A More Civil Society

News of unrelenting violence in the Mideast may
suggest that it's utopian
to expect peaceful resolution of abiding ethnic and religious hatreds, but some
less visible efforts at cross-ethnic cooperation are getting results.

Consider Northern Ireland, watered by many rivers--the Lagan, Bann,
Ballinamallard, and Cam--but none so powerful as the river of religious hatred.
Regularly overflowing its banks, drowning Catholic and Protestant communities
alike in violence, it has cost more than 3,600 lives in the last 30 years. The
recent decision by the Irish Republican Army to decommission arms is an important
step in flood control, but what's really needed are bridges connecting the two
communities so they can take the further step of decommissioning hatred.

Who can build those bridges? Listening to the Northern Irish, one gets the
sense it is probably not the political leadership. People are skeptical of the
shenanigans that surrounded decommissioning. Catholics feel that giving up arms
reduces their safety from gun-toting Protestant extremists, while Protestants
feel that the IRA has made only a symbolic gesture, for which it has received
wildly disproportionate political gains. As a result, neither side has reaped the
potential joint benefits of reduced arms--less violence, more economic growth,
and policies crafted to reflect some of what each community wants.

Hope for decommissioning hatred now rests mainly among the nongovernmental
organizations of civil society. Fortunately, Northern Ireland has just such
groups--so-called "concord organizations"--committed to building common
worldviews and skills necessary to work effectively across communities. Though
they rarely get much press outside of Northern Ireland, these groups provide
crucial democratic assets for the new society that Northern Ireland wants to
become. Among a population of 1.6 million people, there are some 2,000 concord
organizations and projects--large and small. Their work helps to achieve the
closer connections between Catholics and Protestants, an aspiration held by more
than two-thirds of the Northern Irish in every public-opinion poll.

"Effective intercommunity work at the local level can act as a break on the
zero-sum-game approach to politics that is often found in divided societies,"
explains Avila Kilmurray, the director of the Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust,
which supports scores of community projects that fit the concord model.

A few examples give the flavor of this work. In a country where Protestants of
some denominations do not consider other Protestants, let alone Catholics, to be
Christians, Corrymeela, an organization of about 250 Protestants and Catholics,
is committed to the transcendent idea of the discipleship of Christ. Each year,
Corrymeela brings together several thousand people of all faiths to learn from
one another in structured, small-group conversations. For many participants who
live, go to school, and work in highly segregated settings, these occasions are
the first time that they have met or talked with people from the other community
in anything other than a highly formulaic way.

The Belfast Interface Project takes another step. It works with leaders on
both sides of "peace lines"--the often violent boundaries between religiously
defined neighborhoods--to communicate accurate information and reduce sectarian
bloodshed. Using a mobile-phone network maintained by Interface, community
leaders monitor actions on their side of the line, check rumors for veracity, and
transmit this information through trusted sources to leaders on the other side of
the line. When it's quiet in neighborhoods separated by peace lines, Interface
has helped to make no news.

And then there are the integrated schools, which mean something quite
different than integrated schools in the American context. In Northern Ireland,
about 96 percent of schoolchildren attend tax-supported religious institutions,
either state Protestant schools or separate Catholic schools. Both teach the
required religious curriculum. Integrated schools, now tax-supported, arose from
a movement started about 20 years ago by parents. They provide religiously
grounded, denominationally sensitive education for Catholic and Protestant
children together in schools with roughly equal numbers of children from each
tradition.

Since there are no entirely secular schools in Northern Ireland, the very few
non-Christians in Northern Ireland flock to the integrated institutions, which
have excellent leadership and a whole-child educational philosophy with high and
equitable educational outcomes. The integrated schools have noticeably narrowed
the "test-score gap" between children of different religions, classes, status,
and parental educational attainment. People as different as Martin McGuinness,
the Sinn Fein education minister, and Sir Ronnie Flanagan, chief constable of the
Northern Ireland Police Service, support integrated education.

What makes concord organizations successful? In Northern Ireland and
elsewhere, effective cross-community groups share similar organizational
principles. They promote overarching values that members share, such as a better
life for their children, a reduction of violence, a wiser use of resources, and
closer personal connections with the wide range of people in their communities.
By "talking through" divisive issues, they strike a balance between values that
members share and those that divide them. They make no effort to convert people
to one point of view but rather try to get each side to acknowledge the other's
experiences.

Concord organizations function with organized rules of behavior. Malone
College, an integrated secondary school, has the only bill of rights for students
in any school in Northern Ireland. They model good behavior and don't play
"gotcha." And they commit themselves to the long run.

Using these principles, Northern-Irish concord organizations provide knowledge
and skills that build bridges across communities. Single-minded, violent people
will not walk across these bridges--indeed, they may want to blow them up. But
for the rest of Northern Ireland and many other parts of the world, the
principles developed in concord organizations can help people achieve the civil
peace that is the precondition for democracy, freedom, and life itself.

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