The Meath Peace Group marked its 20th anniversary in April 2013. Julitta Clancy, one of the group’s founder members, reflects here on some of the work of the group which came into being at a time of intense conflict on the island and which went on to play its own unique part in the developing peace process.
In March 1993 the Northern Ireland conflict had been raging for almost 30 years. Over 3, 400 people had been killed and thousands more injured. The communities were deeply divided, political talks were deadlocked, and there seemed no end in sight to the nightmare of violence, injustice and grief. On 20th March, an IRA bomb killing two children in Warrington was to prove a catalyst for action. Peace services were organised and a mass rally was held in Dublin with the message “not in my name!” An intense debate took place over the airwaves – Northern voices came on our radio appealing to us not to forget the young people who had been murdered in their communities (the latest a boy of 17 shot by loyalists in West Belfast). For the first time (in my memory) ordinary people from the North were talking directly to us in the South, and we were listening. After a peace service in Slane in April, a small group of people met, and over the next few months the Meath Peace Group was formed. The support and encouragement received from so many good people in Meath during those early months strengthened us in our belief that ordinary people had a role in building peace, and enabled us to respond constructively to those who were fearful, cynical or indeed downright opposed to what we were doing. We realised that we needed to educate ourselves, to meet with people from both communities in Northern Ireland, to listen to their stories, to understand their experiences and aspirations, to examine our own beliefs, and in the process help to remove misconceptions and fears others might have about us. We had a window of opportunity that we could not squander.
In the early months we contacted anyone who could help us. Doors were opened to us. We visited communites in Belfast and Derry and were amazed to see the positive work going on there. We took part in a cross-community weekend in Lurgan, staying up all night listening to nationalists who told us of their feelings that the South had forgotten them. We joined in a TV discussion in Glasgow with 100 women from across NI where diverse and opposing views were presented. We took part in peace rallies in Dublin and organised books of condolences in Navan after mass atrocities such as at Shankill and Greysteel. We wrote letters to politicians and to national and local papers, argued the issues on local radio and met with loyalist and republican representatives in Belfast – all before the IRA and loyalist ceasefires.
After a few months, we decided to invite some of the people we had met and/or read about to come and talk in Meath, and, in order to involve as many people as possible – and also to counter the threats we were receiving – we decided that these meetings should be in public. Through Fr Neil Magill, the Columban Fathers at Dalgan Park (outside Navan) offered us the use of their facilities for meetings. Dalgan became the main venue for the over 80 public talks (and several day-long seminars) which continued until 2010, involving over 300 speakers. What sustained these talks were the people who came in great numbers to listen and participate: people from Meath and adjoining counties, and – as the word spread – people from various parts of Northern Ireland, many of whom had never crossed the Border before, who found at Dalgan a safe space where they could share their stories and meet and talk with local people over a cup of tea.
One discussion led to another, the topics reflecting issues current at the time. It was a journey without maps. No area of the conflict was avoided and discussions often went on late into the night. In May 1994, months before the IRA ceasefire, Rev. Martin Smyth, Unionist MP and Grand Master of the Orange Order, addressed over 100 people at St Joseph’s school in Navan, articulating unionist concerns and their conditions for talks with Sinn Féin. In September 1994, over 150 people attended a talk on Articles 2 and 3 addressed by John Bruton, Dermot Ahern, Ken McGuinness, Brid Rodgers and constitutional lawyer Gerard Hogan (now a High Court judge). In November, only weeks after the loyalist ceasefire, 11 representatives of the Progressive Unionist Party came to Dalgan with Rev. Roy Magee. In February 1995, republican and loyalist ex-prisoners spoke at a meeting chaired by Judge Catherine McGuinness. At other gatherings, victims’ groups from both communities and from the security forces courageously told their stories.
In several talks, Orangemen and Catholic residents discussed parading disputes, while human rights activists highlighted justice and policing issues. Clergy from several denominations – including Archbishop Eames, Bishop Richard Clarke, and Msgrs Denis Faul and Raymond Murray – spoke on the role of the churches in building peace. Historians debated Easter 1916, World War One, and the Civil War, while teachers contrasted approaches to history teaching north and south. And politicians of all hues spoke on the developing – and often foundering – political negotiations. At a talk on the Good Friday Agreement in May 1998, Frankie Gallagher, an East Belfast loyalist, warned Minister Noel Dempsey that we must all now be “guardians of each others’ rights”. In September 2002, during a crisis in the NI executive, Minister Michael McDowell threw away his prepared speech, and spoke from the heart. Later that year, the first DUP speaker – Gregory Campbell – appeared, but it took a while more before we had the DUP and Sinn Fein appearing together. The discussions reached wider audiences: most were reported in local newspapers such as the Meath Chronicle, LMFM radio regularly broadcast interviews, and, from 1995 on we recorded and transcribed the talks – many are available in the archives section of our website www.meathpeacegroup.org.
Alongside the talks, our activities expanded into other areas – monitoring disputed parades in Fermanagh, organising heritage visits to Meath and Louth, collecting over 14,000 signatures in Navan for Books of Condolences after the Omagh bomb in August 1998, facilitating political discussions between unionists and republicans, facilitating workshops with other groups, hosting residentials at An Tobar (Ardbraccan), visiting Belfast communities, making submissions to bodies such as the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation.
And all through the years, we have included schools and young people in the work of building understanding and trust. Initially we brought guest speakers to speak to students on a one-off basis, but we soon realised that a more developed programme was needed. In 1995 the late Mary McNally of St. Joseph’s in Navan, invited us to work with the Transition Year team to produce a programme of workshops, guest speakers and study visits, all focused on the Northern Ireland conflict and the developing peace process. It was a major challenge for us and a courageous initiative on the part of the school – here were teachers, students and parents ‘taking real risks for peace’, welcoming into their classroom people who had been deeply scarred by the Troubles, people with views and backgrounds very different from their own. In February 1996 – following the breakdown of the 18-month old IRA ceasefire – we witnessed our first group of students taking action. They had been visited by community workers from Belfast over the previous months and they were determined that peace should be given a chance and that another generation of young people in NI would not have to suffer. They organised prayer services, wrote letters to the papers and to politicians, and took part in rallies throughout the county, including a major rally in Navan.
We developed the programme and extended it to other schools: Ashbourne and Dunshaughlin Colleges, Beaufort (Navan), Eureka (Kells), Greenhills (Drogheda), Pobal Scoil Rath Cairn, and Trim and Maynooth secondary schools. All students participated in the workshops on identity; many took an active interest in justice and reconciliation issues: some concentrating on conditions in prisons (visiting Mountjoy and the Maze), others focusing on victims and survivors; several groups visited Stormont and many went to republican and loyalist communities in Belfast (Ardoyne, the Falls, New Lodge and the Lower Shankill).
In 2013, we can be grateful for a more peaceful society and the huge progress that has been made – in politics, policing, human rights, and Anglo-Irish and North-South relations. But the situation is still fragile, and with other pressing problems there is a danger that reconciliation and peacebuilding will be pushed off the agenda. This would be a grave mistake. There are still groups threatening the peace, there are worrying signs of disaffection, identity issues are still very sensitive (as seen in the recent loyalist riots over flags), sectarian attitudes still persist, and there is more work to do in addressing the alienation, hurt and distrust, and the gaps in our own understanding. The decade of centenary commemorations which began in 2012 is both a challenge and an opportunity – how these events are handled is crucially important, and southern groups can do a lot to enable constructive discussion. Above all, we must continue to find ways to empower our young people so that they can play a meaningful part in building a better future for all.
The Meath Peace Group is a totally voluntary group. Committee members over the years have included (in alphabetical order): Philomena Boylan-Stewart, John and Julitta Clancy, Canon John Clarke, Felicity Cuthbert, Susan Devane, Caitriona Fitzgerald, Judith Hamill (Dunne), Michael Kane C.s.s.p., Paschal Kearney C.s.s.p., John Keaveney, Olive Kelly, Vincent McDevitt, C.s.s.p., Anne Nolan, Leona Rennicks and Pauline Ryan. The group would like to thank the speakers from North and South and the many people from Meath and beyond who made a major contribution to the work of peacebuilding. We thank Fr Pat Raleigh and the Columbans at Dalgan Park, the teachers and students who participated in our TY programmes, the Meath Archaeological and Historical Society who assisted with heritage visits, and the local media for reporting our events and discussions, enabling a wider audience to participate in building peace. Finally we thank the Department of Foreign Affairs Reconciliation Fund for assistance towards the running of our programmes.
[Published in the Meath Chronicle, 19 January 2013]