It has been 12 years since the Good Friday Agreement and just over 40 years since ‘the Troubles’ began in Northern Ireland, so how are things now and in particular, what is life like for its children and young people, who are the inheritors of the on-going ‘peace process’ as well as of the legacy of sectarianism and the violence that accompanied it? And what are churches and individual Christians doing to make sure that the future is positive for them? This was the quest we were on as CGMC, 22 of whom gathered in Belfast for the second of our two residential conferences this year. Clearly the story was going to be complex and over the 48 hour period we had the privilege of engaging in dialogue with a number of people, each of whom was able to give us another piece of the jigsaw that is Ulster.
Part of our agenda here was to hear something of what it meant to grow up during ‘the Troubles’ and we met many who had: present and former politicians as well as ex- combatants and clergyman, who had all lived through those painful years. Interestingly none really wanted to dwell too long on the past, but was happier telling us what was happening now, both the good and the bad.
On our first afternoon we were introduced to four men from both the loyalist and the republican ‘sides’, who now work together promoting peace and dialogue in south Belfast. They were all concerned to create a shared space and future for their young people and to break down sectarian divisions. However, to our surprise, they also expressed their own dismay that there are now even greater depths of anti-social behaviour between groups than there had been in their time, although now it is also often fuelled by alcohol and other drugs.
This group is funded to put on events, set up peer-mentoring programmes and lobby for changes in how children are taught about their history in schools. There are, it seems, many other similar ‘from the ground up’ projects around the city in areas where there is a catholic and protestant interface. Indeed it is very much out of the work of these grassroots initiatives that the political co-operation of recent years (of which we are more aware) has grown. Tackling a mindset that demonises difference is their big challenge and they were not uncritical of politicians who often still drew on this for their support, as well as of the weakness of the few integrated schools where these things should be addressed.
This focus on the children and youth now rather than on what it had been, was a recurring and necessary aspect of the conference. Rev John Peacock spoke to us briefly about the ecumenical work of Youth Link, which is supported by the four main churches of the province – Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic and Church of Ireland. He has worked tirelessly for this project during ‘the Troubles’ and into the ‘peace process’, trying to make sure that the church is part of the answer and not the problem. There are a large number of volunteers working with the Youth – 5 to 25 year- olds years – and the aim of Youth Link is peace and reconciliation. Indeed, the Farset International Hotel, where we stayed, was built with peace money, on the peace line, for peace-making and it is now used by many formerly opposing groups, as well as visiting parties like ourselves.
It is generally recognised that, although many children today are growing up knowing only ‘the peace process’, this doesn’t mean they haven’t been affected by sectarian thinking. Today this is often played on by former paramilitary groups who, like gangs elsewhere in the UK, still wield much power and influence. Much still needs to be done, especially in the Primary Schools, to help overcome the barriers of prejudice and ignorance that have been handed down. Both the ex-combatants and others we met, recognised that it is often the white working class protestants who are most vulnerable to such negative influences, not only because of low educational aspirations but also because of a lack of self identity among this people group of Northern Ireland, which is in contrast with its catholic counterpart. Justas disputes over poor social conditions had contributed to the beginning of ‘the Troubles’ all those years ago, similar issues related to poverty and unequal access to services are stoking tensions today. In many ways, we were told, ‘the Troubles’ had masked these social dimensions to problems in Northern Ireland and now in the ‘peace’, they had re-emerged. Everyone agreed there was still a lot to do!
However it must be said that despite all this, remarkable changes have taken place. Our hotel was on the Springfield Road that leads down to the City via the Falls Road, which in turn is not that far distant from the parallel Shankill Road – both of which have been infamous in their time and widely known to the watching world. And even though the high fencing and wall remains – designed to prevent stones being thrown between the two sides – these once feared and best avoided roads are now open to all. Peace-building is a slow business, which is perhaps a frustration for many, but there’s no doubt something amazing is happening. Catholics and Protestants do mix: in the integrated schools, increasingly on the sports fields and of course in the halls of Stormont. There is dialogue, even if the old fears and hatreds are still not far below the surface.
Our CGMC group visited Stormont on the Wednesday afternoon and were given a guided tour of the legislative chambers as well as a walk through ‘the corridors of power’ to meet with a Sinn Féin politician. We even sat in the seats where the 107 other MLAs gather on Mondays and Tuesdays and where ‘the theatre of government’ is televised, which, we were assured, is not representative of the more united committee approach that goes on elsewhere in the building.
Jennifer McCann is the republican MLA for west Belfast and her observation on the new joint assembly was that much of the cooperation, however superficial it may be, was inspired by a shared concern for young people and their future. The increasing problem of drugs, which in turn has led to a worrying increase in the number of teenage suicides, is something that both sides were concerned about. Addressing the poverty that lay behind all this was a priority for her and she wasn’t the first to suggest that the churches had a pivotal role to play in this by offering their buildings and their volunteers to help and, even more importantly, by offering a non-judgmental welcome to the young and a visible co- operation between denominations.
The colour of the seats in the legislative chamber is blue, which is inspired by the flower of the flax plant used in the production of linen on which at one time the wealth of Northern Ireland had been built. Six of these flowers together have become a symbol of the 6 counties of this nation and perhaps, just like the poppy, represent a desire to move on from the violent past and the hope of a new prosperity in the future. No one wanted their children and young people to have to experience again what they had gone through in the past 40 years.
Another theme that emerged on our first afternoon and which repeated itself was the need to include children and young people in decision-making about the future of the Province. The four ex-combatants called for it over decisions about how to spend funding and on which projects; the MLA alluded to it; and for the Children’s Commissioner, whom we met on the last day, it was of course foundational to all her work.
Patricia Lewsley had been an MP but since 2007 now holds the post of Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (www.niccy.org). Leading a large team, she has been facing up to some of the social issues and problems that effect young people, including exclusion, bullying, poor access to services, criminality and drugs. She is helped by her own ‘parliament’ of 25 young people, who are particularly upset by the bad image they have been given just because of the actions of a tiny minority. This is of course fed by a media who always prefer to print a bad story about this age group rather than celebrate anything good that they do – something that is an issue across the whole of the UK. Patricia’s job is to challenge the politicians to give young people and children a voice and a place in the future of Northern Ireland and to do that she put a particular emphasis on Early Year’s intervention and investment. She commented that many parents were quite literally ‘shut in’ during ‘the Troubles’ and are now at a loss how to let their children out in the current climate of the ’peace process’. She suggested that churches needed an outward- looking mentality to help them and a willingness to open their doors to the community and not just those who believed.
We encountered some commendable examples of doing just this in the work of St. Comgall’s and at the Methodist Church, both serving the large housing estate of Rathcoole, where we visited on our final morning. It was so refreshing and humbling to hear Denise Conville, the ‘full-time volunteer’ worker from St Comgall’s talk about her love for this areaand its children. Her passion is to create for them a safe place here and indeed the 35 or so who come on a Sunday morning don’t want to go home! Her vision is of winning Rathcoole back for the community and out of the control of the rival protestant paramilitary groups, who still wield an unhealthy influence over the estate. She longed to give her children positive role models and the fullness of life that true faith in Christ can bring. Similarly the near-by Methodist Church runs several programmes for young people, mothers and toddlers and a thriving group called ‘Multiples’ for parents of twins – and this is often despite government bureaucracy and lack of recognition of the good that is being done. Here are the small steps towards peace that we will perhaps remember most when we look back on our visit in the months to come.
However such steps as these by Christians are threatened by churches that do not offer a welcoming attitude to young people and children and who aren’t willing to give them a voice or recognise the spiritual gifts they bring to the congregation. This was the area of concern for us in CGMC that we wanted to explore when we visited Edgehill Methodist Training College on the Wednesday morning. Here we were also joined by Dr. Maurice Elliott, the Principal of the Church of Ireland Theological College, which exists for the whole of Ireland and is based in Dublin. We also welcomed representatives of Scripture Union Northern Ireland and the Catholic Training Board. This is where we were taken by surprise! Most of the group’s experiences of the importance of children‘s ministry within such clergy training elsewhere has been very negative – it usually barely finds a place on the curriculum.
However to our delight Dr. Elliott outlined the changes that have been made at the CofI college since a review in 2005. He described an integrated approach of scripture, theology and practice in the MTh course for all graduates that recognized the need for an all-age profile of the church to be addressed by those destined to be its future leaders. All this is in its early days but it was good to hear that the 3rd year internship (a first curacy, in effect) will include space for reflection alongside the incumbent from the parish, to focus on training that among other things looks at the needs and contributions of children and young people. A similar approach is planned in the training at the Methodist College as outlined by the Director of Studies Rev Janet Unsworth, who had once been part of CGMC and who acknowledged her indebtedness to the group for her awareness and appreciation of ministry not just to, but also very importantly, with and from children.
The new Church of Ireland course has gone for an integrated approach rather than specific add on modules about children and of course there are possible dangers with this, but nevertheless the group left feeling very encouraged and even more determined to use whatever influence it had to promote a similar rethink in other places of ministerial training. Perhaps this might be facilitated by a CGMC sponsored conference in early 2012 in Cambridge – watch this space! Oh, and the home-baked scones at Edgehill were a hit too!
There’s no doubt that this was a rich three days in Belfast and the group is enormously grateful to Peter Hamill and his local colleagues, including the Rev. John McClure (Mr. Fixit!), for putting together the stimulating programme we all enjoyed. Each of us went away with our own memories, insights and encouragements. We are called as Christians to be peace-makers but we were never promised that this would be easy. We are also called as followers of Jesus to welcome children and in particular to make sure we don’t harm these ‘little ones’. Both these challenging callings are being faced by the churches of Northern Ireland. It is a work that needs action both at the highest levels among the politicians as well as in the day to day commitment of volunteer children’s and youth workers on the ground. We met both on our visit. The memories of ‘the Troubles’, like the murals along the Falls and Shankill Roads, are still very fresh and public and they won’t easily – and perhaps should never – fade or be torn down. However new memories also need to be laid down for the sake of the children and young people: memories of former enemies now working as friends; the experience of seeing politicians of opposing views talking together in the same chamber; and the stories of those who had been in jail, now working to release others from prisons of poverty and deprivation.
There have been three waves of peace money to help the ‘peace process’ along but now, as for the rest of us in the UK, new funding is liable to be in short supply and so churches will need to become ever more creative about how they can help the process continue at all levels. God’s people, whatever their denomination or ‘flag’ have a real challenge to think up new ways to reach out. There may be 43 churches on the Shankill Road but, as we learned, these are only reaching 1% of the local population. All of us, whatever road we live on, have this huge task ahead for the sake of the community, the kingdom of God and especially for the sake of those little ones to whom the kingdom belongs. Our time in Belfast reminded us that, as with all God’s work, this can only come, peace by piece.