In this week’s blog, PPI-Northern Ireland Assistant Project Coordinator, Laura Agnew, shares how a journey on her local school bus inspired her to give children a chance for peace.
A false perception in Northern Ireland is that the conflict between Catholics and Protestants happened only in bigger towns and cities. In actual fact, the rural areas were sometimes worse, but the conflicts didn’t get enough media interest to grab any attention. Minimal press coverage through the years, means there has been very little intervention or progress towards peace in these rural areas since, and the religious divide is still extremely prominent today.
I can speak from personal experience when I say rural areas faced these religious tensions. Growing up on a farm in the countryside is wonderful, except when you have to be anywhere other than on that farm! So this meant taking “the country bus” to school. But little did I know on my first day of Kilkeel High School, that I would face these religious tensions head on before 8am!
In 2004, I boarded my school bus for the first time and sat in the first 4 rows. I immediately got called to sit at the back with the older students from my school. I still remember exactly what I was told – “we sit at the back and they sit at the front, that’s the way it’s always been”. It wasn’t directly said, but even as an 11 year old I knew exactly what that statement meant – Protestants from Kilkeel High School sat at the back, and Catholics from St Louis’ sat at the front. Unfortunately, growing up at that point in time meant I wasn’t shocked at all by this statement. In fact, I was relieved that I was told about this tradition so I didn’t have to learn the hard way. All of the school buses in the area were shared by the two schools, but people would shout abuse or throw objects at anyone sitting in the wrong seat.
Looking back I realize that throughout my school life I was in the middle of the kind of situation that I would later be trying to resolve through my work at PeacePlayers. Amazingly, I now work with a former St Louis’ pupil – PPI-NI Project Coordinator Joanne Fitzpatrick! We went to school at the same time but never came into contact with each other because of the religious divide in our area. However, I now consider her to be not only a colleague, but one of my closest friends.
It is heart-warming for Joanne and I to see PeacePlayers participants becoming friends and even sharing seats on the buses to programmes because it is a total contrast from our very real experience of the same tensions. Subtle changes in the childrens’ attitudes to the other community fuels my passion and drive to work to give every child the chance of a peaceful childhood. After all, your school days are meant to be some of the best days of your life, and that should include the bus journey!