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Pen-pals bid to stamp out violence

Kay Smith profiles a scheme inspired by peace campaigner Gordon Wilson

A pen-pal scheme which has prompted exchange visits between young people in Scotland and Ulster is gaining momentum in the wake of the Northern Ireland ceasefire.

Letter by Letter began after a visit in 1993 to Grangemouth High by the late Gordon Wilson. He told pupils how he had dealt with his grief over the loss of his daughter Marie, one of 11 people killed on Remembrance Day 1987 in an IRA bombing in Enniskillen.

Mr Wilson went on to become a senator in the Irish parliament, only to face criticism for talking to the IRA when this was not a popular policy. But he was determined to spread understanding and not perpetuate antagonism. Writing his book, Marie, about his experience, and undertaking visits such as the one to Grangemouth, was part of his contribution to spreading goodwill and mutual understanding between Protestants and Catholics.

Senator Wilson inspired at least two Grangemouth pupils, Nicola Clark and Julie Finlayson, to do what they could to help. Then in their fourth year, they pleaded with teacher Ian Cranston, who was about to visit some schools in Northern Ireland, to bring back the names of some pen-pals. At first, Mr Cranston, now principal teacher of religious education, had no luck. It was only later, with the arrival of the ceasefire in August 1994 - and the use of a mailing list of schools to widen his net of contacts - that the pen-pals, both in Scotland and in Northern Ireland, came trickling in.

Now, around 60 Grangemouth pupils and a further 350 pupils in a total of 60 schools in Scotland and Northern Ireland are linked by the Letter by Letter scheme.

The reason why the scheme took off when it did "raises some interesting questions", observes Mr Cranston, who concludes that "there has been a real change in climate and opinion in Northern Ireland". Schemes such as Letter by Letter can play a vital role in maintaining the ceasefire, he believes. "Many believe that the route to peace in Northern Ireland lies with the younger generation."

Nicola Clark, who finished her sixth year at Grangemouth last summer, is one pupil who finally made it across the Irish Sea to visit her pen-pal. The trip, by air, took place last November. "Northern Ireland was different from what I thought it would be. Looking down from the plane it looked peaceful and quiet," she recalls.

But once on Irish soil, things were different. "There are tensions between the Catholics and Protestants. That's made completely obvious," says Nicola.

The group of Portadown teenagers she visited made light of the Troubles, but, says Nicola: "I was asked if I was Protestant. When I said yes, the reply was, 'That's all right, I won't insult you'."

The effects of 25 years of violence do not disappear overnight. Hopes are that Nicola's pen-pal will visit her in Grangemouth, where she can see Protestant and Catholic young people happily mixing with each other.

Nicola continues to help Mr Cranston promote Letter by Letter. They invite schools interested in joining the scheme to contact them at Grangemouth High - it costs Pounds 1 per pupil to join.

Authorities keen to keep everything within 5-14 guidelines will not be disappointed with Letter by Letter. It provides a focus for developing writing skills, and for personal, social, religious and moral education. Several senior education officials, and sports personalities such as Mary Peters, Northern Ireland's former Olympic pentathlon winner, have lent their support, as have BP and the Royal Mail, which has a single division covering both Northern Ireland and Scotland.

The Royal Mail is shortly expected to extend its backing to allow the scheme to expand.

Letter by Letter can be contacted via Grangemouth High (01324 485031).

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