August 3, 2015

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Written by Karin Eyben, Multidisciplinary Programme Worker, Corrymeela.

Corrymeela is one of Northern Ireland’s oldest peace and reconciliation organisations. We began in 1965 as a response to the need to build trust and wellbeing in Ireland, in a wider Europe, and in an emerging, more interdependent world. The founder Ray Davey, having been a prisoner of war in Dresden, was instrumental in establishing youth exchanges between Northern Ireland and Germany in the 1950’s.

Corrymeela began before “The Troubles” and continues to work in Northern Ireland’s changing post–conflict society.  The organisation has grown organically from the original Community members, and today almost 40 full–time staff, approximately 800 volunteers of all ages and 150 dispersed community members work alongside the eleven thousand people who spend time in our residential centre every year and programmes of locally based community programmes.

Corrymeela is 50 years old this year and central to a year of celebrations, critical self-reflection and imagination has been the framing of our practice as ‘Living Well Together’. Corrymeela began its journey with a wider understanding of wellbeing and the many fractures that undermine us living a good life together. Whether these are fractures of mental health, income, sexuality, class, education, health, culture, gender, age, differences of values and beliefs, Corrymeela has always known that we live life in the round and that trust and trust-worthiness are central to our well-being within our families, neighbourhoods and society.

Northern Ireland’s peace process has experienced a very turbulent time of late and, while the Stormont Agreement was welcomed, there remains considerable work to be done engaging with, and inspiring, a vibrant civic voice that is actively committed to nurturing a cohesive, interdependent, shared and reconciled society. In the most recent Peace Monitoring report Paul Nolan said that the ‘peace process has lost its power to inspire’. The evidence shows that segregation and ethnocentrism are still the norm and these are reinforced through, for example, schooling and housing.  The report goes on to say that there is a cultural war being talked into existence with strong indications that there is an overwhelming apathy and cynicism towards our political leadership and the system in general.

Strong and robust public policy comes from open and engaged discussion between the political and civil society spheres, where each sector acknowledges and respects the duties and experience of the other. There is currently a state of exhaustion and burn out amongst many civil society actors, some evidence that some critical civil society organisations may have to reduce their reach and voice as public grants are reduced or cut altogether, and only a small number of reasonably financially independent voluntary and civil society organisations remaining.

One story we tell ourselves in daily life here, often reinforced in the media and often rewarded by investment and funding is that this place is in crisis, about to collapse and needs many knights on many white horses to come and save us. And while indeed all of this is true, what if we changed the story we tell ourselves and started talking about what is working, what we would like more of, what gives us pride and hope. Would these stories give us the energy we most certainly need to continue tackling significant problems across our society?

As part of our conviction at Corrymeela that our words will (and do) shape our thoughts and actions we have initiated a project called 20/20 Visions funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. This is a public conversation project around the practice and politics of living well together and what is giving people, not naïve optimism, but hope within their families, neighbourhoods and in this society.

20/20 Conversations are happening across Northern Ireland and are open, facilitated conversationsamong people with diverse views and shared passions. Our conversations cover education, shared spaces, volunteering, living well together, caring and carers, belonging, environment, the social responsibility of business leaders, regeneration of a village or town centre, the opportunities for people from different belief systems to meet and build trust.

They are safe spaces for talking with neighbours, friends, colleagues about things that matter to people and that they would like to grow over the next 5 years

Let’s imagine a set of Russian nesting dolls: round, wooden dolls that fit neatly into each other, getting smaller and smaller as you journey to their core.  If wellbeing is an essential part of a healthy, dynamic society, we see trust-building and reconciliation as nesting within the heart of wellbeing.

Reconciliation, in essence, is about building new and re-building old broken relationships.  Many people are just living, struggling to get through each day; others are living well behind closed doors. Corrymeela believes that we need to grow a society which ensures that no one is just living and that we can only live well if we are living well together, across divides.