Ulster peace model that has lessons for Kosovo;Community and youth;FE Focus

2nd July 1999 at 01:00
Two days after the Good Friday Agreement deadline in Northern Ireland, Paul McGill looks at pioneering grassroots work to bridge the sectarian divide

RE-building Yugoslavia's physical infrastructure will be an epic task, but re-building the trust and confidence of Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo may be even more difficult.

The failure to resolve the centuries-old problem of Northern Ireland make it seem an unlikely place to search for inspiration. Last year's Omagh bomb by dissident Republicans and the continuing anti-Catholic attacks by Loyalists show how potentially explosive the situation is. And the emotions aroused by the marching issue show intolerance and sectarianism run much deeper than a tiny violent minority.

Yet Northern Ireland has a lot to offer. Much has changed on the surface and far more below it. The main lesson for Kosovo may be that the place to look for good practice is not mainstream schools and colleges but the informal community education sector.

The term "ethnic cleansing" had not been coined in the 1970s when Northern Ireland went through a horrible phase of people being burned out of their homes, creating what was then the largest movement of population in Western Europe since World War Two.

A great deal has changed. Last year 71 per cent of voters backed the Good Friday Agreement in a record turnout. They did not necessarily like everything in the deal but the "yes" vote was an aspiration for a better society, a demand that politicians and others should work together and an acceptance that everyone must compromise if progress is to be made.

Things are happening that were unthinkable even two years ago. It is now commonplace for Unionist and Sinn Fein representatives to meet, even if they have failed so far to agree on decommissioning. A similar coming-together has happened in agriculture, business, local government and elsewhere.

At Easter we saw the strange sight of a former Loyalist paramilitary addressing the overwhelmingly Catholic Irish National Teachers' Organisation and a Sinn Fein assembly member at the top table of the National Association of Head Teachers.

Such things have been commonplace at community level for many years. The politicians, to their credit, negotiated the Good Friday agreement, but the voluntary and community sector built the foundations for it.

At local level, there has been for years a huge amount of cross-community activity, much of it pioneered by the women's movement which built bridges and ran joint educational courses all over Northern Ireland. This was recognised in last week's Life Peerage for May Blood - a Protestant working in the Loyalist Shankill area of Belfast who had strong links and friendships in many Catholic areas.

Community groups, especially in disadvantaged areas, were early players in community relations work. The Workers' Educational Association's Interface programme, for example, is in its eighth year.

While statutory colleges and universities claim to be non-sectarian, they have failed to rise to the challenge of being anti-sectarian. They have tended to believe that it is safer to leave religion and politics at the door.

Voluntary and community organisations have taken the view that good community relations demand that people discuss the issues that divide them.

Sometimes this begins as single identity work, where one community studies its history, culture and values as part of the process of developing the confidence to deal with others. In good projects there is a strategy to move on to active cross-community dialogue.

Many former paramilitaries are engaged in this process. One is Jim Crothers, who left school at 16 with what he describes as "absolutely no education". Three years ago he returned to learning on a one-year community development course at Ulster People's College. He then wrote a book on the re-integration of ex-prisoners into the community and returned to the college to take a community relations course.

"It was an environment I felt comfortable with from the start. I could not have gone back to a high school or university. The college is very informal. You do not need to feel foolish stating your opinion."

Jim is involved in some fascinating projects. One brings Loyalist and Republican ex-prisoners together to renovate houses. Another gets young working class people to explore the Northern Ireland conflict with ex-prisoners. Mark West, who promotes contacts between Belfast's Protestant Highfield and Catholic Ballymurphy areas, speaks highly of a project sponsored by Co-operation Ireland to get people to speak out.

"You understand how other people feel and respect their views and you can only do that through debate and dialogue. Statutory bodies should take this on board," he said.

Janni Knox mediates to resolve disputes in an interface area south of Belfast. She gained much from a session at the Ulster College run by another voluntary group, Counteract, on handling issues of symbols and symbolism.

Some of this work is filtering through to mainstream education. Some FE colleges are getting more involved in community education, often with the help of money from the European Union's fund for peace and reconciliation.

In other cases, schools benefit. Bobby Halliday works for Northern Ireland Children's Enterprise, which has moved beyond the long-standing projects to send Protestant and Catholic children on American holidays together. These are supplemented by residential sessions at Ballycastle and by a centre in Belfast.

Mr Halliday says: "We have sessions on team-building, trust building and stereotyping beginning with children in Year 5 and continuing into secondary school, and we try to involve the entire family."

The Government has recognised the importance of community education in its lifelong learning strategy. The trick is to keep it alive once European money runs out. A new fund to bring some of this Irish expertise to Kosovo would serve both countries very well.

Paul McGill is the author of a forthcoming report on the role of adult learning in peace and reconciliation.

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