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Mix red and green to make peace

A project in Northern Ireland is dedicated to bringing Protestant and Catholic pupils together. Nadene Ghouri reports

"THE LEAFIER suburbs of Northern Ireland think they are free of sectarianism. But chip away at the surface and you see the poison lurking under it."

So says John Heron, director of Community Relations in Schools (CRIS), a project dedicated to bringing pupils from Northern Ireland's two main religions together.

A former teacher, Mr Heron believes Northern Ireland's schools have an "inescapable duty to try to heal the wounds caused by 30 years of apartheid".

A project workshop being held in Ballynahinch primary is trying to do just that. Unfortunately the school hall is clearly divided. At one end sit the mostly Protestant children of Ballynahinch, at the other the Catholic pupils of nearby St Patrick's.

Two sets of coloured sweatshirts - Protestant reds, Catholic greens - eye each other suspiciously.

Ballynahinch is an affluent town, 20 miles from Belfast. Ninety per cent of the 5,000 populace lives in segregated housing. Most of the children do not know anyone from "the other side".

CRIS is funded with money from the Government's Education for Mutual Understanding scheme (EMU), intended to foster cross-community links in schools.

However, Dr Alan Smith of Ulster University claims much of EMU has been little more than "polite exchange". He says: "All kinds of initiatives were encouraged and some were about no more than a pleasant social experience. By not allowing children to articulate the real resentments we avoided them."

John Heron agrees: "People used to think if they went swimming together with two groups splashing about at opposite ends of the pool, it would work. Community relations by osmosis?" As the Ballynahinch workshop starts, it is hard to see quite how basic drama - pretending to be different types of beans - can foster harmony.

But as the day draws on the subtlety of the project's approach becomes apparent. The children draw up their own contract of behaviour: "I will not talk when someone else is talking. I will respect another's viewpoint."

They discover simple facts about each other - more than one Andrew is present, three children own a pet.

Government advisers in the province are currently looking at the lessons of EMU before citizenship becomes a compulsory part of the curriculum in England and Wales.

"We can't be left looking to England", says Dr Smith. "We have to prepare our children for the challenges of living in a totally new society, where for the first time in a long time there is a real possibility of moving our society away from violence to political democracy.

"Pluralism, social justice and democratic literacy are new concepts here. But ones we need to see taught if we want sustainable peace."

As the children charge around at the end of the day, the hall has transformed into a blur of colour. It's difficult to see where red ends and green begins.

"These children may grow up and make a decision to live in a divided society," says John Heron. "That's for them to decide. But no one could say that would be a decision made in ignorance."

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