Youth looks at peace process

February 6, 1998

Students are holding their own multinational talks on the future of Northern Ireland in Belfast

Students were meeting in Belfast today to debate the political future of Northern Ireland.

They gathered less than a mile from the location of the province's multi-party talks, where representatives are finally facing the nitty-gritty of real-politik.

The three-day conference, "Building the peace", is the initiative of the National Union of Students/Union of Students in Ireland to force their members to deal with the reality of sectarianism.

It is billed as a student contribution to a different Northern Ireland. Students from England, Scotland, the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland are discussing future political and constitutional arrangements for the province.

The summary of the conference will mirror the talks and will be divided into three strands - relations within Northern Ireland; relations between the North and the Republic; and relations between Dublin and London. The strands must all overlap and inter-lock to form a final settlement in May. A number of senior politicians are expected to attend.

The weekend also includes workshops on such contentious issues as marching, the status of the Irish language and cross-community initiatives.

For the students it is a tough assignment. Peter O'Neill of NUS/USI said:

"We do not expect them to reach a consensus. It is unrealistic to think that if the wider community cannot agree, students could reach agreement at a single event. The aim is more consciousness and conscience raising among students who attend and we hope to learn from the issues that are raised."

But the organisers hope there will be spin-offs in terms of allowing students to look at their own role in helping to frame a political accommodation and active involvement in a form of community relations training.

The conference is the latest phase of a NUS/USI plan to force members to confront the issues from which student life can provide a refuge. It follows a conference a month ago addressed by leading political academics, including Tony Gallagher, former head of the Northern Ireland civil service, Sir Ken Bloomfield and the chief executive of the Community Relations Council, Will Glendinning.

NUS/USI has also just published a pamphlet detailing its policy on dealing with potentially thorny issues and frankly setting out the experience of past students.

Mr O'Neill said: "There is no point in us trying to sweep these things under the carpet."

Underlying the internationalisation of the Northern Ireland problem, with the earlier direct involvement of United States president Bill Clinton today's conference will be opened by Kathy Stephens, American Consul. Since theatrics are never far from political life, there is also a drama workshop called "Beyond the Mask: Theatre of the Oppressed".

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