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Then I decided to change all that

A military helicopter takes off from the British Army base overlooking Dungannon and flies out over the green fields of Northern Ireland. Two soldiers carrying automatic rifles patrol the road leading to a small market town some 50 miles west of Belfast.

In a schoolhouse further up the road, a dozen teenagers wait for a visitor. An uncomfortable silence hangs in the air, not as much adolescent awkwardness as it is uncertainty and mistrust. In this room, there are teens who have grown up in exclusively Catholic or Protestant communities. Mixing with their peers from other religions is a relatively new experience.

Enter Noeline Clarke, 17, and the ice begins to crack.

She’s friendly, confident, entertaining and has a quick sense of humour. She’s a born diplomat and knows just what to say to make everyone feel at ease.

Before long, the teenagers are sharing cigarettes and stories about their exploits the night before. Everybody is laughing and having a good time.

“When I find myself in a room with people from the two religions,” says Clarke, “I feel I can bring them together and help them see that there are no differences between us whatsoever.”

In a land where people assign loyalties according to name alone, Clarke proves the exception to the rule. She is Protestant, even though her name ‘sounds’ Catholic. Not that a religious identity means a lot to her. She says she is more interested in fashion, music and having fun.

“I grew up in a Protestant area. I never thought I would associate with anyone Catholic,” she says. “Then I decided to change all that.” Clarke reached out beyond her community and eventually became Secretary of the Northern Ireland Youth Forum. She’s touring the province to gather input from young people about the forthcoming Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.

Owning the peace process

The Bill of Rights is a key part of the recently brokered peace process between the British Government, the Irish Government, Northern Irish political parties and the paramilitaries. Getting young people to feel a sense of ownership of the peace process is vital to ending the decades-old hostility between Catholics and Protestants.

“We are trying to get young people to tell us what they think their rights should be,” Clarke explains. “Then we will lobby the Government to include their voices.”

After hanging out for a while and watching a video about the forthcoming Bill of Rights, Clarke gets everyone to start talking about which rights they want to protect.

There is a heated debate about the right to free speech.

One young woman points out that freedom of speech would also apply to racists and religious bigots. Clarke skilfully guides the debate to ensure that everyone gets a chance to speak up.

A boy dressed in black with several rings piercing his left eyebrow hasn’t said much at all.

Clarke asks him which rights he holds dear. He says he wants the right to express himself without fear of discrimination. That sparks another heated debate about appearances and sexuality.

In Northern Ireland, where children and teenagers comprise some 40 per cent of the population, finding out what young people want is essential.

“The adults have to listen to us,” Clarke says. “And that means not only government officials but our elders as well. We need the support of both our communities and our families.”

Mo Sykes, the adult director of the Northern Ireland Youth Forum, hopes that lasting peace will come to the region as thousands of young people become engaged in the process of naming their rights. She says it’s through dynamic leaders like Clarke that young people can be motivated to participate in the struggle for peace.

“I want the two communities to come together. I want to be somewhere I feel comfortable,” says Clarke. “A majority of people my age realize how much work needs to be done. But we are getting there. Things are changing because young people are coming together.”

© UNICEF
Having traveled from Belfast, Noeline Clarke (left), aged 17, Secretary of the Northern Ireland Youth Forum, talks with 16-year-old Ash Stinson in the market square in Dungannon about which rights he thinks ought be included in the Northern Ireland Bill of Rights.
Click to view video clip (Real format, 940 KB)

 

 

The adults have to listen to us.... And that means not only government officials but our elders as well. We need the support of both our communities and our families.