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Crossing the divide in Northern Ireland
by Robin de Baere



Northern Ireland has had more than 30 years of political violence. The current peace process, albeit fragile, is being heralded as a new beginning that could overcome years of sectarian division. In this climate of reconciliation, the British Red Cross is able to contribute to the education of the new generation in Northern Ireland.

In 1999, the ICRC seconded a delegate to the British Red Cross to develop a communication strategy for a stronger partnership with the Irish Red Cross. The cross-border and cross-community project has been running ever since. One of the project's most successful initiatives was the pilot testing of an education pack, Exploring Humanitarian Law (EHL), in secondary schools across Northern Ireland. EHL was initiated in order to help spread knowledge and develop an understanding of international humanitarian law and related issues among adolescents.

The aim of the project is to provide learning resources that may be integrated into curricula in secondary schools. The programme was developed in association with: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Burundi, Chile, Djibouti, Israel, Lebanon, Lithuania, Mexico, Morocco, Northern Ireland (United Kingdom), Ireland, Norway, Palestinian National Authority, Senegal, South Africa, Thailand and the United States.

The material consists of core educational modules that can be adapted for use among youth in the 13-18 age group. The pack contains a set of scenarios and lesson plans that aim to improve understanding of humanitarian and ethical issues related to conflict situations. The English version of these modules is now available. Arabic, French and Spanish versions will be ready shortly.

Citizenship education

The EHL project fits well with the new emphasis on the promotion of human rights and responsible citizenship as part of the peace and reconciliation process in Northern Ireland. Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement (the political agreement signed in 1998 which forms the basis of the Northern Ireland peace deal), priority was given to the creation of a human rights culture throughout the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.

Visually stimulating and accessible, EHL is designed to encourage young people to participate actively and debate issues relevant to the education of a new generation in Northern Ireland. Education experts have commended the flexible and diverse nature of the resource. There are many useful stories, case studies and video clips in the pack which could be integrated into citizenship teaching and learning activities - especially where the investigation is at a European and global level, observes Bernie Kells, resource and development officer for citizenship at the University of Ulster. He adds that "most of the education system here is still divided along community lines. The first trials of the material took place in both nominally Catholic and Protestant schools which account for 95 per cent of schools in Northern Ireland. They were also tested in the integrated school sector." Students were introduced to the concept of humanitarian law through an introductory exploration confronting them with basic questions such as: What is human dignity? What is war? What is a civilian? What past or current wars do you know about?

"It was interesting to see that students reacted differently to these questions, depending on their own viewpoint and that of their peers. Most of the students knew very little about conflicts elsewhere. In answering these questions, young people quickly came up with issues which happened during the last 30 years of the conflict here," Kells explains.

On stage

As an associated pilot site, the Northern Ireland context contributed to the development of EHL in a very specific way. It suggested the use of drama as an extension activity to the lesson materials. When the EHL team from the ICRC visited Belfast to discuss the pilot materials, they were introduced to the "First Call-Youthways" youth drama group. Over time, they played an important part in the research and development work of the EHL modules worldwide.

The young people performed scenes depicting the plight of victims of armed conflict and some of the performances were recorded on videotape. Educators and humanitarian workers around the world found the performances so powerful that they asked if there was some way the techniques for teaching drama skills could be shown to other teachers in other parts of the world. Work began with a new group of young people and the sessions were recorded to make a teacher training video.

EHL aims to introduce a culture of peace among the younger generation. In Northern Ireland, young people perform scenes depicting the plight of war victims.

International perspective

Most teachers involved in the project agreed that the worldwide perspective inherent to EHL could play a part in overcoming the adverse effects of a long tradition of parochial socialization and segregated schooling. "It gives young people the opportunity to reflect on the scale of conflict, both inside and outside Northern Ireland. It is very relevant to what they live with on a daily basis," says Millie Stevenson, a teacher from Bangor High School.

The resource has also been recognized as being cross-curricular. As Ruth Bleakes, a teacher at Banbridge High School, says, "this lesson material can be used in so many different subject areas - drama, English, history, geography, religious studies and so on."

Overall, the EHL project in Northern Ireland has demonstrated its potential to become part of mainstream education. In preparation for this, two education experts recently attended a five-day EHL master teacher-training course, organized by the ICRC in Geneva. Brigid Murray, a participant from the Belfast Education Board, points out that "with EHL, the Red Cross has produced a comprehensive file of educational materials. This workshop provided participants with an opportunity to become familiar with the content and the methodologies that could be employed to deliver the concepts to young people. Within the Northern Ireland context it is likely that the materials will be integrated into the proposed citizenship programme."

Having had this positive experience in Northern Ireland, the British Red Cross has decided that EHL will form the basis for a teaching resource for eventual use by young people across the United Kingdom.

Major goals

The cross-border and cross-community project in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland aims to:

  • Promote the Fundamental Principles of the Movement and the basic rules of international humanitarian law among young people, academics and other relevant audiences, as part of the peace and reconciliation process in Northern Ireland.
  • Strengthen cooperation and exchange of ideas between the British and Irish Red Cross through the identification and implementation of joint projects and activities.
  • Raise the profile of the Red Cross in both parts of Ireland.
  • Increase involvement of young people in Red Cross work.
  • Contribute to establishing a volunteer base which is representative of all sections of the Northern Ireland community.


Robin De Baere
Robin De Baere is ICRC project officer in Belfast working with the British Red Cross

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