Alex Polkey is a One Young World Ambassador from the United Kingdom. He was a delegate speaker during the Peace and Conflict Plenary Session at the 2014 Summit in Dublin.
2014 marks the twentieth anniversary of the first IRA ceasefire which triggered the Northern-Ireland ‘Peace Process’. This marked the end of a vicious thirty-year conflict known as 'The Troubles’; the ethno-nationalist conflict which set those who wanted to see Northern Ireland remain a part of the United Kingdom against those who wanted to see it integrated into a ‘United Ireland’.
The historical reasoning for why the constitutional status of a damp and strategically insignificant piece of land should be the source of so much tragedy seems, for me, impenetrably complex. But this is history. What matters now is that both regions of the small island of Ireland – the Republic of Ireland of the south and the British boundaries of the north – now have control over their own destiny.
I am part of the first generation to grow up free from the immediate fear of bombs and bullets. This achievement cannot be understated; it fills me with immeasurable hope. However, I am frustrated with the fact that many people, inside and outside of our society, seem to think that Northern Ireland is no longer relevant in the conflict discourse.
Many seem to think that because we now have a ‘peace settlement’, it follows that we should have peace. They believe, in their impatience, that we should now function as any normal democracy. This attitude is exemplified by the berating tone of the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, recently stating that the Westminster government has ‘gone as far as we can on flexibilities for Northern Ireland’ regarding welfare reform.
True peace does not exist, the Troubles rage on in the hearts and minds of our communities, past and present. Our schooling system is still divided along religious lines. Each summer we still bite our lips, praying that the yearly marching season does not erupt into violence and rioting. A great deal more needs to be done if Northern Ireland is to become a completely stable society.
It would be easy of course to simply blame the politicians. The lack of leadership shown by all of our major political actors is, at times, staggering. The failure of parties like NI21 - founded in 2013 by ex-Ulster Unionist Party MLA - to create new ‘post-conflict’ policies, or the inability for major parties to make any progress on past issues makes me come to the conclusion that top down approaches are unlikely to work.
Northern Ireland is, at least nominally, a democracy; whereby the elected ultimately represent the electorate. Therefore it follows that if you want to change the political landscape, you have to do work ‘on the ground’.
As young people, what can we do?
The first thing we must do is recognise that division is built upon fear. When you grow up in a society where you are judged and treated differently for what you are, instead of who you are, flags and sectarian symbols provide a feeling of safety and belonging. If we are going to create agents of change, we must first create safe spaces where people can come face to face with one another; without fear.
When I talk about safe spaces, I mean spaces that do not belong to a particular group or tribe but which are neutral and negotiable, free from flags, murals, music, or religious institutions which include one at the expense of the other. They are hospitable, open and friendly.
How can we actually set about creating such an environment?
To start with, it can be as simple as making someone a hot drink - a tea, or a coffe. This may sound absurd, but let me explain. For the last three months I have volunteered for an amazing organisation called the Corrymeela Community, which is a residential centre on the north coast of Ireland which aims to create safe spaces.
The Corrymeela Community acts as a sanctuary for people affected by sectarianism; we make them feel welcome, we feed them, we talk to them, we listen to them, and we worship with them. Ultimately, we greet hostility with hospitality.
For me, the effect is tangible and inspiring. This summer I worked with a group of forty or so young people - all of whom came from hotbeds of sectarianism and violence. Called the 'In/Out' programme, the aim of the programme was to encourage the youth to think about what kept them 'in' their communities, and what kept others 'out'. Over the course of a week, I saw young men and women who would traditionally see each other as enemies come together in sincere friendship, and teaching each other about their backgrounds and values.
However, they were only able to do this because they felt safe; they were on nobody's territory. They began to vocalise their frustration with division amongst their communities and that they couldn't walk in particular areas or go to particular cafés. You could see the image of a better, more inclusive, society forming in their minds. We mustn't overstate the effect of a single residential, but when you consider that Corrymeela hosts over 10,000 people a year you realise what an effect you can have.
There is still more to do, the reconciliation process cannot be contained in a single centre. You have to go out into communities and do the work on the ground. One way Corrymeela is doing this is through a programme called 'Facing Our Histories'; which helps train teachers to confidently facilitate controversial discussions about the past in the surroundings of the classroom.
This is my challenge to my fellow One Young World Ambassadors: go out and create safe spaces - not just as institutions - but in your day-to-day actions and with the language you use. One story I heard at Corrymeela and which will never leave me, was that of committed Republicans handing out water to Loyalist marchers on a scorching 12th July. These men were greeting their ‘enemy’ with kindness and ignoring the fact that they had come to engage in a triumphalist display of aggressive 'othering'. We have to greet hostility with hospitality; if we can do that, then perhaps we can start to build a future with each other.
Above: Alex's delegate speech at the One Young World Summit 2014 in Dublin.