Northern Ireland: The Peacemakers

| 26 May 2004

Young people in Northern Ireland and South Africa have been learning from each other about integration and tolerance. Helen Gregory finds out how an exchange trip inspired some to become youth workers

In one country people are divided by their religion, in the other by the colour of their skin. But both South Africa and Northern Ireland have a long history of conflict between different groups, and both countries are placing hope for future integration on the shoulders of their young people. It makes sense that young people from both countries can learn from each other.

An exchange trip between youth groups in Northern Ireland and South Africa set out to help the young people of both nations understand more about their own situation, face their prejudices and explore cultural diversity.

Young people had to consider some hard-hitting questions: how does prejudice around colour and religion impact on the two societies? And what role can young people play in the established peace settlements?

Youth club involvement

In Northern Ireland, the youth workers behind the exchange recruited young people through community associations and housing estates rather than traditional youth clubs or groups, as a way of involving those with little experience of youth work. These young people were wary of the whole idea, making recruitment a slow process, according to Mary McGrath, interboard community relations co-ordinator of the Northern Ireland Education and Library Board. "I think they were worried about violence in South Africa, or even flying," she explains.

However, the final group of 16- to 21-year-olds - mainly from deprived areas of County Down - were keen. Six were picked from the Protestant community and six from the Roman Catholic community, in an effort to introduce the young people to their peers. In Northern Ireland, formal education and youth work often divides between faiths, and for many on the exchange it was the first time they had struck up friendships with young people from other communities.

"Although some groups might have made contact in the past, they wouldn't have looked at controversial issues, while this programme encouraged young people to talk about them," says McGrath, who believes that many young people avoid thinking about or dealing with the issues that surround them. "People have been indoctrinated from childhood and live their lives along traditional family lines. This project provided a chance for them to question things."

Like many youth workers in the province, McGrath works to address equality and diversity and always aims to teach young people about tolerance and integration. She adds: "It's difficult to measure the impact of the work we're doing, but there's definitely more participation and involvement generally."

South Africa trip

The Northern Ireland organisers of the project initially looked at possible exchanges with places such as Estonia and Chicago, but plumped for South Africa because it gave them the best chance to study conflict resolution. Funding came from the British Council (Commonwealth Youth Exchange), the Community Relations Core Funding Scheme, the South Eastern Education and Library Board (SEELB) Youth Section and the Down Partnership (Peace II).

Matt Milliken, assistant advisory officer community relations at SEELB, went across to South Africa on a risk-assessment trip so the youth workers were in a better position to prepare the young people. And in July 2003, a group of 12 indigenous African and mixed-race young people drawn from peace clubs around Cape Town, arrived in Northern Ireland. For many of the Irish young people, it was the first time they had met and spoken to a Black person, and getting them to interact socially was an important part of the process.

The group visited peace murals and was taken to Stormont, the seat of devolved government in Northern Ireland. They were given the chance to talk to local politicians, and then involved in workshops to explore their experiences.

The trip took place during the marching season, which organisers made a feature of the project - a first for the South Africans as well as some of the Irish group. "It wasn't just about taking pictures," insists McGrath.

"We encouraged them to think about similarities in their cultures - such as the legacy left by apartheid and conflicts. There's a tendency to show the best parts of your community to visitors, but we wanted to go beyond that." The young people also helped out with an environmental project in Northern Ireland.

Start of a friendship

In January this year, the Irish group went to stay in Cape Town where they got involved in an anti-crime campaign - collecting signatures on a petition - as well as picking up litter in a township. "I was astounded at how well they integrated," says McGrath.

"The fact we had the South Africans over here first helped," adds Milliken.

"They were learning about each other before they went to South Africa, and they had solid friendships, which helped them deal with the experience. They identified with their friends to such an extent that halfway through they felt uncomfortable being in a predominantly White environment."

Dealing with the distance and time difference was a challenge for workers involved, and some of the South Africans didn't have the money to constantly recharge their phones. "Their level of commitment was fantastic, but it was different because they are voluntary," says McGrath. "Youth work isn't seen as professional in South Africa, but what it lacks in prestige, it makes up for in commitment."

Since the trip, a hub has been set up in Downpatrick town centre as an information service: it will also offer training and hopes to attract teenagers from a range of backgrounds.

Life-changing experience

The organisers weren't the only ones to be impressed by the exchange, as it has been a genuinely life-changing experience for all those involved.

It was often humbling for the Irish group and some of the young people were reduced to tears at what they saw in the townships. Two of them, including wheelchair user Scott McGreevy, who spent most of his time in front of a computer before the visit, have started youth work training as a result of the trip.

Gordon Blakely, director of Connect Youth at the British Council, helps fund exchange trips, some of which involve young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and involve areas of conflict. He says the concept is about getting them to be part of the process. "It helps them realise that others have lived through conflict and by bringing together people telling their story in a different way, it helps them deal with their life and move on," says Blakely. "Meeting in a secure atmosphere gives people space to reflect on who they are."

McGrath adds: "Even though it's time-consuming, if we could get the money together we'd love to do it again - there's a lot of enthusiasm for it."


I went to a Protestant school where you never mixed with any other communities. The trip has made me more confident about talking to people from different backgrounds about big issues. I learned about my own prejudices and it was good to shatter stereotypes.

Thomas McNulty, 18

It was life-changing to see the way people lived - the division between rich and poor was shocking. Talking to South Africans was the best bit of the trip and as a result I don't take things in my life, such as good schools and the health service, for granted.

Nicola Dickson, 18

It was nothing like I expected and I really appreciated the friendships we made. Many people in South Africa have such a hard time that it puts your experiences into perspective. My life was at a standstill but, after going on the trip and meeting the youth workers, it's changed everything.

Scott McGreevy, 22

The exchange has not only enlightened our minds, but it has taught us that change is possible. We should appreciate what we have, be proud of who we are and celebrate what we have achieved this far. We feel that we have set an example and shown people that we can put aside our differences.

Gavin Stewart, 18

It was the best experience ever and I've kept in touch with everyone I met there. It's made me appreciate my life and I'm now training to be a youth worker, so I can make a difference to young people's lives in Northern Ireland.

Sinead McKendry, 17.

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