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31 May 2012

The Crossfire Trust: where the past and future meet

The Crossfire Trust: where the past and future meet

I was born in 1987 in the Ulster Hospital and spent the majority of my childhood in Belfast. Looking back on my formative years my personal experience of 'the Troubles' in Northern Ireland, my homeland, was limited. I remember the Omagh bombing in 1998 but mainly watching news coverage of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton visiting shortly afterwards. In 2006 I went to university in England and one of the most frequently asked questions I was met with was "What's (Northern) Ireland like now?" 'Northern' was met with confusion and became an optional extra as I was generally deemed Irish. My answer, based upon my comfortable upbringing in Belfast was, "It's fine. All that's in the past now. Come visit."

Contrast that with the experiences and memories of my parents, or even my older cousins and it's a very different picture. They can recall with ease bomb alerts, an atmosphere of fear and distrust, and unfortunately atrocities on both sides. Interestingly these are ideas I now associate with Iraq and Afghanistan, and more recently Libya and Syria. Without doubt this is a very positive change in Northern Ireland, however I have found myself recently asking questions about the Troubles, mainly around my own naivety.

In February of this year David Smyth, our Public Policy Officer, and myself met Ian Bothwell of the Crossfire Trust, based in South Armagh. Crossfire Trust are committed to making God's love real to all the people within their reach and have a vast amount of experience working with ex-combatants. We met Ian at Crossfires' headquarters in Darkley, a short drive from Keady. I must admit that going into this meeting, Darkley meant nothing to me. However, I was quickly informed of the Darkley Massacre in 1983 where three members of Mountain Lodge Pentecostal Church were murdered and seven were injured by members of the Catholic Reaction Force.

Over a coffee Ian explained the foundations of the Crossfire Trust. Birthed out of a need to combat the fear, isolation and community breakdown Northern Ireland felt in the mid 1970s they began to reach out to the local community in South Armagh. This started with a coffee bar, but has now grown into ownership of Darkley House as a centre for reconciliation. Within Darkley House there is accommodation space, office and classroom space for teaching courses and developing skills, charity outlets and a peace garden. Ian and his team have been recognised both locally and globally as contributing to community development within Northern Ireland through the awarding of the President's Prize in 2002 and the Queen's Award for Voluntary Service in 2008. This is a long way from the dark days of the Darkley Massacre and testifies to the transforming power of the Gospel here in Northern Ireland. During our visit we met with some of the residents and heard their stories of transformation thanks to the work and witness of Ian and his team. We were able to pray for Ian and his wife, a truly humbling experience.

Returning to my naivety, there are a number of possible reasons for this: the positive changes within Northern Ireland, a generation gap, an increase in wealth, opportunities and comfort which had led to (blissful) ignorance on my part and a different education at school. Most likely it's a combination of these all. At this point I'm reminded of Edmund Burke stating, "Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it." We can't repeat our history in Northern Ireland. To borrow the tourist board's slogan, this is 'our time, our place'. As a member of the next generation I want to commit to learning from the past in order that we don't repeat it; pursuing God's Kingdom in Northern Ireland, engaging actively and frequently in creating a better Northern Ireland,  thanking the previous generation for their hard work and sacrifice in giving me the future they didn't have, standing on their shoulders and taking Northern Ireland where it can go and setting up the next generation to go even further.

With that in mind I find myself asking what did I learn from visiting Ian and the Crossfire Trust? Firstly, that unlike the answer 'that's all in the past' which so easily rolled off my tongue to my English friends; for some, the emotions and realities of the Troubles are just as much a factor today as 30 years ago and they need to be addressed and worked through. This raises a number of very difficult questions: How do we continue to move forward? Can we bring everyone on this journey? Where does forgiveness feature? Where does justice feature? I'll admit that I don't have the answers, but it is time for my generation to shoulder the responsibility in finding them. I also learnt that with God, with time and through intentionally investing in relationship, changing lives is possible.

I've learnt it's not good enough to be ignorant and worse to choose to be. That is short termed and selfish. There is a big picture to consider, and from a Christian perspective we have a responsibility to bring God's Kingdom here in Northern Ireland. As Jeremiah instructs us we are to: "seek the peace and prosperity of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare, you will find your welfare." (Jeremiah 29:7) Or as Isaiah says: "They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations." (Isaiah 61:4) I understand these passages as commissions to every generation and I intend to take it up within my own.

My generation is one with countless opportunities, but little understanding and experience of responsibility. This could prove to be a dangerous combination. It is time to start learning from the past, to seek the guidance of the generations above us, to learn from their mistakes and our own, to adopt what has worked and customise it to our future. If this is 'our time, our place' let's make it the best it can be.

More information on the Crossfire Trust.

By Paul Meneely, Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland Intern