By Sarah Cornwell

This is the second of a two-part series in which I consider what we in the U.S. may be able to learn from certain armed conflicts and post-conflict settings, and what role the Church may play in helping the U.S. move from division to resolution to reconciliation. The first post focused on the “window of opportunity” in a conflict (usually a period when violence is largely absent) and when the time is “ripe” to approach resolution (usually when there is an acknowledgement by the involved parties that outright victory for either side is not possible). In this post, I will focus on “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland and highlight a few roles that clergy and laity played in opening a window of opportunity in the conflict, laying the groundwork for resolution, and helping pave the road towards reconciliation, which continues to this day.

Any basic study of world history will reveal that lasting peace is difficult to maintain. Cease-fires are quickly ignored, peace treaties are broken, and the same actors, or a new iteration of the old actors, are plunged back into conflict. Such was the case in Northern Ireland. After the Irish War for Independence (or the Anglo-Irish War), a compromise was reached, and 26 of the 32 counties of the Irish island successfully formed a free state independent from Great Britain. The six remaining counties became Northern Ireland and remain a part of the United Kingdom to this day.

Tension between the Catholic minority (largely Republicans who wished to join with the Republic of Ireland) and the Protestant majority (largely Loyalists who wished to remain a part of the United Kingdom) reached a tipping point in the mid-1960s, launching a nearly four-decade period known as “the Troubles,” which were characterized by riots, bombings, and murder. Communities separated according to identity, and cities were carved up by so-called peace walls that were built along sectarian lines. An infamous example of this is the peace wall that separates the Catholic Falls Road from the Protestant Shankill Road in West Belfast.


Paramilitary groups like the Provisional Irish Republican Army (a reincarnation of the old IRA) and the Ulster Defense Association (UDA) formed and carried out guerrilla campaigns and, in many cases, acted as de facto police units in the neighborhoods in which they operated. Particularly in Catholic neighborhoods, the official police force (the Royal Ulster Constabulary) were deeply mistrusted: the police were almost entirely Protestant, and accusations of police bias and brutality were pervasive in Catholic communities. Police or British soldiers, who often became a target of violence, contended they were doing their jobs to the best of their ability given limited resources and a mounting terrorist threat.

In the face of this conflict — one that appeared to be spinning out of control — Christian witness played a significant role in laying the groundwork for moving the conflict from decades of intractability, to a window of opportunity in which a ceasefire and disarmament could be negotiated, to a ripeness stage in which discussing peace became a real possibility, and finally, to the reconciliation stage, which is ongoing to this day. One such witness is Corrymeela, a Christian peace and reconciliation center founded by the Rev. Ray Davies in 1965. After returning from a POW camp in Dresden during WWII, Davies wished to create spaces for peace in the midst of conflict in his home country. While serving as chaplain at Queens University in Belfast, he and his students raised money and purchased the site for Corrymeela and together built the center’s first building. It became a beacon on the hill, a gathering place for people throughout Northern Ireland and the world to meet in a neutral space and start to build the foundations of a relationship that otherwise might have been impossible in their separate home communities.

Throughout Northern Ireland, all life was largely self-contained in one’s nearly homogenous community. Catholics and Protestants went to separate schools, shopped in separate stores, watched different sports, attended different churches, and ate at different chip shops. The other was an alien, and rumors abounded around what the other side was about. An example of many pervasive stereotypes was that all Protestants were privileged and wealthy and all Catholics were lazy and on welfare. Both sides by and large believed the other to be morally inferior if not outright criminal, and that everyone on the other side of the peace wall supported their respective paramilitary groups and its acts of terror. Misinformation like this was allowed to take hold and fester in communities in which individuals never met someone from the other side who could challenge or at least complicate these caricatures.

Over the decades, Corrymeela allowed individuals a safe space to meet their neighbor and carry that experience with them back into their communities. Corrymeela’s work coincides with social psychology research which finds that contact with an outgroup typically reduces prejudice and increases trust and forgiveness of past wrongs, all useful in creating a window of opportunity to introduce the possibility of resolution.  In shared meals, facilitated conversations, worship, and times of play, groups who came up to the center had the opportunity to move from being a group with a single identity to a group of individuals who didn’t all have to see things in the same way. At first, groups came from the local area, but then participation grew to include all of Northern Ireland: school groups from the segregated education system, youth groups of teens at risk of following family members into sectarian violence and jail, families who had lost loved ones on both sides of the conflict. Even after the cease-fires and the Good Friday Peace Agreement, the reconciliation work continues in earnest to this day.  Almost a decade after the Good Friday Peace Agreement, I was part of the year-long international volunteer team that facilitated the groups who came up to the center, some still only meeting a Protestant or a Catholic for the very first time.  Over the decades, the center’s influence has further expanded to welcome international groups such as Israelis and Palestinians, who come to learn about the Northern Irish peace process and explore how it might be adapted to their own context.

Of course, a place like Corrymeela can only be successful at planting seeds of reconciliation if the ground is sufficiently prepared to receive them. A few days with someone’s supposed enemy has a better chance of bearing fruit if the seeds are not planted in rocky soil where it will be neglected or where weeds will choke any shoot that pokes its head out of the ground whispering compromise in the name of peace. There were many brave souls in Northern Ireland who risked a great deal to cross enemy lines and establish backchannel communications. One famous example is Fr. Alec. He was Catholic, but he was clear on his neutrality in the conflict: “I don’t belong to any political party, but I represent the next person who is going to be killed in the Troubles.”  He mediated secret talks between the loyalist SDLP party and the republican Sinn Fein party. He was a key figure in negotiating the IRA ceasefire. There was also Dennis Bradley, a former priest who provided a backchannel between the British government and the Provisional IRA in Derry (Londonderry) which helped stop a number of attacks. Another priest, the Rev. Harold Good, along with Fr. Alec, provided independent verification of the IRA’s arms decommissioning in 2005. The list of clergy goes on — those who were involved in conflict resolution on the ground and behind the scenes—constantly weeding and negotiating between parties until the ground was fertile or ripe enough for the parties to brave public compromise– and then later in reconciliation work.

In the U.S., our trust in one another is waning. Our physical communities have further divided to become more homogenous, and our online communities, through social media, use algorithms to make it more likely that our only interaction with “the other side” is in strawman form. If anything, this has only increased during the pandemic, when our only source for community is online platforms. We are a country divided by many conflicts, some of which, as I argued in my last post, are similar enough to technical definitions of armed conflict that they open the possibility that we could benefit from conflict resolution research learned through case examples like Northern Ireland. This is not a revolutionary concept. In a series of recent articles, the Washington Post suggested that the United States could potentially benefit from learning more about Northern Ireland’s police reform, and about the Northern Irish peacebuilding process in general.

As Christians, we could receive inspiration from conflict resolution research and from learning more about the examples of how clergy like the Rev. Ray Davies, Fr. Alec, and the Rev. Harold Goode became trusted, neutral mediators, and how some of the Christian laity — like the volunteers who fundraised and helped build Corrymeela — refused to accept that the divisions of the day would have the final word on what tomorrow could bring. This is not a call to reinvent the wheel: there are certainly many in the United States who are selflessly — and, in many cases, anonymously — working towards conflict resolution and reconciliation in their communities. If you have examples, please include them in the comments section so that we might all learn about and pray for these men and women in their work.

It takes great humility to empty oneself of all personal agendas in order to inspire and then lay the foundation for a shared future. It takes great patience as well, since building trust out of distrust, hope out of anger, and forgiveness out of pain is usually three cautious steps forward, and two retreating steps back. It takes sustained practical optimism: hopeful about a shared future across boundary lines, but realistic in that a peace created by men — even men of good will — shall forever be imperfect.

In his final address to the U.N., John F. Kennedy said, “Peace is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures. And however undramatic the pursuit of peace, that pursuit must go on.”  In laying the foundation for conflict resolution on which future reconciliation can be built, there is often no one large fix that overcomes centuries of mistrust, injustice, and violence. It takes many brave men and women — some out front and so many more behind the scenes — who spend decades of their lives building a foundation of trust one little brick at a time.

It has been two decades since the Good Friday Peace Accords, and Northern Ireland is still negotiating, still learning how to live together, still trying to reconcile with its past and with one another. The idea of a shared future had to be invented and encouraged by numerous actors, many just ordinary folks.  To be sure, not every measure in the peace process was successful, which provides its own useful insight. But in all of those small steps over the years, Northern Ireland has made tremendous strides. Clergy and laity were vital actors who were key in establishing neutral safe spaces for dialogue and engagement across boundaries to explore the question: where all out victory by one side is not possible, how can we peacefully live together moving forward?  What else can we learn and possibly implement from this and other examples of Christian witness in post-conflict regions around the world?

Sarah Cornwell is a laywoman in the Hudson Valley who has had a wonderfully odd assortment of jobs and education.

About The Author

Sarah Cornwell is a laywoman, ballet teacher, and the mother of six children.

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Ray E. Gaebler
2 years ago

Dear Sarah, Thank you for your post. In the early 1970s a Catholic team from Chicago went to Northern Ireland and hosted a Cursillo which was so well received that Protestant friends asked for the same opportunity. An Ecumenical team was assembled and held a Protestant Cursillo at Correymeela. The highlight of the weekend took place on Saturday night when a bus full of Catholics came to pray with us and taught us the song “Bind Us Together.”

Sarah Cornwell
2 years ago
Reply to  Ray E. Gaebler

Dear Ray, Thank you for sharing your story. Profound and beautiful work can happen in providing spaces where people can meet one another as whole people, not just as one representing a side. As you’ve shown, the good that these experiences can have can still be felt decades later. They provide hope and encouragement in our simple, but vital work which we share as the Body of Christ in the world. Thank you again!