June 2017

Brexit, Uncertainty, and Encounter: An Interview with Corrymeela Community’s Executive Director Colin Craig

As the generation that built the system that promoted peace in Europe fades away, we find ourselves struggling to maintain those institutions. This is in large part because we forget too easily that their original and true purpose was not the sacrifice of national identity at the altar of economic integration. The purpose was peace.

It sometimes seems as if the past were a simpler time, when solutions were clearer and less complex. In our collective memory, the post World War II peace stemmed from an overwhelming military victory, the marshaling of more men, tanks, and planes than the other side. In this recollection, we fail to remember that those who fought the war were equally noteworthy for imagining a new story with a better, more lasting peace. Out of the twisted metal of war, they forged peace across physical borders and cultural barriers. The United Nations (1945). The European Economic Community (1957). The European Union (1997). 

As the generation that built the system that promoted peace in Europe fades away, we find ourselves struggling to maintain those institutions. This is in large part because we forget too easily that their original and true purpose was not the sacrifice of national identity at the altar of economic integration. The purpose was peace.

Diplomacy often operates under the guise of economic policy, a nuance often lost on today’s market proselytizers and clarion capitalists. President Donald Trump’s termination of the Trans-Pacific Partnership may be one example. Brexit, the United Kingdom’s planned withdraw from the European Union, is another. Peace comes from understanding, and understanding emerges from encounter, and encounter is difficult in a world of walls.

Since 1965, there has been a place where walls are brought down and common ground built up. Like the European Union, it has its roots in the Second World War.

During World War II, Ray Davey joined the YMCA to help British soldiers with their spiritual and physical health. After being captured, Davey survived the Allied bombing of Dresden, Germany in February 1945 that killed over 20,000 people. Like many, Davey returned from the war profoundly changed. In the early 1960s, as the Presbyterian Dean of Residence at Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Davey and his students recognized the early embers of what would become “The Troubles,” a 30-year sectarian conflict that would kill 3,500 and wound almost 50,000. In 1965, they created an “open village where all people of good will” could find community and peace at an old vacation home on the northeast coast in Ballycastle, County Antrim. They called their community “Corrymeela.”

For fifty years, Corrymeela has brought people from different countries, faiths, and political beliefs together for work, faith, and encounter. Corrymeela has been a place where “there is strength in gathering” and that “no difference is great enough to break us.” Today, with 40 full-time staff, 150 Community of Corrymeela members, 50 associate members, and thousands of friends throughout the world, Corrymeela remains a place of peace, reconciliation, and engagement at our societal “points of fracture, faith and potential.”

Recently, I spoke with Corrymeela’s Executive Director Colin Craig about the challenges the community faces with Brexit and how we can develop solutions to the divisive politics in U.S. and the U.K. today.

The Uncertainty of Brexit

Corrymeela, says Craig, eyes Brexit “with a deep level of unhappiness; we believe it’s a profound mistake.” Part of the problem is that the conditions of the U.K.’s departure from the European Union are so uncertain. Without a clear idea of what trade, immigration, economic, or domestic policy will be, everyone is “dancing in the dark,” with little sense of how the floor is shifting—or disappearing—beneath their feet. Colin puts it another way: “we are jumping off a cliff and nobody has an idea whether there is a parachute [or] what kind of parachute it’s going to be.”

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First Published on Caglecartoons.com, Slovakia, June 22, 2016 by Marian Kamensky.

Brexit brings particular financial uncertainty for organizations like Corrymeela that work throughout Europe on leadership development, reconciliation, extremism, and conflict resolution. Corrymeela’s volunteers come from all over the world but predominantly from Europe. Currently, visa-free travel and no need for work permits for E.U. citizens means no visa fees or work restrictions for European volunteers. If Brexit ends this freedom of work and movement, Corrymeela may face dramatically increased costs, not to mention fewer volunteers, and potentially fewer partners for peace in troubled parts of Europe and the world.

Unresolved English Nationalism

The impetus for Brexit, which came as a shock to pollsters, politicians, and prognosticators, stems from what Craig calls “an unresolved issue around nationalism”— specifically English nationalism. Notably, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted overwhelmingly for Remain (in the E.U.) without the issue becoming one of Scottish or Irish nationalism. In part, he argues, this was because Scottish and Irish nationalisms have evolved within the European Union project. Ireland, whose history with Britain is one of war, occupation, and religious and cultural conflict, “developed a new formal relationship with the U.K. through their joint membership within the E.U.” Membership in the E.U. fundamentally changed the dynamic between Ireland and Britain and facilitated a new coexistence. Craig makes the point that this sort of transformation through E.U. membership can be seen elsewhere in Europe, too. France and Germany, historical foes, developed new ways of engagement and cooperation within the European Community.

Peace and a Hard Border

Brexit threatens the progress and peace achieved through the E.U. for both Ireland and Britain. Take, for example, Northern Ireland, where Corrymeela is based and where the sectarian violence known as “The Troubles” pitted pro-Britain Unionists against pro-Ireland Republicans from 1969 until 1998. Within the E.U., the “hard border”—an actual wall—and the passport controls that divided Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland came down, softening, Craig says, the broader relationship between the two countries. Today, thousands of Irish citizens cross into Northern Ireland—U.K. residents—to work each day, and vice versa.

One of the major questions of Brexit is whether the “hard border” would return and what that would mean for the economic relationships and the 20-year old peace. A hard border would be “a disaster for Universities,” Craig warns, since, in one example, the 1,400 Irish employees of the Ulster University in Derry, Northern Ireland would now need passports and extra time for border crossings to reach work every day.

Commuting inconveniences, while significant considerations, pale in comparison with the prospect of new conflict. From 1969 to 1998, the violence of “The Troubles” claimed 3,500 lives and left nearly 50,000 wounded, a staggering toll for a region that today is home to about 1.8 million people. As an equivalent percentage of the American population (315 million), that would mean 8.75 million killed or wounded, or nearly 300,000 per year for 30 years.

Bumping into Opponents, Building Safe Harbors

Brexit, like many of Donald Trump’s domestic and foreign policies, is about stale nationalist notions of difference, privilege, and superiority. Contemplating his many years as peacebuilder and at Corrymeela, I asked Craig how he might engage with someone whose set of beliefs is antithetical to what he believes. Unfortunately, he says, there are no quick fixes. In part, this is because of confirmation bias—people pick up only the facts that support their already established beliefs. For some, no amount of convincing or conversation will shift their belief away from the unreasonable and unsupported.

But for other people, the key to convincing them lies in keeping a dialogue going. “You’ve got to keep people bumping into relationships with one another.” Demonization only strengthens the walls between people. But repeated encounters, he argues, can create the necessary amount of cognitive dissonance to keep someone awake at night. “You’ve got to create enough dissonance that they have to go to sleep wondering, ‘Maybe this isn’t true. Maybe I have to rethink this.’” 

That, Craig says, is why physical places like Corrymeela and the psychological spaces they create through training are so important. “You have to host conversations. It needs to be done within a safe environment, or what I’d call [Corrymeela]: a safe harbor.” In a safe harbor, there is freedom to imagine different alternatives. When you leave the safe harbor, those alternatives must be worked out and tested in life’s rough seas. People may need to return repeatedly, to imagine new alternatives and to test them anew outside the harbor, but if they keep at it, people will figure out how to make those new possibilities into livable realities.

The transformation that starts in the safe harbor is about leaving behind an old story and creating a new one. “People make that journey,” Craig says. “We should be hopeful about that because people can make that journey if you create the conditions for it.”

The Positive, Inclusive Dream

Creating the conditions for a safe harbor is one thing, but how do you bring people into it? Some people are just ready—a new experience or sudden encounter ignites a new way of thinking, and they become free to create a new story. Craig says that for many, like climate change deniers, “the water will be running around their knees before they say, ‘you know, you were right.’” Often, this realization that preconceived notions turned out to be incorrect can trigger an existential crisis. Psychologically, humans sometimes find that the devil we know is preferable than the devil we don’t.

To limit that existential crisis, to loosen that grip on the false-but-familiar, “what you need to do is project a psychological future that offers a better outcome to them, to everybody, that they can relate to.” As Craig recalls, Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t describe a nightmare, “he said ‘I have a dream’ and then he painted a dream which included everybody.” To succeed, that vision has to move beyond the binary of winners and losers. “You need to find transitional positions that allow for people to image the different sets of possibilities.” Not only is it not binary, success in this context isn’t linear, either. “It has to emerge. Bits will be right and bits will be wrong, but you’ve got take that on.” Too often, political arguments leave no space for complexity. The binary of political thinking says that policy XYZ will fix everything, or it will fix nothing. Reality is more complicated. “Let us understand that it’s going to unfold, and that it’s about lessons learned.”

“There Gloom the Dark, Broad Seas”

What is Brexit? For Corrymeela, it is uncertainty. Uncertainty about funding, uncertainty about volunteers, uncertainty about where they can train leaders in building peace, reconciliation, spaces for encounter, and new safe harbors. Brexit is about forgetting the origins of the European project and its intent to build a lasting peace. But Brexit is a rejection of something specific, too. It is an attempt to reject the unfolding of things, the jagged edges, the ups-and-downs in the day-to-day. One source of the uncertainty of Brexit may stem from the forced binary: the European Union is either good or bad.

Americans face a similar political predicament. We live in a political time where both terrorists and Democrats are deemed “losers;” where everything is either a “good deal” or a “bad deal;” and the solution to any problem is only four words long: “Make America Great Again!” At their cores, Brexit and Trump are rejections of complexity. Reality offers are no simple solutions, no magic elixirs, no silver bullets. Our problems are complex; the solutions should reflect that. Let us not fail because we lack of vision, an inability to dream, or a reluctance to learn, because maybe our best solutions are tucked inside the new stories we are just beginning to learn how to tell.


Colin Craig

Colin Craig has been working in peace and reconciliation for 40 years and has trained in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Canada, the USA, and Southeast Asia. He is the Executive Director of Corrymeela, located in Ballycastle and Belfast, Northern Ireland.

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1 comment on “Brexit, Uncertainty, and Encounter: An Interview with Corrymeela Community’s Executive Director Colin Craig

  1. nicely done piece on a very important but little remarked upon consequence of Brexit–peace in Northern Ireland. thank you.


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