“Children Who Play Together Can Learn to Live Together”

Operation’s Team Leader Debbie Byrne reflects on why using sport is such a positive tool to bring the two communities in Northern Ireland together…

The children warm up before taking part in Basketball games!

The children warm up before taking part in Basketball games!

Five months has flown by for me as the new Operation’s Team Leader at PeacePlayers International – Northern Ireland (PPI-NI). It has been a bit of a whirlwind but time after time I have found myself coming back to the question why use sport to do cross-community work in Northern Ireland?

St. Lukes excitedly welcome back their friends from Belvoir Park Primary school back to their school after the sports-based Twinning programme last year.

St. Luke’s excitedly welcome back their friends from Belvoir Park Primary school after the sports-based Twinning programme last year.

Sport in Northern Ireland is very much connected to cultural identity and can sometimes be one of the biggest causes of the problems.  However, my experience over the past few months has shown me that this is simply not the case – even when it has come to playing sports that are perceived as coming from one community or another.  What I see is that sport, and in particular basketball (the chosen sport of PPI-NI), breaks down divides and builds bridges.  The children and young people get so enthralled in playing the game that they forget the misconceptions that they may have of the people they are playing with.  ‘Team’ becomes more important than individuals.  ‘We’ becomes more important than ‘I’.  The human desire to compete, do well, and  overcome seems to take over and the people on your team become comrades in a great battle. At this stage we leverage these new relationships to help the children learn more about the lives, culture and traditions of their new teammates from the other community.

We see this time and time again at PeacePlayers International – Northern Ireland. What we typically do is have two classes from two schools come together from across the political divide. At first they are nervous, shy and herding together in their class group.  As soon as any type of game begins however, they are having fun, laughing and screaming for their team to succeed.  They forget their old identity and the new team becomes their new identity.

After only a couple of weeks of a twinning I have been able to see individuals from classes running in to meet their friends from the other class.  Nowhere has this been more evident than over the past few weeks with the twinning of St. Luke’s Primary School and Belvoir Park Primary School in Belfast. As you can see from the pictures, the children come in beaming and excited, ready to see their friends from the other class.  They want to get into their teams quickly so that they can get down to the action and competition.

Teams from St. Lukes & Belvoir Park Primary Schools with guests from Sandy Springs High School learning about discrimination and stereotypes in sport.

Teams from St. Lukes & Belvoir Park Primary Schools with guests from Sandy Springs High School learning about discrimination and stereotypes in sport.

The global PeacePlayers motto is that ‘Children who play together can learn to live together’. This motto has been sinking in to me in a deeper, more profound way the more I see the individual and group changes that occur when we implement this simple philosophy.

Sport really is one of the best tools to use for community relations work in Northern Ireland and I am just happy to be part of the process of making it happen with PeacePlayers International – Northern Ireland.

Coach Megan teaches St. Luke's and Belvoir Park Primary Schools about the lines on the basketball court!

Coach Megan teaches St. Luke’s and Belvoir Park Primary Schools about the lines on the basketball court!

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