Monthly Archives: December 2011

Great Craic in a Divided Irish City

Here’s a repost of an article about the Northern Ireland Semester that appeared in the July 2008 issue of the Swarthmore College Bulletin.

By Carol Brévart-Demm

Maurice Weeks (left) and Reina Chano (right) met 1998 Nobel Peace Prize winner John Hume.


Although Chano and Weeks each took two courses at the University of Ulster and attended additional lectures organized by Crossan, their placements in community organizations were the focus of their activities in Northern Ireland.

Chano worked with the Verbal Arts Centre, an educational charity group that sponsors a variety of programs, all centered on providing Northern Ireland communities with a safe place and space to “tell your story.” She assisted with the Centre’s community relations programs for young children from segregated schools, aimed at confronting the differences among and between Catholics/Nationalist/Republicans and Protestant/Unionists/Loyalists and encouraging children to interact, work together, and learn from each other. She has been designing a new community relations curriculum whose pilot program has been very successful, she says. “As someone with a growing interest in education, it has been an incredibly rewarding and challenging experience. Absolutely great craic!” She explains that craic means “good-natured Irish fun.”

Weeks worked with the Holywell Trust, an organization seeking to foster peace-building through healing, understanding, and cooperation. He undertook, among other activities, a project on immigrants in Derry: “The immigration population, especially from Eastern Europe, has greatly increased with the introduction of expanded European Union working provisions. Some groups of immigrants have expressed difficulties living in Northern Irish society.” Weeks was delighted when a local community worker offered to help him organize focus groups and interviews. “It’s amazing how open he was to my research plan,” Weeks says.

“From a Peace and Conflict Studies perspective, it’s interesting to be participating in the transition process, where a lot of the legacies of the Troubles have to be dealt with and yet, it’s a kind of model of conflict transformation,” Smithey says.


Visit to Stormont

From November 22

Today was freaking amazing. Josh and I spent the whole day looking each other trying not to giggle.

After class today, Josh and I went up to Stormont, the Northern Ireland Parliment, with our community organization.  The organization hosted for a question and answer session with the young people they work with and some of the politicians. The Deputy First Minister opened up the session with a little welcoming speech. My favorite line was, “Don't be afraid to ask the hard questions, that's what we're here for- though I'm going to leave…” It was funnier in context.

The question and answer session was really interesting, there was two rounds of questioning- two rounds of politicians/party representatives/MLAs answering. They included the Minister for Justice, a member of the Department for employment and learning committee, the youngest MLA, and many others who's names and titles I forgot to write down.

I learned some really interesting things, like the fact that because of the government structure the departments are set up so independently that it's difficult for them to communicate- which means members of the Executive committee can not know why a deal was decided on (the one at hand was a spending cut in Education that no one could answer why it had happened.)

The session was a lot of fun- the mediator guy was really good. He was really good at monitoring the time, while also letting discussions continue when he thought they were worth it. And he was an instigator man! He would pick up on small things very quickly and was willing to pull it out, and he also stepped in if he thought the parties were arguing too much.

Even outside of the political talks, I had fun. I was asked to write the names cards for each of the politicians. I still claim that whoever made that choice made a bad decision, because my handwriting is bad. But they all had legible name cards, though not the neatest or prettiest things in the world. I had to re-write several of them more than once, because of changes, misspellings, and once one guy going by a different name than the one I was given.

After that we moved on to a forum theater performance. It was pretty cool, I love that style of play. And one of the MLAs (I think that's what she was…) jumped in and participated.

After all the Bytes events had finished, Josh and I were invited to a Thanksgiving event- hosted by the Speaker of the House. Our thought process was, “I don't really know what's going to happen, but I'll go because it's hosted by the Speaker of the House!” So we accepted the invitation- which meant instead of heading home at 5 we were there until nearly 8.

The Thanksgiving thing started at 6, so Josh and I were sent to hang out in the library for an hour. We hung out in the LIBRARY at parliament! It was awesome! I made Josh take pictures when we were alone. We kept looking at each other going, “Is this really happening?” And we browsed through the books, and geekily pulled one off at a time to read a bit from it. I looked at books on slang, cultures of the world, modern ethnic conflict, and Freakonomics. It was a blast. I still can't believe it happened.

A bit after 6, our lovely host remembered us, she admitted she forgot us, which I'm totally fine with because A) the lady organized the Bytes event and the Thanksgiving event, and B) the library was awesome. We then were taken to the Thanksgiving event. It was basically a bunch of politicians, diplomats, and some other people who worked for the US or the NI government mingling/networking. The Speaker of the House and the Consulate General from the US gave speeches about the relationship of NI and the US and on Thanksgiving. And Josh and I were introduced to several diplomats, including the Consulate General. The Consulate General also invited Josh and I to visit the Consulate and met with him! It was so surreal. I couldn't believe it.

I still find it hard to believe. I've asked Josh several times if today has been real. He responded that if I wanted him to he could pinch me. I told him, “No thanks, my aching feet are enough proof… And anyway if this were a dream I'd be in higher heels.”

Written by Hannah Kurtz

Stormont youth consultation

Stormont, Scintillating Stories, and Super Shenanigans
^hooray for alliteration!

I was excited going into the day, because I knew it was the day that the youth from my community organisation were going to have their consultation at Stormont. Having dressed up a bit for this event, I felt a bit more at home visiting the incredible estate at Stormont, home to the NI government and I helped set up without feeling terribly out of place like I did earlier, when I toured the estate with the youth group. I had literally NO IDEA what to expect, having not seen any of the questions that the youth had come up with. The goal of the session was linked to what we did the first day at the consultation we did where we were staying, with the youth forum, when we discussed the issues that affected the youth with them and brainstormed a list of questions, issues, and policies. The youth had since met multiple times and done a significant amount of work on the questions, distilling complex issues down into factually based, concise, compact, compelling and challenging questions. The process I had not seen, I had been busy with other stuff and wasn’t really involved, but in retrospect, I recognize that there was a substantial effort and thought put into it, and I can only imagine the logistical headwork behind this event.

Speaking of logistics, I got to glimpse the genesis of the project, or at least hear the story from the perspective of the youth, which was amazing, inspiring, and empowering. I had previously only heard bits and pieces of the story, and only from the Bytes staff, who are awesome, but only described the process as observers. To hear the youth describe it for themselves was incredible! I was struck by the raw passion, emotion, and anger that they had (though all were constructively applied, so no worries!). They were frustrated about an issue, then realized that there were several other interlinked issues affecting their community, and had decided to do something about it. They gathered more than 6000 (!!!) signatures on a petition, so that they could come before the assembly and have their voice heard. They had worked incredibly hard, and you could tell that it had a significant effect on them, they were incredibly glad to have it come to fruition.
A bit of background the youth had originally come together over an issue affecting them in the community, specifically, the mental health of youth in the area, their friends and the community at large was very poor. Suicide was frequent, and rising. This frustrated the youth; and the lack of counseling services, someone to talk to, and a substantial amount of substance abuse and other circumstantial factors only worsened the situation which they found themselves in. They decided to band together as a support group in their community, which was very successful. The organization they set up had gotten multiple grants from the O2 Think big competition, and was widely regarded as a good influence in their community. This allowed them to get the reputation necessary for an audience with Stormont politicians, and they worked with [the community organizations that I had been placed with] (since the youth had all come from [my community organization’s] centers around the Belfast area) to organize the meeting.

I had no idea what to expect, having never done this sort of thing before. I admit I was somewhat apprehensive, given recent goings on in the center I was working in (example, someone lit up a joint in center the other day…much to the annoyance of the staff I was working with, we worked together to creatively diffuse the situation, but ended up closing early that evening.). The difficult thing for me was to bracket those concerns, and then focus on the issues and challenges at hand. Much to my surprise and pleasure, the youth were on their best behavior and took full advantage of this valuable opportunity. This made me quite joyous, since I’ve been confident for quite some time that the youth are very capable, and this gave them a chance to really prove themselves! They Did so with flying colors, (ok, bad metaphor, here in NI that means different things….so suffice it to say they rocked the place, with piercing pointed questions cutting straight through the political firewalls),
As I sat there listening to the youth wax eloquent on the issues that affect them (primarily mental health, homelessness, lack of funding, education, crime and punishment, juvenile justice, suicide, in addition to many more) , I was struck by how passionate and personal their responses were. The questions were very much their own, though they were crafted with [my community organiazation]’s help (how much, I don’t know. But there were VERY personal responses, and they struck a strong emotional chord with me. I empathized with the youth, and they were significantly effective with politicians as well, calling them out when necessary, crafting compelling, challenging, even borderline snarky responses when the politicians attempted to dodge questions. They were very honest, holding out their opinion respectfully, but firmly. The politicians, for the most part, responded in kind. I was VERY struck by some of their responses…but more on that later.

Constantly, thoughts kept running through my head, faster than I could control them. My emotions galloped up and down on a roller coaster. I felt enthused, passionate, frustrated, and elated all at the same time. My policy-minded side was on fire, my brain buzzing vividly with thoughts, like hundreds of bees, all in response to the stimuli I was picking up. Every time politicians responded, responses flooded my head, while I was still listening. It was bizarre; I never felt such a powerful presence of civic engagement and empowerment. The youth were absolutely impressing me, beyond my wildest dreams and expectations. I remember thinking to myself during the session “THIS is what it’s all about, civic engagement, taking your passions to the debate floor, your issues to community leaders, holding them accountable, and taking practical action in response to very real problems!”
I was floored by the sheer sense of engagement in the room. Everyone there wanted to be there, was 100% present, no checking out (at least that I observed) as is so common with youth in a normal session of a Bytes program. There was a powerful force in the room, one that I’ve rarely observed. It was the power of representative democracy at its purest, where youth themselves take control of their own political potential, and bluntly tell the politicians like it is in their community. It was done very respectfully, with titles, and formalities. There were not shouting matches, or even partisan bickering (the wonderful facilitator made sure of that, I was continually impressed with his ability to keep participants on track, formulate follow up questions and get counter-responses, and feedback. Save one annoying detour at the end as a formality, I was extremely happy he was doing that job, and which did so free of charge). The potential in the session was enormous, I was happy to see how it was done, and I look forward to hearing about the practical change being done as a result.
Right, enough about my feelings about the session, now it’s time for some details! In attendance were 5 MLA’s, from the DUP, UUP, SDLP and SF, and the minister of Justice, as well as Deputy First Minister Martin McGuiness (who amusingly commented “it’s my pleasure to welcome you all here. This is the place to ask the hard questions, and with that comment, I’ll now leave the discussion to the panelists”. He promptly left to go do other stuff, but I found it amusing…)

Budget issues, of course, came up. In this time of economic austerity everywhere, I have taken it for granted that there are cuts everywhere. And, maybe I’m showing my political ideology here a bit, but I know that some cuts aren’t going to be fun, but have to be made anyways. However, the partisan rhetoric evidence was very much present here, whenever funding cuts came up, they avoided the topic like the plague, but when pressed, presented talking points on ‘well, this actually ‘saves’ money’. Yeah right….I felt tempted to scream “I KNOW that there need to be cuts. I UNDERSTAND!! I even AGREE!! But, the question is WHAT cuts, WHERE, and WHY!!! Separate the ideology! Weigh the costs and benefits! The cliché phrase ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’ is VERY relevant here. If the community orgs are better organized and know the community-on the ground info BETTER than the politicians, they are more efficient! Certainly, they should be held to the same standards regarding results, but hey, isn’t like there Is a compelling reason for cutting funding from one of the most effective (in my experience) sectors in existence, especially when it could potentially save ENORMOUS amounts of money.

Another theme was that of accountability. There are lots of promises made, but not always kept. The youth made a point that there is a need for transparency, themes I’ve seen become nearly universal in politics. This includes back in the States. Really, a lot of the stuff the youth discussed could be extrapolated and put into a context outside NI. The US is facing a crossroads, with a significant amount of changes coming their way, and I hope for the best, but also know that it will be difficult. The amount of frustration with politicians was clearly evident in the room, the community certainly wanted change and a receptive audience, capable of taking action on the policy level.
At the same time though, I saw politicians who seemed very genuinely to want feedback, to want the community to communicate, who wanted to work with people to get things done (noticeable absent in the states….). Despite the noticeably strong opinions, and very real ideological differences, there was a genuine desire to give back. Many of the politicians had themselves come from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, and they understood the concerns the youth were talking about because they had experienced them firsthand. I really appreciated this, though it was difficult to tell whether their actions had matched their rhetoric, since I’m not done with my research yet and I don’t follow NI politics to a larger extent enough to know. Even so, I was happy to see that things are getting better politically, despite the seeming disconnect between political bodies, and the community. There are many politicians genuinely trying to make a difference, and for that, I give them immense credit. This is certainly great progress from the not so distant past, where it would be difficult if not impossible to even get them to sit down and the same room as each other, so it was cool to see the progress that has been made.

I remember talking to the participants, many were somewhat nervous/intimidated, and I now understand what that’s like! I don’t mind talking to politicians, but socializing with them afterwards was somewhat awkward, though I did get to meet the American consulate general, which was cool. It made me feel in a different context some of the awkwardness/intimidation of the participants. The specific feeling was hard to describe, but I would put it somewhat as a ‘fish out of water’….since it’s a fairly foreign context. Still though, it was a good experience, and I think the youth enjoyed it as well. From what I gathered, they felt as though their voices were heard, and they took full advantages of the valuable opportunity. I, for one, consider that a success!