A place of encounter for people from different communities
Ever since the Belfast Agreement was signed in 1998, ending decades of violence, Northern Ireland is considered a post-conflict society. However, segregation in housing and schools, as well as inter- and intra-communal tensions, persist in some areas. Moreover, Northern Ireland has seen an increase in people from other countries moving there. This development has been welcomed by some communities, while newcomers experience hate incidents in others. In general, there are limited opportunities for meaningful interaction between different groups.
The “Promoting Reconciliation & Integration through Safe Mediation” (PRISM) project by the British Red Cross, the Irish Red Cross, ArtsEkta and Corrymeela set out to gain a better understanding of this increasingly diverse environment and to promote awareness and dialogue between and within groups. Launched in march 2018, PRISM took place over a three-year period and reached 222 participants from Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, China, Egypt, Iran, Moldova, India, Poland, Romania, Sudan and Syria.
In the beginning, 30 participants were recruited for individual programmes. They were split into three groups: one with 10 members of the Catholic/Nationalist/Republican community, one with 10 members of the Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist community, and another with 10 newcomers from other countries. The programmes began with workshops to assess and discuss the issues faced by each community. The sessions were entirely participant-led to encourage a sense of ownership of the activities and evoke interest to participate. A wide range of activities was available, from arts and crafts to gardening, flower-arranging, tai-chi, drumming and therapeutic sessions. Impacted by COVID-19, the activities moved online and expanded to include sessions in flower pressing, bread baking, Zumba, storytelling, and history sharing. Through the online sessions, PRISM managed to keep up engagement with the project participants throughout the various waves of the pandemic.
The programme in North and West Belfast, for example, was exclusively tailored to women and aimed to foster cultural exchange between communities. While the sessions had a quiet start with shy participants, everyone slowly opened up: “During the programme they were able to relax and get involved in conversations with others”, says a staff member from the British Red Cross. “As the weeks went on, you could see people becoming more confident. Many of the women were uncomfortable with the exercises that involved getting up and shaking someone´s hand. Confidence grew and some of the women came out of their shells and had one-on-one conversations with the other women. A lot of them just enjoyed having a cup of tea and a chat, as it was their time to relax away from their responsibilities”.
People sometimes feeling uncomfortable or resistant to aligning themselves to a particular community. This can create barriers that hinder positive relations in an inclusive and non-judgmental environment. Through the inclusive and participatory nature of PRISM, everyone was welcome. This enabled people of various backgrounds to explore and share the issues that contribute to driving them apart and the things that bring them together, while making connections with people from their own and other communities.
“As the Irish women were sitting on one side, I thought I should go over and sit beside them”, says a newcomer participant in the North and West Belfast programme. “I realised just what they were going through themselves and when we talked about them as carers, I realised they were like us. They had conflict in their country just like us and they have responsibilities”.
Having finished in March 2021, a research report outlining the approach and key findings of the project showed that overall, people from all sides wanted to engage with each other in a safe space. It also drew attention to the needs of migrant communities in Northern Ireland. There was a lot of empathy displayed between traumatised communities. “The PRISM research report clearly shows how simple changes to the way newcomers are welcomed, perceived and supported in our local communities can help build positive and inclusive relationships which benefit all community members”, says Sharon Sinclair, Country Director for Northern Ireland at the British Red Cross.
Promoting Reconciliation & Integration through Safe Mediation (PRISM)
Northern Ireland (UK)
March 2018 – March 2021
British Red Cross, Irish Red Cross, ArtsEkta, Corrymeela
PRISM Research Report “I could leave all my troubles at my door” (February 2021)