Sunday, 28 December 2014

Disunity and Dis-Uniforms: Looking at the Feast of the Holy Innocents through an Irish Lens

Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, when we remember those children in Bethlehem and the surrounding areas killed by Herod in his attempt to kill the infant Jesus (Matthew 2:16-18). 

It is one of the most disturbing incidences in the biblical text.

What reflection can be derived from such an atrocious act?

I suggest that we critically reflect on how war, poverty, and political and social policies around the globe continue to destroy the lives of children, not just in ‘developing’ regions but in the ‘developed’ as well.

Separation barrier between the Falls Road and Shankill Road areas, one of over a hundred in Belfast

I, of course, tend to view this through an Irish lens, and reflect on what the 1968-1998 conflict over Northern Ireland and its aftermath did- and continues to do- to the region’s young people.

Northern Ireland is a ‘young’ region; 40% of the population is under 25. The effects of the 1968-1998 conflict and deeply-rooted, ongoing sectarianism and segregation affect children and young people in unique ways. It can be argued that children and young people suffer a disproportionate cost for the actions of the past and the ongoing segregationist and sectarian policies of our present. 

For example:

-          Most children in Northern Ireland live in segregated areas, and the segregation affects them in distinctive and more acute ways than adults.  Children in Northern Ireland wear school uniforms that immediately mark them as Catholic or Protestant. Thus, segregation extends from home, to school, and to social and leisure activities.

-          For many, the first sustained contact with the ‘other’ community may only come at third-level education or first employment. The fear of being identified as an ‘other’ limits young people’s movements more than adults, and thereby their opportunities and choices.

-          Young people from lower income and ‘interfaceareas (where one community’s territory is next to another’s) face greater obstacles in achieving either third-level education or sustained employment. Unemployment rates among young people in Northern Ireland tend to be higher anyway and, in interface communities, the levels are again increased. This then acts as an important driver toward substance abuse, mental health issues and lack of social capital and transport. Moreover, sectarian dynamics, as they are manifested at interface areas, exacerbate unemployment, acting as a ‘double penalty’ on young people due to the tendency to only feel safe within the confines of one’s own community and the hesitancy to leave it due to a more pronounced fear of physical attack. Youth recreation also suffers if one’s perceived area has no such facilities but patterns of fear and territorialism discourage travel to or through what is perceived the ‘other’s’ area.  

-          Children and young adults at interfaces tend to have more direct experiences of political violence than middle-class counterparts. Particularly, Northern Ireland’s history of conflict exerts more pressure on boys and young men, where masculine identity and violent behaviour are often seen as an essential experience of being young and male.

-          As well as more acute experiences of violence, interface children often display distinct patterns of distrust of the police. Even more disturbingly, the history of paramilitary control of many interface areas has led to the tendency for areas to ‘police’ themselves, usually through para-military intimidation and physical force. Through behaviour deemed anti-social, children and young people often found themselves- and continue to perceive themselves- the chief targets of this ‘irregular policing’.

-          68% of 18-25 year-olds had never had a meaningful conversation with anyone from the ‘othercommunity. Throughout the conflict and into the present, attempts were made to mitigate the lack of meaningful contact with young people from the other community through cross-community inter-group contact schemes. The effectiveness of such schemes, however, has been a matter of intense debate. Basically, no amount of infrequent and carefully orchestrated contact, can overcome the formative role played by family and community in a context of near-total cultural segregation. More problematically, many young people, particularly young men, reported that such schemes increased the chances of sectarian violence by making them more easily recognisable to elements in the ‘other’ community.


I was deeply moved by this video project produced in Derry, Northern Ireland’s second-largest city. In it, two secondary school girls, one from a Catholic background and one from a Protestant background, exchange school uniforms and walk through the city.

It brought back so many personal memories of young people I have worked with in schools, churches, community centres, and other projects over the years.

It is difficult for someone not from Northern Ireland to grasp the amount the courage needed to do what these two incredible young women did for this project. I believe it stands as an indictment of politicians, church hierarchies, and other community leaders who rarely show the same level of purpose, courage, or vision... 

It also stands as an appeal to those in power to critically reflect, both on what they have done, and what they have failed- and continue to fail- to do...

Holy Innocents, pray for us

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