Common ground on land rights

Paul Herbert hears teenagers from opposite ends of the Earth voice the same hopes for the future

It may have seemed an odd mix. But the group of Aust-ralian teenagers interested in Aboriginal land rights easily fitted in with young people working for peace and reconciliation in Britain and Ireland.

By the halfway point of the conference on conflict resolution hosted by the Birmingham-based Development Education Centre (DEC) in September, the 300 participants were already finding plenty of common ground.

"Many of the problems faced by aboriginal Australians are similar to those in Northern Ireland," said 15-year-old Bruce Martin, who lives in a small aboriginal community in north Queensland.

"Land is important for the aboriginal people and for the white settlers. But I have also found out that land and territory is important in Northern Ireland, too."

This was echoed by Alex Lee, 17, from Shenley Court school, Birmingham. "There are different people here from different parts of the world with different problems," he said, "but when we come together the similarities are clear. "

The conference was organised by Let's Talk, a project involving young people from Ireland and Britain set up by 80:20 Educating and Acting for a Better World, based in Bray, Co Wicklow.

DEC director Scott Sinclair explained how he saw the conference meshing with the aims of development education. "One of the important things about development education is the need for people to relate things to their own conflict.

"Take Rwanda. The danger is that we think 'we would never do that', which may be true, but at the same time we must not be complacent about our own situation."

The aim of the conference was to address three broad issues: raising awareness of internat-ional issues; examining the causes and effects of conflict in Ireland and Britain; and looking at conflicts within Birmingham.

Colm Regan, co-ordinator of Let's Talk, said there were lessons to be learned from multi-racial Birmingham, pointing out that although the city had its tensions, the "rivers of blood" infamously predicted 30 years ago by Enoch Powell had never materialised.

"These two islands (Ireland and Britain) have a common hist-ory, and that history has been negative," he said. "The positive elements have been submerged - and it is time they were revived."

Marcia Langton, director of indigenous studies at the University of the Northern Territory in Australia, gave an impassioned account of how her country had slipped dangerously into an "hysterical racist debate" since 1992, when a high court recognised aboriginal laws and customs as part of Australian common law for the first time.

In another session, guest speaker Andy Pollak, education correspondent for the Irish Times, highlighted the damaging effects of media coverage of Northern Ireland. "We are not very good at covering peacemaking," he said. "We are better at covering conflict."

But 20-year-old Louisa Ward from Belfast reflected the general mood of optimism among the young people.

"We are in a situation now in Northern Ireland where hopefully we are coming out of conflict," she said. "Our intention is to move this process forward. This is not tokenism; for too long young people's views have been put on the back burner."

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