TransConflict is pleased to present an introduction to the relevance and benefits of International Youth Work for the continued development of Community Relations in Northern Ireland, prepared by Inside Out, a member of the Global Coalition for Conflict Transformation.
By Fergal Barr
Since 1998 I have been involved in what has come to be known as International Youth Work. As you might suspect there is no one fixed definition (or many definitions for that matter), not least of all because there are many that still have problems defining youth work let alone international youth work. And given the nature, style, structure and context of youth work in different countries it’s hardly surprising that defining international youth work is in itself difficult.
I have long advocated greater involvement in, and a more pro-active approach to what I simply term ‘the international’ among practitioners in Northern Ireland. I believe it is one of the most if not (arguably) the most effective method of learning. I make this assertion because I have seen at first hand many of the benefits that young people, young leaders, youth workers and other practitioners (who engage with young people) have gained from participating in international programmes. In fact, there is plenty of evidence of such contained in this report.
I have witnessed young people shed the metaphorical bucket-full of tears, young leaders change their career aspirations, practitioners make life-changing decisions and older nearly retired youth workers become completely animated and reinvigourated as a result of their involvement in the international setting. I also make the assertion from the perspective of what might have been, at least in one case anyway, but where I’m certain there are lots of cases that many a youth worker can relate to.
In August 1989, I was an 18 year old in one of the old government-run Youth Training Programmes, i.e., ‘Youthways’. I had just come back from my second ‘Young People Together’ International Camp in Lisdoonvarna – an unforgettable experience – so much so that I had actually paid to go second time around! A year earlier, one of the other young people in our group whom I counted on as a good friend at the time was supposed to attend one of the camps. For whatever reason, he was unable to take part.
Fast-forward to early November 1994 and I was to learn that the very same young man was arrested for his part in the Rising Sun Bar massacre in Greysteel. Disbelief is not a strong enough word for anyone who knew him from our time in Youthways – complete bewilderment of how this quiet, unassuming young man with whom I had come to know well, a guy I hung out with and laughed with on so many occasions became involved in one of the most notorious events in the history of the Troubles will always live with me.
I often wondered had he taken part in the ‘Young People Together’ Camp in Lisdoonvarna and enjoyed a similar experience to mine would his life have been different. No guarantees of course but just maybe, just maybe. And thus the sense of what might have been.
I do believe his network of friends would have been different, his aspirations enhanced and more so his ideas about the importance and benefits of mixing in diverse company might have steered him in another direction and thus his involvement in the Rising Sun Massacre might never have been.
To say that this young man ‘wouldn’t have hurt a fly’ is no exaggeration (or at least in August 1989 it certainly felt like it) but as was so vividly demonstrated on that day in November 1994 when standing in the bedroom of a student friend and hearing the news emerge on the radio, the realisation that the dividing line between those who (and still do) become involved in political violence and those who don’t suddenly became very apparent….and very thin. A lesson to us all!
Had that young man gone to Lisdoonvarna perhaps his life might have been very different because aside from the positive healthy benefits that involvement in ‘the international’ or more specifically International Youth Work brings I also know that it has the capacity to bring about fundamental change in people’s lives and therefore if one less person becomes involved in violence of any kind or is less likely to advocate or promote among others, sectarian, racist, homophobic or sexist opinions, then international youth work can indeed support the change that we crave in Northern Ireland and/or other conflict societies for that matter.
Fergal Barr is a freelance youth worker and currently voluntary Co-ordinator of The Inside Out Programme in Claudy. He became a professionally qualified Youth Worker in 1995 but has been involved in Youth Work full-time since leaving school in May 1987.
Inside Out’s vision is one of “an active and healthy rural youth population in Northern Ireland.” Its mission is “to create, facilitate and promote opportunities for young people to work in partnership with adults to advance and realise the aspirations of young people living in rural areas.”
TransConflict will publish further extracts from a report into the relevance and benefits of International Youth Work for the continued development of Community Relations in Northern Ireland.