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
“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.”