Sunday, June 27, 2010

That's Not a Bonfire, THIS is a Bonfire

On Monday our Volunteer In Missions group met at 1 pm with Researchers John Bell & Ulf Hanson, from the “Institute for Conflict Research” which focuses on conflict sources such as parading, segregated housing, segregated living, segregated education, and bonfires, and their alleviation.

This is the summary of the second portion of that meeting and this second portion concerns bonfires.

Bonfires are used to commemorate events significant to the community which sponsors them. There used to be about 38 fire sites. Now there are about 80 or 90 sites in Belfast. More bonfires are located outside Belfast, too.

The bonfires can be seen as threatening to the “other side,” which can be either side.

There have been efforts to convert bonfires to more of a festival. For instance, more efforts are being made to try to discourage paramilitaries from firing a volley in the air, as this is seen as inciting violence. Most bonfire organizers ban burning the tri-color flag of the Republic of Ireland.

Also, efforts are being made to clean up bonfires environmentally. The government is erecting walls around areas which are not supposed to be breached until the actual building of the bonfire begins. This keeps people from putting plastic and other obnoxious trash in the area where a bonfire will take place. Burning of tires has been banned.

The wooden structures created for the bonfire are impressive feats of architecture. Often they are burning towers. A tower which could fall over would be bad for neighbors. The bonfire structures are huge - over three stories high. The predominant fuel is pallets.

The better organizers keep young people off the structure so they don't get hurt.

Some community activists are trying to stop the fires. Some are trying to containerize the fire in a metal frame generally referred to as a beacon. Trash is banned from these beacons. Still, young people are mostly unimpressed by beacons. They report an element of disappointment to see a small beacon fire. Some attend impromptu bonfires held elsewhere and at the same time for people who don't want to watch the beacon fires.

Some groups are stressing the community aspect of bonfires. The one in North Belfast in Tiger's Bay. Children's play park, is an alcohol free event. Children could and do go.

The Cultural Networks Program is stressing fire isn't the only culture of Belfast neighborhood. South Belfast has embarked on a year long program to teach what is commemorated by the bonfires. South Belfast community organizers are trying to stress the cultural aspect of the commemorations.

The City Council's point of view recently was people are burning rubbish. They required fences around bonfire sites to avoid illegal dumping.

Young people find the fires exciting and they require a lot of organization and time to set up. Also, the hours and hours of work that go into building a bonfire keeps the builders from getting involved in street conflicts.

Some bonfires are very organized, some are organized by former paramilitaries. Others are more impromptu. Some are primarily built by young men. Some are built by gender equal assemblages of young people.

Primarily the bonfires occur in working class and poor areas. Some feel bonfires are more predominant in Protestant areas, but Catholic/Republicans developed bonfires in the 1980s to commemorate internment of their leaders. Originally, Republican/Catholic bonfires used to be on August 15th as this had a religious significance. Then the date went to 9 August as this is the anniversary of internment.

The July 11th date is a fixed date to Protestants.

Jean Paul, Director of West Belfast Festival, runs the largest community festival in Western Europe. In the late 1980s, in a number of Nationalist Republican areas, the conversation started, “Can we not do something more productive in a sense to promote our community, rather than burning stuff?” Also, the rioting at bonfires which took place up to that time led to numerous deaths, and the grassroots and leaders wanted to avoid such deaths. These desires led to the development in various places of community festivals. A district celebration often has smaller area celebrations done in conjunction.

(This summary of this discussion will be continued in a future blog.)

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Institute for Conflict Research

On Monday our Volunteer In Missions group met at 1 pm with Researchers John Bell & Ulf Hanson, from the “Institute for Conflict Research” which focuses on conflict sources such as parading, segregated housing, segregated living, segregated education, and bonfires, and their alleviation. The Institute for Conflict Research is a small independent research organization based in North Belfast on the interface between Tiger's Bay, which is predominantly Protestant, Unionist, Loyalist, and the New Lodge area which is predominantly Catholic, Nationalist, Republican. The organization started in Temple Grove Research in approximately 1994 based in London Derry/Derry. By 2001, it had moved to Belfast and was focused on the human cost of the Troubles.

Their focus moved into the impact of segregation in communities, the impact of interfaces on peoples' lives, and a lot of examination of parades, bonfires, and murals. Recent years have branched out into examining immigrant issues because of the changing demographics. There is one district of Belfast where the second most common language is Portuguese as it contains a high proportion from of people from East Timor. Migration is a big issue in Northern Ireland. The last census was in 2001. Potentially 35,000 Polish people are working in Northern Ireland. Many people from India and China have been in Northern Ireland for many decades. Recently, eastern Europe has been the source of many more immigrants, such as from Poland, Lithuania, etc.

The Institute for Conflict Research also was the first Northern Ireland research group to have studied homophobic crimes and transphobia (fear of trans-gender individuals and transvestites).

Recently they did a study of young people in Northern Ireland to see the young peoples understanding of history and their understanding of the troubles. Approximately a 1,000 young people were surveyed. A few hundred were interviewed in depth. The research was designed to find out if the young people understood the historical events which the bonfires commemorate, and the results show many young people are participating in bonfires with no knowledge of what they commemorate. The researchers suspect parents play a role in telling their children what happened in the Troubles but the knowledge which passes is often personal and with little context. Also, some parents are trying to shield their kids from the knowledge about the prejudicial attitudes to which their parents were subjected.

In education, at present only six percent of children attend mixed schools where children from both traditions attend. There is evidence the most of the schools were fairly well integrated at the creation of the Irish state in the 1920s. But over the decades both the Roman Catholic and the various Protestant churches were comfortable with the segregation into schools which were not mixed. The religious schools are built with 90 percent aid from the Irish government but the remainder of the funds has been religious sponsorship.

Before 1990, Protestant schools taught British history and Catholic schools taught a Nationalist history. The topics were so selected, even if taught fairly, the focus on the self group by each group kept understanding at a minimum.

There was a revision to the curriculum in1999 and another in 2007. Now critical thinking and assessing text, including determining what sources of conflict exist and the probable effects of conflict, are taught. A personal development and mutual understanding (PDMU) unit has been added. Now children are asked to take the role of former members of the opposite community from their own in oral exercises or essay writing. For instance, a Catholic student might have to argue against home rule, which was an issue for the entire island of Ireland back in 1912, taking the position of defending a Protestant viewpoint. While it is too soon to tell what the effect has been (its been less than 3 years), the curriculum is only one part to which the students are exposed.

For many decades, Irish schools administered a test to ten year olds called the “Eleven plus” or “11+”. This test was used to determine the type of subsequent schooling: a higher grade on 11+ put the student on a track toward more difficult subjects and standards which could lead to acceptance in a university. A lower grade meant the child would be put into less rigorous academic classes along with vocational training in a trade. Parents were concerned about the 11+ exam because of at least three reasons:

1.Ten years of age is relatively young to determine a child's future. Even an untrained observer knows children mature at different rates and a few years later, a child can be more able to concentrate on study and learning in an academic environment.

2.A single test places to much emphasis on one result. A child could excel at one area, but weaknesses in other areas might pull the child below the line necessary to become headed to university. If such a child were permitted to advance, by the time the child reaches a university or the work world, their particular talent may be a huge advantage such that the individual and society would benefit greatly.

3.Being just one test, something as simple as an illness or a phobia to tests could lower a student's grade and affect their whole life based on a transient event, a surmountable problem, or a temporary condition.

Perhaps for these reasons, politicians abolished the 11+ exam (Some people point out the woman who actually abolished the 11+ exam and the process of what is dubbed “selection” was an unelected administrator). The schools at the next higher level of course study are called grammar schools. Where as “grammar school” in the USA is the name of the category for the grade levels for children approximately up to 12 years old, in Northern Ireland, grammar school is the name for the level of schools which educate children between 11 years of age and university. The Northern Irish grammar schools still need to determine which students to admit. Therefore, the 11+ exam has been replaced by a similar exam given and administered by each individual grammar school. This is a relatively new procedure, but it seems to have increased the pressure on 10 year old students. Since the admission line is set by each school, parents are sending their children to several school entrance exams in order to maximize their opportunity for placement in a better school. This seems to be exacerbating the stress on these ten year olds.

Thirty schools have banded together to share the results of one exam, so perhaps the schools will reduce the stress on ten year olds of taking multiple exams.

Every student can be influenced by the attitude of their teacher, as much as the curriculum and, of course, when each student goes home, is exposed to the attitude of the parents, siblings, and other family members. Research by the Institute for Conflict Research revealed the three most influential factors on the attitudes of youth are first, parents, second, school/community and third, extended family.

Although the poor areas in Northern Ireland do not look as physically shabby as poor areas in other parts of the world, the family life has lots of negatives such as the dole (welfare), alcoholism, drug-abuse, crime, and other difficulties. Statistically, the children from the poor urban areas, which were most affected by the Troubles on a day to day basis, have a lifetime disadvantage in terms of earnings potential, and have as much to overcome as children from any of the poor areas around the globe.

Still, there are optimistic signs. Our Volunteer In Missions leaders have been coming to Northern Ireland for over 30 years. In former years, these leaders didn't see children playing outside or walking home from school. Apparently, parents were concerned for the children's safety relative to violence emanating from the Troubles, so would pick up their children at the school. This year, for the first time, children can be seen on the streets and in the neighborhoods walking home from school. This is an indicator of how much the tensions and the expectation of violence have lowered.

(to be continued)