“You can talk about the past without being negative”: JCI youth talk

“You can talk about the past without being negative”: JCI talk
by Sam ALLEN for Shared Future News
2 February 2018

The next generation inevitably have to take the responsibility of maintaining a society. But the question often arises whether the next generation is prepared for this task and if it has been given the guidance, skills and opportunities to do so.

The Junior Chamber International (JCI) seeks not only to discuss these issues but to also provide solutions to obstacles impeding young people in Northern Ireland.

The group hosted an event sponsoring the One Small Step campaign at the Ormeau Baths studio in Belfast. It included a number of speakers and a panel discussion.

After a brief introduction from William Redpath (JCI Belfast President) the floor was given to Peter Edgar, programme manager of the tech start-up support organisation Ignite NI. Edgar detailed his journey towards creating Ignite, which began with him being unsuccessful in getting into teaching college. He spoke of the uncertainty he felt after this disappointment and how subsequently working in the USA gave him a valuable perspective. On top of this, he was deeply concerned by a 2012 headline stating that two thirds of young people saw their future outside of Northern Ireland, saying he thought at the time, “This is exactly part of the problem … we just build this into a culture where success is leaving.” This spurred him and others who had similar feelings to get together and “grow good”, meaning they would support local projects and look for opportunities to improve Belfast. Eventually this led to their organisation expanding and gaining access to further opportunities and projects. Then through connections with entrepreneurs they were able to base themselves at the Ormeau Baths. In conclusion, Edgar stated that in his opinion one of the best ways to improve a society was “just getting behind something you’re really passionate about, that you believe in, you can ultimately get behind other people’s ideas”.

The next speaker was Peter Osborne, Chair of the Community Relations Council. He briefly summed up his the objective of the council as “trying to work with people to improve relationships across the community divide … and new arrivals too”. Referencing Martin Luther King, he went on to emphasise the idea of interdependence and that if Northern Ireland is to improve people must realise that “we cannot walk alone”. Osborne also stated that Northern Ireland must “stop repeating the same mistakes” in regards to segregation and division, especially housing and education. Additionally, he talked how socio-economic background can have serious negative implications on quality and even length of life. Referring to the current political situation, he warned that “there is no inevitable forward flow to this peace process and if we’re not motivated to keep moving forward we could move backwards”. Osborne was critical of current political leadership in Northern Ireland, stating that he felt they have not communicated what a shared future looks like as well as they should. In closing, he stated that people can make a difference if they make the effort to have their voices heard.

There was then a period were audience members discussed in small groups pre-set questions regarding the economy, the future of Stormont and what the term “shared society” meant to them. Following this, a panel discussion was set with representatives from main political parties. This included Councillor Nathan Anderson (DUP), Ryan Carlin (Sinn Fein), Sorcha Eastwood (Alliance), Cliona McCarney (SDLP), Chris Jenkins (Green), and Alex Redpath (UUP). Each representative answered a question from the audience regarding the future of Northern Ireland.

Jenkins answered the question of what steps can be taken to create an environment for a long term and sustainable government. He stated that trust needs to be rebuilt between the main parties as “relationship within Stormont has totally broken down over the last couple years”.

The next question was what could be done to help disadvantaged youth obtain meaningful careers. Redpath responded saying that firstly there is simply not enough employment in Northern Ireland and politicians need to create an environment that fosters more employment. Second, there must be efforts made to “remove barriers to employment”, which not only means providing skills and training but also building confidence in young people.

Anderson was given the question of what will be the main thing that attracts people to Northern Ireland in the next five years. He stated that ultimately it was the people of Northern Ireland that are its best resource and have “always been the backbone of our economy”. He added that having a university degree is simply not enough: “We have to train people to create jobs.”

Then it was put to Carlin, how can British-Irish relations be improved? He said that “respect to begin with has to be up there and we need to respect identities” and pointed out that “there are a wide range of identities in the North”. Furthermore he stated that both the Irish and British governments need to be more involved in fostering better relations. Carlin also more specifically supported integrated education.

The next question was in regards to what positive actions need to be taken to build a society that is truly cross-community. Eastwood responded, using her own experience of playing music with her peers as an example of how integration can be encouraged: “I grew up with those people and I knew them as people first.” She also remarked that we should reflect on how committed we are to achieving integration: “Everybody likes to talk ‘shared’ and ‘integrated’, but so far nobody’s actually ponied up the cash to do it.”

The final question addressed how we can educate young people about the past so they don’t repeat the same mistakes. McCarney said, “I think it’s about making it relevant to young people”, and should come through the schools as well as from parents. Additionally, she said that there is an understandable negativity, even stigma, about discussing the conflict and that this needs to change: “You can talk about the past without being negative about it.”

The Chairman of Linfield Football Club, Roy McGiven, spoke next. He discussed “the role that sport can play in breaking down barriers and bringing people together”. McGiven stated that while Linfield Football Club is mainly supported by Protestants and Loyalists and that it is proud of its heritage, it also recognises that “Northern Ireland is now a much more diverse country”. He went on to say how the reluctance of those from Nationalist backgrounds to play for Linfield has gradually diminished since the Good Friday Agreement, and that he was very pleased more Nationalist players were signing up to play for the club: “We probably have one of the most inclusive squads in Irish football, North or South.” McGiven also commented on the promising youth that are coming up through the club and the projects the club is sponsoring to help facilitate reconciliation. One of which is taking the youth teams to visit World War One historical sites to show the shared history of the island of Ireland and also illustrate the “harsh reality of what war and conflict means … and why reconciliation is so important”. He finished by saying that while this work is challenging, the club’s motto is appropriately, “Fortune favours the brave”.

Karishma Kusurkar, a locally based designer, was next to speak. She detailed some of the projects that she and her team developed, such as Belfast Design Week: “What we wanted to do was highlight Belfast as a brilliant place for people to visit for design and for the arts.” Other smaller projects included the Another Belfast map, which drew attention to smaller businesses and chains across Belfast. Kusurkar pointed out that these projects were staffed by volunteers who are simply “design enthusiasts”. She also detailed other projects outside of her organisation and that there are many opportunities for those interested in the arts: “Get involved, lots of things are happening.”

The final discussion featured Michael Boyd, Director of Football Development IFA, and Gary McAllister, Press Officer and Chairman of AONISC. They talked about the ways they changed the atmosphere and fan behaviour at Northern Ireland international football matches. Back in the early 2000s, the state of Northern Ireland football was not good: specifically the atmosphere was hostile and sectarian anti-Catholic songs were often sung. Boyd commented, “It was basically just a really poor reflection of what Northern Ireland was about.” This lead to the creation of the Football for All campaign, which involved a series of small changes that would eventually transform local football for the better. The guiding policy, Boyd said, was “everything to do with Northern Ireland football should be fun, safe and inclusive”. These changes included encouraging fans to self-police, wear similar team colours, create new songs, and allow them to take in drums to drown out any sectarian chanting. McAllister gave an example of how these positive changes have taken root. In the last year and a half, Northern Ireland played against Germany three times, and through fan self-policing no songs referencing World War Two were sung: “We can’t claim to be respectful … and then go play Germany and start talking about the Second World War.” He later added, “You have to be courageous enough to stand up and speak up for what you think is the right thing to do.”

William Redpath closed the event by summarising the One Small Step campaign. He stated that it was about “encouraging other people to get involved … encouraging other people to challenge the status quo, it’s about highlighting the people that are doing those good things”. Finally, on the JCI, he said it was “a really amazing organisation to be a part of … it’s for people who have a lot to give”.

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