In 2003, CRIS staff were introduced to Nursery School Principals, Nuala Gallagher from Holy Cross Nursery in Ardoyne and Nancy Magrath from Edenderry Nursery School in the Shankill.
Both Principals were inspired by the new era of peace following the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. They planned how they could actively contribute to this and developed a buddying system that would link their children in pairs across the interface, a system for contact work that would later (2013) be included in the Government strategy Together Building a United Community (TBUC) to be “rolled out to all publicly funded Nursery and Primary schools” in Northern Ireland.
As is said, “from tiny acorns do mighty oaks grow.” From those early days of experimentation, a strong appetite to build relations began to emerge from the families involved. It was clear that attitudinal change would be limited by working with the children alone, and that a cross generational approach was needed. CRIS were invited to find a way of further involving the parents/carers who were showing an interest. This was the beginning of an inspirational partnership that in 2018 became internationally recognized for its innovative peacebuilding approach and impact.
The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the momentum of the ongoing yearly and daily programming for parents in the Nursery schools. It became clear to CRIS and school partners, that this initiative required in-person contact to work best. Attempts to adapt methods to engage parents failed. Amidst the challenges of the pandemic, all involved were gutted to lose the momentum built up over two decades – unsure how long the pandemic would last and hopes on hold for a time when peacebuilding programmes with parents could re-start.
With the pandemic easing and contact re-emerging in March 2022, a series of events to scope parental interest were hosted in the Houben centre. CRIS staff were heartened and reminded of the dense tapestry of relationships that have continued between parents and families due to their participation on the Buddy Up programme over 22 years. This certainly matches up with the academic research (2018), linked to the Buddy Up programme, where 59 parent participants took part in a survey that highlighted 4 key findings:
94% - feel that Buddy Up should be widely replicated
79% - felt safer in other community due to participation in Buddy Up
75% - want to be more involved in Community Relations work
56% - meet up with parents from the other community in their own time
Everyday Peacebuilding Program
In recent months, CRIS were excited to host a series of events to launch its new Everyday Peacebuilding programme in North Belfast. This new scaling initiative seeks to extend programming and the interschool buddy system with pupils, parents, staff and school leaders. This year alone will see over 700 Nursery and Primary School children matched with buddies across the various lines of interface spanning community landscapes of greater Ardoyne and Shankill.
Together with the staff from Holy Cross and Edenderry Nursery Schools, the Principals and school staff from all six feeder Primary Schools (Glenwood PS and Holy Cross Boys’ PS; Wheatfield PS and Holy Cross Girls’ PS; Mercy PS and Edenbrooke PS) are fully on board and are co-creating the vision and process for this work. Parents/carers are also involved in a period of consultation as equal partners and leaders in their communities, role modelling a positive way forward for their children and wider families.
In October 2022, a Parents Reunion event took place in the Lansdowne hotel where parents who had been associated with CRIS progammes down through the years, had the opportunity to reunite over a meal and some comedic input from local artist Nuala McKeever.
CRIS also took the opportunity to brief parents as to the new developments with Primary Schools and invite them back into the process to ultimately create a network of “insider partials” who would advocate, support and be actively involved in the renewed strategy.
Family Fun Day
This event was quickly followed by a Fun Day at Girdwood Community Hub the following weekend, aimed at parents from all the primary schools which had become involved in the flagship CRIS Buddy Up programme. Over 180 parents and children attended this exciting and upbeat event which culminated in parents signing up to be part of CRIS parental programmes in the future.
On Monday 17 October 2022, the Taoiseach visited CRIS (who are one of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Strategic Partners) at Girdwood Community Hub where a room full of committed Principals, teachers, and parents, 25 strong, from North Belfast were gathered to greet him.
The Taoiseach was so interested and engaged in what he heard that he stayed well over the hour, clearly energised by what he was witnessing, after a long day of talks, which ended in the usual stalemate and non-negotiables. Instead, he found a place for hope to hang its hat!
He found a growing body of grassroots leaders willing to put their words, hopes and dreams to work for the common good. At CRIS we believe he found one of the missing links in peacebuilding – the role of families and the emergence of the everyday peacebuilders in growing numbers and with sense of urgency.
Moving forward it is CRIS’s ultimate aim to foster a standalone parents project across this most contested divide and which could act as a model of good practice for reconciliation practice and a beacon of hope for others.
At CRIS we have found year after year – for over 20 years, that the greatest hope exists in places many would least expect to find it. This is in direct contrast to traditional media representations of Ardoyne and Shankill communities and together with schools and families CRIS hope to raise up this alternative story and celebrate the locally owned art of everyday peacebuilding.