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Volunteers' Stories

From IVS, the International Voluntary Service

Founded in 1931, IVS is a non-profit organisation that promotes peace and social justice through volunteering.

This article series will bring you stories from their volunteers about their inspirational experiences helping local communities in the UK and around the world.

Finding Peace in Northern Ireland

Strangford (or Strong Fjord, which illustrates its Viking heritage) is in Northern Ireland, 30 miles south east of Belfast. The small village of Strangford is on the west side of the Lough (same as the Scottish Loch) and there is a ferry over to the east side to Portaferry. Just south of Strangford the Lough narrows until it opens out into the Irish Sea. From Strangford there are good views of the Mountains of Mourne to the south. They do indeed ‘sweep down to the sea’ as the song has it.

I made my first visit to this area, indeed to Northern Ireland, in September sailing on a very calm sea from Stranraer to Larne. The driver of the National Express coach from Carlisle stayed on English soil and did not travel across with us so another driver ran onto the ferry on the Irish side to drive the coach off. He couldn’t get the coach started for a while so we were the last off with ferrymen looking anxiously at watches keen to start loading their next passengers. A big cheer went up when the engine fired into life! Arriving in Belfast at 11.30pm might well have been a scary experience at one time but I did not find it unnerving and it was only a 10 minute walk to the hostel. Had I known there were riots in Belfast that day I might have felt different!

I didn’t go for a holiday but to work at Glebe House, a cross-cultural centre for people from both Protestant and Catholic communities. This may not sound very adventurous to those of us used to rubbing shoulders with people of different faiths on an almost daily basis. It was still a surprise to me that children of different faiths, like their families in places like Belfast, live entirely separate lives and have no contact with each other. Protestants go to Protestant schools and live in Protestant areas, Catholics go to Catholic schools and live in Catholic areas. They have different uniforms and different clubs and societies. Even the different sports have different religious followers. There is small wonder that myths and prejudice between the two communities are perpetuated. Glebe House is one of few places in Northern Ireland where Protestants and Catholics, both children and adults, come together as people for a day, a weekend, one week or two.

My job at Glebe House, along with 9 others from different countries, was to do a variety of tasks, but one important one was to build a new camp fireplace with seats around which we painted red, green, blue, white and yellow.



Diarmaid who was the Manager at Glebe House told us that when the children first arrive they charge down the yard, racing onto the field, and will be delighted to see the brightly painted rubber tyre seats neatly laid out in a circle. Their first thoughts will be to explore their new surroundings and to make new friends, including with the four donkeys there. Thoughts of not mixing with someone of a different faith or being frightened of them will be far from their mind.

Over the period they stay at Glebe House, through their learning with Diarmaid and the other staff and volunteers, the roots of such prejudices will be explored and they usually go home with a different view of each other’s community. Adults too come with the same deeply ingrained views of each other and go away more enlightened. Glebe House though does not set out to ‘sell’ anything or to try to change people’s views. It is the men, women, boys and girls who make the discoveries of each other as people, very much like themselves. Glebe House sets out to give them that precious opportunity, one that they hardly ever get in their day to day lives. Glebe House literature says it is a place “…where each person can determine their own identity, rather than conform to sectarian or national stereotypes, myths or stigmas.”

Northern Ireland is a very different place now to what it was in the 1970’s when ‘The Troubles’ were at their height. Few would have considered going to stay in the province then and it is still not an area that many would have near the top of their “must see” list. This is a pity as Strangford was a really lovely place and the area around a delightful scenic rural spot. Although it was my first visit my links with Glebe House go back to its inception in 1975, because in 1972 the Peterborough group of International Voluntary Service (IVS) of which Shirley and I were members, hosted an international group at Stibbington, just outside the city. IVS looked after 2 groups of children from Belfast, from both the Shankill Road Protestant area and the Falls Road Catholic area. They came for a holiday to have a break from ‘The Troubles’. We have clear memories of some of the lively children who came. The idea for Glebe House, as a place in their own country where people could get away from the conflict in peaceful surroundings, arose from the Peterborough experience and other similar holidays that took place in those years.

As part of our cultural experience on the Glebe House camp this September the 10 of us went to Belfast and visited both the Shankill and Falls Roads. I felt uneasy on the Shankill Road seeing the painted wall murals by the UDF (Ulster Defence Force) and the UFF (Ulster Freedom Fighters). Some were of sports personalities but one stared me in the face. It was a hooded masked gunman holding an AK47. I thought this must have been painted in the 1970’s as it was so like the pictures we saw then on our TV screens. I was quite shocked to learn it had been very recently painted. I was told it was to commemorate some anniversary that was coming up.
That some group felt it appropriate to paint such a picture now, when the Good Friday Peace Agreement has been in operation for several years and the two communities are moving nearer together, demonstrates that there is still a long way to go. The murals on the Falls Road were a welcome relief as they were now used to show support for other countries’ struggles for freedom such as the Basque Separatists and Palestinians. Sports personalities also featured. The old murals illustrating the old prejudices are gradually being painted over. The housing that existed on the Falls Road in the 70’s has been demolished and new housing put in its place.

There are still signs on the Falls Road that ‘The Troubles’ have not entirely gone away. “Release Marian Price” declared one older mural. She was convicted, with her sister, Dolours, of the Old Bailey car bombing in 1973 that injured over 200 people. I was interested to catch sight of Divis Fats, a tower block behind the Falls Road, where some of the children who came to Stibbington in 1972 had lived.

We had a more positive experience in the local pub in Strangford where we met Seamus, a local man. The first time we met he disappeared after a few minutes re-appearing 20 minutes later with hot chicken goujons and chicken tikka sandwiches he had just rustled up for us all! The next time he was little more demanding. “Sing a song from your countries” he asked and then gave us one of his own. Diarmaid told us he wrote his own songs but he had never heard this one. Helena from Basque and Kasia and Alex from Poland were the ones brave enough to respond to Seamus in like manner.

Diarmaid gave us two talks on the situation in Northern Ireland. The first concentrated on the history from earliest times up to 1920. The second talk, in which Helen, another member of Glebe House joined, was devoted to the background to ‘The Troubles’ and the Peace and Reconciliation process. Diarmaid was optimistic for the future as he rightly should be in his position as Manager of Glebe House.

The visit opened my eyes a little to the road that has to be travelled if the communities are to find true peace with each other. I left feeling that I understood very little of the complexities that have engulfed Northern Ireland for centuries. Glebe House makes the need for understanding more about the future than the past.

Peter Thomas

 

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If you are over 50 and want to volunteer with IVS please contact info@rtws.org
Our projects in 60 countries worldwide are open to volunteers of all ages and can be accessed here.

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