Progress behind the progress

International | For Northern Ireland pastors, endurance has been key

Issue: "Bush: Crunch time," March 4, 2000

After more than 30 years of violence and political tension in Northern Ireland, divisions between Protestant Unionists and Catholic Nationalists run deep. In a country obsessed with those distinctions, anyone can be suspect. Even a name, address, school, or appearance is enough to brand a person Catholic or Protestant. Christian leaders have understood that the chasm between the communities must be bridged at a personal level. For more than 30 years, those leaders have been working behind the scenes, through close contact with both communities, trying to break down the sectarian labels at the crux of the Northern Irish problem. John Kyle is one of those leaders, a gentle man in his late forties, heavily involved in cross-community work. Both paramilitary and political leaders now come to him. He chokes back tears as he describes the progress of recent months. He says both Catholics and Protestants have been meeting for discussions and prayer. Those behind-the-scenes gatherings, he says, were instrumental in changing the thinking of some Sinn Fein and IRA members, drawing them to the negotiating table. "I think what happened was miraculous," he says. "God has just intervened." Even though the peace process is currently under strain, the willingness of ex-terrorists, both Unionists and Nationalists, to exchange the bomb for the ballot box reflects a remarkable shift in attitude. "In personal dialogue and personal contact and, ultimately, debate, many of the changes have happened that have moved the whole political process toward a non-violent, inclusive type of process," said Mr. Kyle. Roy Magee, pastor of a Belfast Presbyterian Church when "the troubles" began in 1969, has worked extensively to establish this same kind of contact with Unionist paramilitaries over the past three decades. He gained the respect of Unionists early on, when he risked his own safety by bargaining with Protestant vigilantes, promising to guard the streets against Catholic attack as long as they did their part to stop street riots. Andy Cyrie, supreme commander of the paramilitary Ulster Defense Army, saw the need to turn away from violence. He invited Mr. Magee to talk to his terrorist commanders. The pastor began regular sessions with them; he recalls, "I tried to get them from violence to putting away the weaponry and in doing that the process was to get them involved politically, believing that the more politicized they became, the less they were involved in military activity." Mr. Magee continued meeting with the paramilitaries-over a 25-year period-until these groups finally agreed, last year, to call a ceasefire. Both Mr. Magee and Mr. Kyle feel that God has given them remarkable opportunities to speak to leaders on both sides of the divide. The way forward for Christians now, they say, is to work closely and forge relationships among ordinary people in both communities, help them to develop deeper sympathy for one another's needs and fears, and show God's love to those damaged in the decades of violence. -C.M.

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