Good Relations and Peacebuilding with Belfast YMCA

September 2023

Peacebuilding has been a core part of Belfast YMCA work for many decades. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Belfast YMCA was involved in grassroots work to create opportunities for dialogue and mutual understanding. We have been running reconciliation themed youth projects since the early 1990s and have strong organisational connections in this field.

As an organisation, we do our utmost to respond to the changing needs of our community. In late 2012 and early 2013, we were troubled by the impact of the flag protests on community relations, with a particular impact being observed in young people. We responded to this challenge by investing the organisation’s own funds into peacebuilding efforts with young people.

Sadly, sectarianism and division continue to feature in the lives of young people. The Young Life and Times Survey for 2023 shows only 19% of young people think that Northern Ireland is a place where people respect each other. The PSNI have reported continued high levels of both sectarian and racist incidents. Our experience on the ground is that myths and negative perceptions of others are stubbornly persistent.

The “Ubuntu: I am because we are” project is about young people valuing themselves and others. We chose this title because we understand that it is crucially important to understand and celebrate our own sense of identity, history, culture and belonging as well as increasing our understanding of others. We passionately believe that young people should have opportunities to explore, express and test their values and beliefs, to develop a stronger sense of who they are and to address issues of division which are often avoided in our society.

750 young people from 6 post primary schools will participate in this project from September 2023 to June 2024. Pupils spend 10 weeks with YMCA staff, with activities taking place for around an hour a week.

The 10 week structured dialogue programme includes the following sessions:
Introduction to the course and building participants’ communication skills
Exploring our own and others’ identities.
Stereotypes of others.
Diversity in our community.
Context of the conflict in and around NI and the Decade of Centenaries.
Flags and emblems of the UK, Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Challenging sectarianism, racism and discrimination
Migration in the UK, Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Upstanding and bystanding behaviours.
Evaluation and preparation for collaboration.

Following the 10 week block of project activities, 1 class per school participates in a collaborative event with pupils from another school held at Belfast YMCA. The aim of this collaboration event is to build upon the themes already covered and to give participants the opportunity to discuss issues of identity and conflict in a mixed environment.

The Ubuntu project works. An evaluation of last year’s project found that not only did participants enjoy the experience, but there was clear evidence that it increased their optimism about the state of relations between Protestants and Catholics, it increased the proportion of young people who felt very favourable towards the other religious background and improved perceptions of minority ethnic groups. We found that our project led to a 13.8% percentage point increase of young people saying that they “strongly agreed ” that there was a lot to be learned from other religions.

We are grateful to the Government of Ireland for funding through the Department of Foreign Affairs’ Reconciliation Fund.

Peter McNeice
Youth Worker
Belfast YMCA