15 July 2004 Edition
Interface children visit London
Two years ago, some of us in the London-based Wolfe Tone Society visited Belfast's Short Strand and Ardoyne on a fact-finding trip. The shocking realities of what we saw then laid the seeds that came to fruition last week. Four kids from each of these areas and four from South Antrim, all aged between 12 and 14 and accompanied by four adult community leaders, spent a week in London and stayed with members of our group.
The timing of the trip was to give the children a week away during the Orange marching season and all the anxieties that this brings with it for them and their communities. Internationally, the response to the Peace Process has been to assume that the problems in the North of Ireland have been resolved. But Phyllis Doherty, one of the community leaders from Ardoyne who accompanied the children on their visit, told us that "at home at this time we are curfewed in where we live, we cannot get out to go shopping or to work; in our area we haven't got much peace out of the Peace Process".
We tried to fit a variety of elements into the week's activities, and it proved an undoubted success, as the children were able to experience life in a multi-cultural city and make lasting bonds with those in London and each other. The activities we had scheduled for them all had specific aims: they took part in team-building activities and they experienced Irish culture in London during a day watching the games at the Emerald Rooms GAA Club in Ruislip. They enjoyed London's endless retail outlets and bought things from Camden Market and other shopping centres. There was also the pure fun of a day out at Thorpe Park (a large amusement park) and a visit to The London Dungeons.
An important element in their visit included a trip to City Hall at the invitation of London Mayor Ken Livingstone, where they were given a tour by the children's unit of the Greater London Authority. The children were then given lunch, during which they participated in an interactive activity, where they drew maps of their areas and talked about their lives at home. All of the children complained about the sheer lack of amenities and facilities available to them, and how they are even denied access to a local shop due to the sectarian boundaries.
From there, they went to Westminster at the invitation of John McDonnell MP and Jeremy Corbyn MP, who had booked a room to discuss issues with the children. Some of the points raised included the fact that the Odyssey Leisure Centre that those in the Short Strand have been able to access and which is shared by both Protestant and Catholic communities, is shortly due to close down. This will leave the children and adults with no leisure facilities. Both MPs promised to take this up on behalf of the community in the House of Commons.
We are delighted that we were able to call upon the Irish community in London for assistance in fundraising for the trip and that the response to it was fantastic. All of those individuals and organisations that gave money, time or facilities have helped people to understand the issues of sectarianism in the North of Ireland.
An exciting week was rounded off with an emotional farewell of singing, dancing, eating and drinking at the Connaught Pub, Tottenham, where it was clear that relationships had been forged which would be sustained.
We will sustain the invaluable bonds we have forged with the residents during their visit and continue to highlight their plight both internationally and in England. The day after the children and adults flew back to Belfast, four of our members returned to the Short Strand and Ardoyne to act as international observers during the Orange marches around the Twelfth of July.