When the Workers’ Educational Association Northern Ireland set up its first anti-sectarian education programme in the early 1990s the image it chose to illustrate its course materials was a photograph of one of east Belfast’s ‘peace lines’ – the walls erected to keep Protestant and Catholic communities apart.
The image (by Belfast photographer Frankie Quinn) neatly summed up what the course – called Us and Them – was all about, as well saying something about the reality of life for many in Northern Ireland, which was, in many cases, one of extreme segregation. A lot, of course, has changed since then. And a lot hasn’t.
When the course began, more than 20 years ago, ceasefire was still some years off. It is now 15 years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed, yet the peace lines remain (the number of peace lines has in fact increased since the agreement) and the divisions they represent are, in many cases, as real as ever. And, while the dismantling of the divides is up for discussion – the shared future plans, trailed today by First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, include the dismantling of all peace walls within 10 years – many of those who live in the shadow of the walls are not ready to see them go. They wouldn’t feel safe without them. Some, indeed, as was reported this week, would like them to be even higher.
The peace lines may have become a part of Belfast’s tourism industry but they tell us as much about the present as they do about the past. The peace walls help people feel safe; apart, within their own communities, on their side of the wall. But how do you get people from different communities to begin to feel safe together? That is a question WEA NI has been grappling with for the past two decades. Its work, which is not much known outside Northern Ireland, is, nevertheless, remarkable, and has made a real contribution to the peace process. Nobody would suggest that adult education is all of the answer to this, but it has become evident over the last 20 years that it is at least part of the answer – and a pretty significant part at that.
I went to Belfast a couple of weeks ago and met the Director of WEA NI, Colin Neilands, and some of the partners the WEA works with in delivering what has become a core part of its offer: peace building. Colin was hired by the WEA in 1991 to develop and deliver its first anti-sectarian education programme. His appointment coincided both with the first influx of European money in support of peace-building work and the growing recognition by politicians that they needed to work closely with voluntary and community sector partners – many of whom, like the WEA, had earned a reputation as non-sectarian – to have any chance of creating a shared society.
The WEA NI was conscious of ‘putting its head above the parapet’ but, given its commitment to equality, democracy and community empowerment, it was obvious, Colin told me, that the organisation wouldn’t be able to hold its head up if it didn’t at least try to make a difference. From the start, the programme involved complex negotiation – about venues, tutors, times of classes, and so on – but the course content was not up for grabs, and even where the programme was, of necessity, delivered to ‘single-identity’ groups, tutors worked to ensure people were challenged by the content.
Those early classes were remarkable, for various reasons. Colin recalls one teenager, asked to find an object from home that said something about his identity, bringing into class a gun he had found in his dad’s wardrobe. But the most amazing thing was the stories people told; stories, often, that had been kept bottled up for years – incredibly moving, sometimes horrifying, stories, that, Colin says, it was a privilege to hear. There were victims, on both sides, but there were also ex-paramilitaries of both persuasions, as well as ex-army and police officers.
It took a while. The classes didn’t take off straight away; people didn’t just open up. But once they felt safe, once they knew they could speak without fear, it became clear that there was a real desire for talk, a desire to understand and, crucially, a willingness to listen. Creating a space for people to talk to each other, about things they would be reluctant to bring up outside the classroom, became the defining feature of the work, a challenge to the well-worn maxim: ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’.
Since then, the work has grown, to include courses on diversity, Irish history, conflict management, negotiation skills and ‘leadership in a shared society’ – all designed to encourage and facilitate learning and dialogue at community level. Adult education in the community is now recognised as a key dimension of Northern Ireland’s peace building and community relations infrastructure. The work, however, remains fragile, both in terms of funding and in terms of the still volatile situation in some communities. Incidents like the recent flag protests – following the decision to restrict the flying of the union flag from Belfast City Hall – can set the process of confidence building and community integration back a way, making people reluctant to leave their communities and to discuss issues to do with conflict.
At the best of times, people’s home community environments can reinforce sectarian feeling, but it becomes particularly acute in times of crisis. Progress is hard-won and difficult to sustain. Frustration is one of the hallmarks of the work. The long-awaited strategy for a shared future in Northern Ireland gives some support to community development work, stressing that the target of bringing down the peace walls by 2023 can only be accomplished with the active involvement of communities (who will be invited to agree a phased plan to remove them) and setting out plans or a ‘united youth programme’, with components in good relations, good citizenship and steps into work.
The proposals are unapologetically focused on young people. No-one would doubt that this is important but, as the community educators I met would tell you, the good they will do will be limited if there is not parallel activity aimed at parents and other adults in the communities in which these young people live. As former WEA NI tutor and community development worker Mary McCusker told me: ‘If you don’t go into the community and educate people, it’s no good for the kids when they come home … Who is the primary influence? It’s the parents. And if they are sectarian and put their views into their children, integrated education is finished. You have to change that. Whatever they do during the say, they have to live in their community, so you mustn’t ever leave the communities out.’ The challenge for the work, as ever, is to sustain it so that lasting relationships are built that are strong enough to survive and to make a long-term difference. When the all-party group meets to discuss the shared future strategy proposals in the next few weeks, education for adults should be high on the agenda.
My article on WEA NI’s peace-building programme is published in the spring 2013 issue of Adults Learning.