Wednesday, August 1, 2007

"sectarian supremacy is as dead as Edward Carson" - John Farmer: the culmination of British troops' 38-year presence in Northern Ireland

two articles:

1. John Farmer writes in the The Star Ledger. Sunday, August 05, 2007: "The weather in Northern Ireland that March morning in 1982 was as bleak as the province's religion-cursed politics as I rounded a corner, strode onto Falls Road and into a scary encounter with life on the mean streets of West Belfast.

I was in a hurry, not paying attention to my surroundings, thinking about something that must have seemed important then but escapes me now. What I recall of that moment today is the jolt of fear I got staring into the barrel of a rifle held by a British soldier and pointed at my chest. He was small and young, a teenager perhaps, with red hair and a fair face that registered the same fright as I felt.

He was walking "point" for his patrol, the most exposed position in the most dangerous section of the most dangerous city in Europe at that time. I stopped cold -- it seemed the thing to do -- and tried to come up with something reassuring to say. Nothing did."


2., Wednesday, August 1, 2007: "The British army ends at midnight Tuesday its 38-year role supporting police in Northern Ireland, its longest military operation ever."


Thursday, July 26, 2007

an undefined conclusion

It's difficult to believe that nine weeks have already passed, but I find myself writing my final internship post in Belfast. My work with the CEP was largely a success; the organization is currently in a transitory stage with regard to the staffmembers and the actual structure of the group, so they were extremely thankful to have extra help in the office with planning, budgeting, and designing the summer scheme for the children. I also found the outreach work of actually interacting and getting to know the children equally effective, whether this occurred in the formal structure of the planned activities of the CEP or simply driving around with my co-worker Sean to the various communities of Belfast and talking to the kids on the streets. Since it's the CEP's first summer with its current youthworkers and structure, the work has been merely directed towards the Catholic children; however, they hope to have built relationships and ties with the Protestant youth organizations in the area by the beginning of next summer in order to enhance cross-community work in Belfast.
This past week at Hazelwood also went by rather quickly; it was a cross-community bonding week for the upcoming first-years at the integrated college. The children participated in some of the Play for Peace activities at the beginning of the week and thereafter worked together on a video reporting project of various nearby areas of interest, such as the Nomadic ship in Belfast and the nearby town of Bangor. Each child within the groups held a different role, such as producer or script writer, contributing in his or her own way to yield the final project. The week was a subtle introduction of integration to the eleven and twelve year-olds, and yet its structure of play and cooperation is beneficial to facilitate this transition at an early age for the kids who generally come from polarized neighborhoods. I noticed hardly any tension or conflict, aside from one debate about preferred football teams (Chelsea F.C., a largely Protestant-supported team from England, and Celtic F.C., a Catholic-affiliated team from the Republic). This occurred between two "wee lads" who've been becoming very close throughout the week, one Protestant boy from Belfast and another Catholic boy from the country, a town about 40 minutes away.

On the whole, nevertheless, my internship here in Belfast has been very rewarding. I've learned an exorbitant amount since I first arrived at the end of May, ranging from life-lessons that I will carry back with me to America and to my future endeavors (such as the extensive, painful realities of post-colonialism as well as the long and difficult journey of integration) to various random facts applicable strictly to Belfast (such as the differentiation between the way in which Catholic and Protestant boys wear the brims of their hats). I've met and bonded with an extraordinary group of individuals, from the teachers and youthworkers I've worked with through my internship, to their families who welcomed me with open arms into their lives, to the children of Belfast who've granted me the opportunity to share my past experiences and advice on how they can contribute to the upwards climb in which Belfast is currently partaking, to the miscellaneous people I met on the streets, such as an old man and his dog who I'd run past everyday en route to the Lagan River. I only hope that I've truly managed to affect and inspire the children of the community, because I realize it's ultimately up to them to continue to maintain the values and morals we've worked through while they continue to grow in their respective communities and to uphold their crucial roles as the future leaders of an integrated Belfast.

Monday, July 16, 2007

the 12th of July's summer commencement and ensuing combative measures

The past week has been rather busy with a lot of preparation and office work for the upcoming summer weeks. I dedicated most of my time to paper work and organizational duties in the CEP office, working through budgeting forms and details regarding the summer scheme for the North Belfast children. The CEP is one of the few youth groups in the city that began its summer scheme on the 12th, the day of the Orange Parade. Then of course this week begins their empowerment/community summer scheme (designed for Catholic children in the area to keep them out of trouble and project their free time in a positive rather than detrimental light) that I'd been helping to finish plan last week in the office; I'll be volunteering throughout the current week in the various planned activities until my final week starting next Monday, during which I'll be volunteering at Hazelwood's cross-community (Protestant-Catholic) summer scheme.

It seems that something is going right in Belfast: what has in the past been the source of open conflict, confrontation, and downright violence in broad daylight has gradually developed into a day in which Catholic families leave the city or simply agree to disagree with the cultural meaning behind the day. The Orange Parade went surprisingly well (speaking in comparison, of course) with only a few minor incidents as reported by the Protestant newspaper in the area, News Letter: The pride of Northern Ireland. Says the introduction of the Friday, 13th July 2007 cover story:

"One of the biggest and best Twelfths came to a triumphant conclusion last night - despite rainy weather earlier in the day.

Afternoon sunshine broke out across much of Northern Ireland, as tens of thousands of Orangemen and women returned from 19 venues across the Province.

Hundreds of thousands of spectators lined the routes, despite the sometimes damp conditions.

Hotels in Belfast were full as overseas visitors joined in the celebrations, raising hopes that the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne will become an international tourist attraction.

The day was largely trouble-free, apart from a bus-stoning in Co Armagh, attacks on two Orange halls, and a firework thrown at marchers in the Ardoyne."

Catholics' disruption of the Protestant parade via fireworks in the Ardoyne

remnants of a Protestant bonfire in Bushmills

Aside from the embellishment of how enthusiastic international visitors were about the parade (which, at least from my own observations, is far more than a bit of an exaggeration), the parade and surrounding days did seem less violent than I anticipated. Of course, having fewer fights and attacks will certainly augment Belfast's progression as a well-functioning society, but I wonder whether this subdued and repressed anger will merely be the source of an even more powerful relapse in the future.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

the CEP and the rising of sectarian displays from the Orange Order

The past few days, we've made a lot of improvement with the empowerment group. Yesterday, there was a lot of team-building and communication work; the kids did a few physical activities centered around working together, such as moving through an obstacle course on ski-like boards as well as progressing towards a finish line while perpetually reforming the ground they had to walk on by moving on top of crates and planks. They also were happily engaged in "crate-climbing," during which I was able to get a few of them to overcome their fear of heights and gain a bit of confidence in themselves. There was again a certain amount of discipline issues, but I was discussing this with my friend from Belfast who, along with a group of other Baha'i young adults in the area, is doing other cross-community work with Catholic children and with Protestant children; as is the case with my kids, she mentioned that a lot of these kids come from environments where they're constantly being yelled at and isolated: by their teachers, by their parents, and by each other; thus the swearing and the consistent anger is rather deeply embedded in them to a point where they might not even realize that they're straying from acceptable normalities. This again relates back to the disparity between their generation and their parents' generation that I referred to earlier, possibly a post-conflict effect. Speaking to and spending time with them individually has made me realize that they really are sweet, wonderful kids, but we've learned to be much more patient and understanding with them since they've collectively endured a lot of difficulty. Today was probably the most productive day of the three; we went mountainbiking with the group, and everyone seemed to have a lot of fun. I've become pretty close with a handful of the children; I'm glad to have had built a foundation with them during these past few days so as to make the upcoming weeks more successful. Tonight, I have my first session with the "suicide prevention amongst Catholic youths" group, and tomorrow I'm going on a trip to Scotland with the Hazelwood kids. Then on Friday, I'll be attending a meeting with my co-youthworker from the CEP to address budgeting for the Catholic/Protestant/Cross-Community summer youth groups in Belfast.

The Protestant areas have started to decorate for the 12th of July (quite excessively, I must say.. there are British flags within 5 feet of each other). We were driving back from mountainbiking through one such area, and it seemed to invoke a bit of anger amongst the kids (particularly when one of the areas had, next to the Union Jack and Ulster flag, decided to put up an American flag as well as some other nations' flags to insinuate these countries' support for Protestants. I agreed that, while I can't speak for all Americans, we wouldn't necessarily support Protestants over the Catholics {especially considering the high population of Irish immigrants in America as well as our own history as a colony of Britain}).

Monday, July 2, 2007

an intro to july

Although this internship and my involvement in it has been designed to be strictly secular, I myself come from a strong Catholic background and thus it's interesting to acknowledge the conflation of how religion has been incorporated in my own life with how religion has evolved in Northern Ireland into a prime source of difference, a projected structure that is quite unlike its original meaning. I found one of the sermons at a mass I attended to be particularly reflective and appropriate for the context of my internship; it addressed the issue of sacrifice, asking us to reflect upon how often in our lifetimes we completely and wholeheartedly put the needs of others before our own and consider the happiness of others more than our own selves; the "completely" aspect really hit me, as I realized that despite all of the various projects and activities with which I've been involved during my internship, I can still recall moments when I would not be actively conscious of my presence in Belfast. I suppose this could be attributed to the fact that Belfast, in reality, isn't the blatant warzone that it was ten years ago. Thus, if I were merely a tourist, I probably wouldn't notice any conflict whatsoever, but because I am entwined with a multitude of people from here in terms of my internship as well as in terms of personal relationships, I of course realize that there's so much more than meets the eye. Furthermore, I mentioned to someone from Hazelwood that one of the boys from my Crossing the Atlantic group was absolutely wonderful and yet sometimes seemed reserved and distant. She informed me that this personality has been accounted for by the fact that he'd seen his own father murdered right in front of him during the Troubles. I immediately felt extraordinarily guilty for anytime when I let slip in my mind the broad extent of the conflict in Belfast, thinking that it's not that bad after all or unconsciously distracted by my own petty, insignificant concerns such as homesickness or desire to travel.. although, I don't really know what more I could've done in that particular situation.. I just wish that I could do more, could more wholeheartedly and completely commit myself to helping them, because they're the ones who have to deal with the aftermath every single day of their lives even if the Troubles are "over".. and they're the ones who, as cliché as it may sound, have the power, position, and potential to make a difference for the future.

Today I started my work at the CEP, Community Empowerment Partnership, in Belfast; unlike Hazelwood, it does not have protective walls and an idealistic atmosphere (literally and figuratively, though I realized that cross-community groups and activities are just as important in integrated schools since the children tend to resort back to their own communities and coerced societal positions once they leave school.. something I wasn't conscious of while at Hazelwood). I worked with a very kind and engaged youthworker; he is a member of the (no longer militaristic) IRA/Sinn Féin and was held in the Maze Prison for five years during the Troubles. The group is thus naturally a Catholic youth empowerment group, but the CEP does work with Protestant children as well and is working towards creating cross-community groups. As my co-worker articulated though, it is difficult to force integration upon people and such integration requires an extensive amount of time and patience. I asked him whether he thought the situation in Belfast is similar to racism and the "black-white" conflict in the states, to which he replied that it's the same and yet not the same. He reiterated that which I've already recognized: it is a bit more complex in Northern Ireland due to the various variables aside from the foremost religious differentiation, but there is a similarity in terms of the repression of Catholics social-structurally. One such example of this is the unemployment rate in Northern Ireland, that in being that Catholics are twice as likely to be unemployed than Protestants; they also more often frequent prisons. Thus, the group of kids today were all Catholic, and he admitted that if you questioned their perceptions and opinions of Protestants, they'd tell you upfront that they hated them. I appreciated his honesty and realized that the solution is not as easy as merely having both sides work together in various teambuilding activities; rather, it's quite necessary to first fortify the foundation with a sense of unity and empowerment within each individual group, particularly the Catholic youths who, judging by my perceptions and especially by the current suicide tragedy of Catholic youths in Northern Ireland, seem to have suffered the most.

Today, we went caving and then canoeing; the caving was especially effective, as the kids had to physically and verbally work together to transgress through the caves (which entailed squeezing through small, tight spaces; climbing vertically; and twisting the body in inconceivable ways to find our way out safely!) I could tell that overall they really are good kids, but some tended to have discipline and anger-management issues; I hope to help my co-worker these upcoming weeks break through these barriers that some of the kids have chosen to posit and perhaps aid in disintegrating them. The next few days we'll be doing various other teamwork and communication activities; this youth group is additionally a means of keeping the Catholic kids off of the streets as well as providing for them an alternative, positive image within their own community so as to impact their future decisions in their, hopefully, cross-communities.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

phase two

As the school year at Hazelwood has come to a close, my time working with those particular children has ended until the last week in July, during which I'll be helping out with the Hazelwood summer scheme. The purpose of the summer scheme is to prevent the students from getting mixed up in confrontations or fights, ultimately stemming from the conflict, since they're not preoccupied with their studies during the summer holiday. Until then, I'll be volunteering for the first three weeks of July at a different organization within North Belfast that also works with the youth community afflicted by the post-conflict aftermath. I presume that this work will be much more difficult than my work at Hazelwood, as these children will not necessarily come from homes in which the parents promote integration and peace. Furthermore, I'll also be volunteering on Wednesday nights at a Catholic youth group that provides hope and inspiration for youths susceptible to depression and suicide within the city. This is a reaction to the suicide crisis that has arisen throughout Northern Ireland, to which I referred in earlier posts. This second phase of my internship will begin on Monday, July 1st, and will run until the end of my internship. I was fortunate enough to run into these Catholic youthworkers while walking into the heart of the city with local girl my age, also volunteering to work with children in interface communities, who I met on the bus to Galway City. We were walking with some of her friends to the Belfast Festival, and tonight I'm going to see fireworks with a few of her friends I've met from Zimbabwe. The group is comprised of Baha'i teenagers who do cross-community work in East Belfast.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

the past few days

Prior to leaving for Galway City and the Aran Islands (which were both absolutely brilliant or class, as the Belfast kids like to say), I went on a trip with the students on Friday morning to the Maze Prison, the location where many of the political prisoners from both Loyalist and Nationalist sides were held during the Troubles. It is most well-known for the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike, during which a group of republican prisoners protested for five years to be treated with the entitlements of political prisoners rather than of common criminals. The strike propelled nationalist politics and ultimately provided a foundation for Sinn Féin to become a powerhouse political party in Northern Ireland.

Upon returning from Galway for the weekend, I went with the kids yesterday to Newcastle, a gorgeous and quaint beach town located next to the Irish Sea and the Mourne Mountains. This morning, we hiked up Cavehill Mountain in Belfast with another group of students to raise money for the PIPS program (intervention in the increase of suicide rates in Belfast). The students were able to reflect upon their roles in the improvement of the Belfast community while amidst the peaceful and natural mountain setting; they also found themselves physically working together to assist each other up the somewhat strenuous mountain. It has been truly rewarding to walk through the halls and have students approach or hug me, smiling to say hi and chat; partaking in these various trips and activities have allowed for me to get to know a variety of students on a more personal basis and to hopefully have more of an impact on their individual lives and futures.