As Northern Ireland’s elected representatives scramble to save those parts of the Good Friday agreement that they deem vital to their own political survival, a recent study has revealed the identities of the true victims of political expediency: children.
Paul Connolly, a professor at the University of Ulster, says that the seeds of the North’s sectarian hatred are sown before many children are out of diapers. In his academic study, "Community Relations Work With Pre-School Children," Connolly notes that by the age of 2 some children are already aware of groups like the RUC and IRA. By the time they start school, many show an understanding of complex issues, including the significance of certain colors and symbols, and many have started to develop animosity toward church leaders from other backgrounds.
One can easily surmise that in the 25 years of the Troubles, such intolerant attitudes only hardened and became more ingrained as successive generations of children grew up and had children of their own. It was — and is — a vicious cycle, and one that was shockingly revealed in the recent documentary film "Children at War," which explored the psychic damage war inflicts on children throughout the world, Northern Ireland included.
The true nature of the Northern conflict, which today has reached a cold-war-like impasse, has always resisted precise categorization. But it has never been, as some politicians are keen to argue, a purely political problem. Indeed, a strong sectarian undercurrent has always flowed beneath and nourished competing interests in all communities there. Stemming that flow should be the goal of every politician. Getting them to see beyond their narrow self-interests is the challenge to the community at large.
Indeed, success in breaking the cycle may to come, in the end, from the bottom up, not the top down. From grassroots community organizations and schools, not elected officials.
For as Connolly put it, "If it is agreed that some pre-school children are at least capable of developing certain sectarian attitudes and behaviors, then it is important that a community-relations strategy . . . can aim to prevent it from developing and effectively challenge it when it arises."
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No political settlement, not even a fully implemented Good Friday agreement, can force people to like each other. That can only happen over time, with increased interaction in turn promoting trust. Political institutions can help make that happen, of course. But in their absence, the burden to break the cycle falls on others — and it makes their job all the more difficult.