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