Dealing with Difference Kirsty McClay

My involvement in the Spirit of Enniskillen Trust began when I was 16. Since then, I have participated in various programs which aim to teach young people in Northern Ireland how to deal with difference. I’ve stayed involved because SOE made me passionate about dealing with sectarianism both within myself and in Northern Ireland as a whole. The nature of the work makes it a constant challenge but the rewards that come with this are what made me want to complete my service project with SOE before leaving for DC.

Growing up in a Protestant area and going to Protestant schools, I, like many young people here could not escape the sectarianism imbedded within Northern Irish society. There is no one in particular who can be blamed for this, sectarianism is institutionalised; it’s in our surnames, in the area we’re from, in the schools we attend and the sports that we play. A lot of my work in SOE involves going to schools and working with pupils, and focusing on improving teambuilding, communication and leadership skills. By supporting pupils to use these skills to engage in meaningful dialogue with each other and people from different schools and areas, they are encouraged to deal with difference in an effective manner. The impact of this never fails to overwhelm me, and it’s so rewarding to see young people learning from each other, voicing their opinions and feeling like they want to take this learning back into their own communities. It also means I never get complacent about the significance of this work in my own life, which I was reminded of during the pre-departure training of the Washington Ireland Program.

With the aim of exploring dealing with difference, the class of 2012 was given the opportunity to have a question and answer session with two ex-combatants, one from a loyalist background and the other from a republican background. I found myself struggling to listen to the former INLA member; his words made me frustrated, resentful and eventually just angry. My reaction to the loyalist ex prisoner was strikingly different. I empathised with him, respected him for turning his life around and appreciated the time he took to come and speak to us.

My reaction unsettled me deeply. I felt a huge amount of guilt, I dedicate so much of my time to giving young people the chance to deal with difference, yet here I was unable to deal with my own prejudices. After some reflection, I was fortunate enough to meet the two men again. I discussed my reaction to when they first spoke; I asked them questions and challenged their opinions and most importantly my own.

This experience made me value my service project more than ever before. I was recently honoured to receive an award from the Department of Education in Northern Ireland for 200 hours of volunteering for SOE, yet my struggle to come to terms with someone who’s background and opinions were so different to my own reminded me how difficult it is to overcome personal prejudices. I feel privileged that I have been encouraged and supported to work on this, however it saddens me that such a huge part of Northern Ireland is not so fortunate. It is much too easy to go through life here without really addressing how to deal with difference, and because of this the idea of a shared future seems to be slipping away. The true value of my service project is that passivity is not satisfactory; people are pushed to voice their opinions and face up to their prejudices. Taking responsibility for your own opinions is the important first step in the process of dealing with difference.