Unable to walk on by

Young people in Ulster may want to work for peace but their words reveal only the divisions that haunt their lives. Paul McGill on the aftermath of the July 12 marches.

"I'm a Catholic and a nationalist," said Eamon Fleming, who lives on Garvaghy Road in Portadown, where the touch paper of Ulster's sectarian bitterness was lit again last week.

It was a blunt declaration considering he was surrounded by young loyalists, mostly from Portadown's Drumcree area, only three days after the controversial decision by the police to allow the Protestant Orange Order to march through the nationalist estate.

Eamon, a youth worker, was speaking on the first day of a two-week course which brings together volunteers from Britain and the Continent with young people from clubs in Craigavon, the new town which combines Portadown and Lurgan.

It is a sign of the maturity of the youth service that the admission did not provoke even the raising of an eyebrow. Youth clubs have been tackling head-on the issue of cross-community contact in a way that most schools would not dare.

Indeed, no one on the course was aware that Northern Ireland's pupils have to take education for mutual understanding (EMU) as part of the curriculum.

Marc White, an unemployed 20-year-old, holds forthright views on recent events.

"Last year I was on the march but I didn't go this year because I could see there would be trouble. The police did not handle it well - they should have let the march through in the first place. I don't think they had the right to ban the parade and the residents do not have the right to stop it because the area has only been Catholic for a few years.

"When a tradition is taken away from you it is taking away your heritage and a segment of a person's rights to religion is taken away as well."

But what about the old issue of minority rights? "I respect Catholic traditions and I expect them to respect mine. There should have been talks between the two sides and there should be talks before next year or there will be a blood bath."

His brother Darryl, who is 18, has different views. "I don't think Loyalists should march through Catholic areas and vice versa, but the Orange men weren't going to go away and we knew there would be trouble."

Darryl doubts if the Northern Ireland conflict will ever be solved because of the bitterness that exists. "You have to start with young people in the schools. There should be cross-community work so that people can learn to respect one another.

"They need to learn how others think and feel. I have seen people change and become less bitter because of the youth service. I was at Brownlow integrated college, but it did not have cross-community work. It did not bring people together to discuss issues. I left a year ago but I did not hear about EMU."

Simon Gough, 19, is a trainee youth worker who organises events bringing together Protestants and Catholics. He expressed liberal views on a recent television programme; his reward was to be stoned by Protestant friends and taunted as a "Fenian lover". However, he believes he also won respect from other people.

Recently he sent a report to the Prime Minister and other political leaders urging integrated education from nursery upwards.

"I believe the march should not have been allowed to go down Garvaghy Road because it is mostly Catholic. I sympathise with the loyalist cause but many loyalists think they can get away with anything because their bully-boy tactics have succeeded.

"This needs to be sorted out before next year; there has to be dialogue, " he added.

Conrad Dawson, an 18-year-old Loyalist who repairs lawnmowers, believes the march should have been allowed to go ahead on the first day. "They have been marching for 100 years and people have only kicked up about it in the last couple."

He agreed the issue of majorities and minorities was not easy to resolve. "Nationalists are in fear because of their religion. There have been eruptions for more than 25 years and I can understand them being worried."

Eamon Fleming, the youth worker, believes schools do not give priority to EMU, partly because heads and teachers are exhausted by the pace of change.

"Cross-community work is one of our nine core curriculum areas in the youth service. We put it pro-actively on the agenda and it has a special budget. For example, we examine what it is like to be a Protestant or a Catholic and the good and bad points of being of the other religion."

But he accepts that cross-community work is difficult, particularly at times of tension when neutral venues are hard to find and it is impossible to guarantee people's safety. In Craigavon, for example, eight youth clubs are predominantly of one or other religion and only two are mixed.

"The youth service will continue to promote cross-community work, but it will be difficult in the next few months to bring people together. At the same time it will make it even more important to do so."

He feels strongly about what happened in his home town.

"There was a terrible sense of anger that the Orange Order did not deem to talk to the local residents. If they had apologised for last year's triumphalism and asked permission, it might have been possible, but they feel they have a divine right to march. We have been walked over."

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you