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Methodist clergy support N. Irish paramilitaries' move to peace

4/18/2002 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: This report is accompanied by a commentary, UMNS #169. A selection of photographs from Northern Ireland is available from the UMNS archives at http://umns.umc.org/01/oct/1001photos.html. *LaCamera is a United Methodist News Service correspondent based in England.

By Kathleen LaCamera*

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (UMNS) -- Two men had been shot dead outside the front door of a modest two story building at 193 Crumlin Road in Belfast. A third had died in back.

The deaths, which had occurred in recent years, were not a result of Catholics fighting Protestants. The victims were murdered in a bloody feud among warring Protestant, or Loyalist, paramilitary groups with names like the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defense Association.

Inside this building, people who may have played a role in those deaths sit around a table discussing cooperation. The group calls itself the Loyalist Commission, and its 30 or so members have been meeting for several months. After one such meeting, on April 9, a reporter has been invited into the room.

Also around the table are church and community representatives wanting to support what they know is a leap of faith for people who may have literally tried to kill each other in the past. It is the first time ever that church and community representatives together have been part of a sustained conversation with Loyalist paramilitaries.

"For many years the church and political figures have distanced themselves considerably from Loyalist paramilitaries," says Gary Mason, a Methodist minister serving the East Belfast Mission, in the heart of Loyalist paramilitary territory. "There hasn't been a healthy dialogue. These folks are part of society and they shouldn't be pushed to one side."

Mason knows that paramilitaries and other people in his Protestant neighborhood feel marginalized and abandoned by an official peace process that they feel does not care about them. He also knows such feelings of disaffection and impotence, especially when combined with economic deprivation, are a recipe for violence of the "peace-wrecking" kind. They spawn the kind of unbelievable scenes beamed around the world last year of grown men and women harassing Catholic girls and their parents on their way to school.

Such feelings belong to people who feel like they have nothing left to lose.

The Loyalist Commission has yet to officially define itself and its role, yet Mason says supporting those trying to work against their own violent legacy is a risk worth taking.

"They want to see a different society built on peace and justice," he says. "The church needs to help them put these aims and objectives within a biblical framework."

Not much is written about the Loyalist Commission. Members are wary of publicity and seldom talk to the press. Growing out of efforts by three Church of Ireland ministers to stop a Loyalist turf war, the commission focuses on working behind the scenes. Its members are not only trying to prevent a recurrence of internal feuding, but to help what they see as their retreating Protestant community take part with confidence in a process of conflict resolution in Northern Ireland.

The general feeling around the room is that the rest of the world, and especially Americans, see their Catholic counterparts, the Provisional Irish Republican Army, as "doves."

"We're everybody's terrorist, everybody's bogeyman," a commission member tells United Methodist News Service. " … People see us as murdering drug dealers." The men say that the official peace process has been a "one way street for Nationalists (Catholics)" and that no one wants to know about the intimidation and economic hardship that are driving people out of traditionally Protestant working-class neighborhoods.

By their own admission, the members of the Loyalist Commission - all men - are not "choirboys." The commission members have served a total of more than two centuries of prison time. Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups have been linked to bombings, shootings and beatings that have left almost 4,000 dead and thousands more damaged in the last three decades. They also have been implicated in drug trafficking, prostitution, extortion and other criminal activities.

It's a substantial legacy of destruction from which they have yet to fully disengage. While in early April the IRA put additional stores of weapons "beyond use" in a process called "decommissioning," Loyalist paramilitaries have yet to do the same.

So one might be forgiven for doubting whether this disparate group can offer anything new or substantial to the process of ending violence in Northern Ireland. The group came together once before under a different name to call a cease-fire back in 1994. The cease-fire has been severely strained by disagreements over what Loyalists feel the Good Friday Agreement - brokered in 1998 by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell - failed to deliver to Protestants. One of the groups involved, the Ulster Defense Association, is implicated in the death of a Catholic postal worker who was shot while arriving at work this year.

However when everyone else - mediators, politicians, church leaders alike - failed to end a high-profile Protestant residents' protest outside Holy Cross Girls Primary School in North Belfast, the Loyalist Commission helped persuade Protestant residents to end it. The protest has not resumed - unlike past occasions, when similar activities were halted for only a week or a month. The commission also announced an agreement between the major Protestant paramilitaries to stop recruiting members at schools. Mason labels these moves as significant.

"Not only will paramilitaries not recruit at schools, but no threat will be made against any teacher or staff member in their names," Mason says. "… The commission is trying to pull things together in the Loyalist community that have been very, very messy. I think there's a commitment, an openness, an honesty and a frankness in the commission. … I'd be pretty optimistic about it all."

"We're all interested in conflict resolution," says a veteran commission member who also was part of the Good Friday Agreement negotiating team. "Many of us have served time. … For those who have lost friends and colleagues … forgiveness is difficult, but we see some great opportunities."

Something that can bring a unified and a disciplined voice to a largely disaffected Loyalist working class community is needed, Johnston McMaster, Methodist minister and lecturer for the Irish School of Ecumenics, told UMNS. "If there's a body here that can give the Loyalist community some coherence … that is possibly something hopeful."

"What we've done is to put our own allegiances and loyalties aside to do the best for the local community," a commission member said. "How to act that out is still being worked out."

Many will be hoping that the Loyalist Commission works out a role for itself that will help it realize those opportunities for conflict resolution. The president of the Irish Methodist Church, the Rev. Harold Good, called his own first encounter with the Loyalist Commission on April 15 "helpful and constructive." Good, who also serves on Northern Ireland's Human Rights Commission, said the real battle to be waged is against everything that degrades and deprives people, whoever they may be, of the right to a decent life in a safe and secure community.

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