Wounds still healing in Northern Ireland
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
The Real IRA and the Continuity IRA claimed responsibility for the recent murders of soldiers and a police officer in Northern Ireland. But as they are perceived to be destabilising the peace settlement, it is important to hold on to the phenomenal progress that has been made in the province since the darkest days of the Troubles.
Admittedly we have seen young people interviewed in the media both apparently supporting the murders and being clearly reticent about voicing their opinion. Perhaps this takes some of us by surprise. It is, after all, now more than a decade since the last episodes of this kind. On the other hand, that is no time at all for wounds to heal and long-standing rivalries to dissipate. So it is important to celebrate action and attitude that has clearly bridged the old divide.
Nowhere, for me, was such achievement more poignant than when I heard a young man recount the project in which he had been involved. It culminated in his gaining his choice of the International Award (the award that originated in the UK as the Duke of Edinburgh's Award but has been developed in the north of Ireland in different ways, as it has all over the world).
The individual in question spoke about growing up where the legacy of the Troubles still permeates daily life: he talked of his community being "besieged" with social and economic problems and having little contact with his "cultural neighbours". At first he was sceptical about the award but, with the support of a dynamic and charismatic youth worker, he gradually developed the necessary commitment and motivation.
The most striking step change was to involve a group of young people from both communities in Belfast. Together, they spent more than a year participating in courses, undertaking training, volunteering and having fun. Most significantly, their volunteering work committed well over 1,000 hours to clearing up and landscaping a local cemetery, which has been off-limits to one side of the community. Yet buried there were people from both sides of the sectarian divide.
The young people from both communities not only made the environment of the cemetery a respected place once more, but eventually they also oiled the wheels so that people from both communities could at last come to pay their respects to their loved ones.
Undertaking such a project in some other locality might still have considerable value but, in Belfast, the impact of the work was multi-layered, for local people and for the young people themselves. It sensitised them to their histories, motivated them to think more broadly about environmental improvement, strengthened community relations and deepened their commitment to social responsibility.
At times when new fractures in the peace settlement are emerging, the hope for a better future in Northern Ireland can be retained through stories such as this.