Corrymeela kept flame of peace alive during dark days

Rite and Reason: Who can dispute that the collective work of groups such as the Corrymeela community contributed to a grassroots…

Rite and Reason:Who can dispute that the collective work of groups such as the Corrymeela community contributed to a grassroots base on which political agreement could take root in Northern Ireland? asks Alf McCreary

'If we Christians cannot speak the message of reconciliation we have nothing to say' - these words from the Rev Dr Ray Davey, founder and former leader of Corrymeela, resonate as much today as they did more than 40 years ago when the community was first established at Ballycastle.It was a hopeful beginning in 1965 when many of us believed that the "old" Troubles were over.

How wrong we all were! Within a few years Northern Ireland was pitched into some of the worst inter-community violence seen in Europe since the end of the second World War.

Then taoiseach Jack Lynch declared in a television broadcast during the crisis of 1969 that his Government could "no longer stand by and see innocent people injured, and perhaps worse". It was a time of immense danger for the island, and an inauspicious beginning for a Christian community that had been formed in pre-Troubles days. Its purpose was to promote reconciliation not only between Protestants and Catholics but between all those who found themselves on different paths.


Corrymeela was meant to provide for "the ministry of reconciliation in working and community life, and in the Church". Typically, members rolled up their sleeves and provided a refuge for those who were wounded and broken by the Northern conflict.

These included families of the paramilitaries on both sides, refugees from the violence, and reconcilers from inside and outside the churches who were trying to grapple with the trauma of a society tearing itself apart.

Throughout the long years of violence Corrymeela did not attempt to present simplistic answers clothed in Biblical rhetoric. Instead, the community chose the harder path of trying to apply the Gospel message to the divided society in which it lived.

Ray Davey had survived the agonies of the second World War as a chaplain in the north African conflict, and he had experienced the importance of a sharing community as a result of his incarceration as a prisoner of war in Italy and Germany. He had a shaft of steel behind his gentle exterior, and he refused to accept the compromise of easy or half-baked attempts at finding solutions.

One of his senior colleagues said that Davey could be particularly tough with church and religious groups. "If they wanted to ignore issues, he wouldn't let them do that. So, if toughness is keeping people to the core vision and task, if it is working with people you don't want to work with, if you have to meet people from a different background and tradition, if you have to cross lines, to build trusts, to take risks, then Ray was tough."

This was to be the constant challenge for Corrymeela, even if the community itself handled some of its internal situations with a lack of tact, and left some of its own members bruised and hurt. This showed, if nothing else, that peacemakers are sometimes as unable as the rest of us to deal with difficult situations; but a vision and a determination to live out that vision can help people transcend their human frailties.

Throughout the Troubles, Corrymeela kept going as best it could. Some of its critics claim that it grew too big during the years when funding was plentiful and Northern Ireland was the focus of many well-intentioned benefactors from outside.

However, an imperfect peace did begin to descend upon an unbelieving Northern Ireland in the form of the ill-tempered "peace process" following the Belfast Agreement.

Corrymeela and other peacemakers would not claim direct credit for the apparently miraculous decision by the Rev Ian Paisley to lead the DUP into an agreement with Sinn Féin, but who can dispute that the collective work of all these groups did establish a grassroots base in which a political agreement could take root and blossom.

Peace may have been dropping slow but it has been dropping from a wide variety of places, and not just Belfast, Dublin, London or Washington.

Corrymeela's 40th anniversary coincided with the early political talks which led to the Stormont Agreement, but the task of consolidating peace is by no means completed, and Corrymeela is too experienced to rest on its laurels.

Funding is scarce, now that many outsiders believe that peace has "settled" on Northern Ireland, and Corrymeela - like others - will have to work even harder to remain financially viable. However, it has a wealth of spiritual and practical experience in reconciliation which is of great benefit in other areas of conflict.

The possibility of a lasting peace in Ireland is more secure now than most of us had dared to hope, but in a dangerous and divided wider world the example of Corrymeela is undoubtedly more relevant than ever, for those who have ears to hear. It is always better, as Corrymeela teaches, to try to "light a candle rather than to curse the darkness".

• Alf McCreary is religion correspondent of the Belfast Telegraph. His book,In War and Peace - The Story of Corrymeela, will be published tomorrow by the Brehon Press