the largest faith-based community center in all of Western Europe.
Mark Houston: Belfast has a population of about 350,000 people. Our organization works in Inner East Belfast, the fifth poorest electoral ward in the north of Ireland in terms of social deprivation, and the fourth poorest in educational attainment. One in every four young men aged 16 or younger is functionally illiterate. The “peace dividend” resulting from the peace process has regenerated the Belfast city center but has bypassed the East Belfast neighborhoods.
Historically, the Methodist Church has been in Belfast since 1803. The first Methodist church building was erected in an area known as Ballymacarrett, which in those days was a little village on the outskirts of Belfast but now is quite close to the center.
In 1900, the Methodist Church in Ballymacarrett was rebuilt—expanded to a seating capacity of 1,500, which, for Northern Ireland, was megachurch size. From the beginning, the church developed two schools and, in the classic Wesleyan tradition, was engaged in social justice and social action.
In 1941, during the “Blitz” of World War II, the church was bombed, as was most of the inner part of Belfast. The church was rebuilt in 1952 and demolished again one year ago. Since its founding, this church building has been taken down about once every 50 years. This means that the Methodist congregation understood the rationale behind redeveloping the site for a new community hub. The congregation’s new home in the Skainos center has an adaptable worship space.
We are charged by the government to work with what they call the “economically inactive”—people from families whose members have been unemployed for generations. Having never been in the labor market, these people have no history of work, and it’s our job to assist them in gaining meaningful employment. Approximately 100 people a year move into full-time employment through our Stepping Stone employment ministry.
In 2006, we realized that our reliance on government funding was not sustainable. So we developed a social-economy strategy aimed at raising our own sustainable income. We went from running one classic charity shop—or thrift shop—to 10 retail outlets, province-wide, called by our brand name, “Restore.” That model has worked very successfully for us. Our charity shops take in all sorts of donated goods that we repair, clean, and resell, feeding the money back into the community and into our organization.
Gary Mason: Currently under way on the site of the original 1826 church is our new community center, Skainos, which is a biblical Greek word meaning “tent” or “where the presence of the Lord dwells.” We have invested in this area and hope others will do likewise. We have 36 apartments on the site and a hostel for the homeless with 26 bed units. There will be 100 people living on site at all times.
The funding for the project has come from different sources, including the International Fund for Ireland—a private trust of people from North America, Australia, and New Zealand; the Special European Projects Board, part of the European Union Peace Fund; Belfast Regeneration Organization; the Department of Social Development (UK) through one of our partners, Oaklee Housing, a voluntary nonprofit organization. And, as a church, we’ve put about $6.4 million into the project ourselves in funds and land.
The Rev. Dr. Gary Mason is a Methodist minister serving East Belfast Mission in Northern Ireland as Mission Superintendent and pastor of Newtownards Road Methodist Church. Mark Houston serves as Director of East Belfast Mission.
Photo 1: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II meets with the Rev. Gary Mason (3rd from left) and Mark Houston (first on right). Alan Shannon, a Northern Ireland office Permanent Secretary, introduces them. Photo courtesy East Belfast Mission/
Credit: Guy Poland
Photo 2: Murals are an important part of the cultural landscape in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Where the murals have often portrayed either republican or loyalist political beliefs, peaceful images are beginning to replace some of the more violent themes.
Photo by Mike DuBose, UMCom.
Photo 3: Newtownards Road Methodist Church was destroyed by German bombimg, 1942. Photo courtesy East Belfast Mission
Photo 4: The new Skainos center will house both the Methodist church congregation and the expanding social service ministries of East Belfast Mission. Photo courtesy East Belfast Mission