“He who opens a school door, closes a prison” – Victor Hugo

Lewis Mooney reflects on his community service with Helping Hands, Belfast

For more than three decades, the questions asked were about the causes and consequences of the conflict in, and over Northern Ireland, they had to be because this is what needed addressed at first. However rarely were the questions of how to rectify the evident divide and wider problems in communities or move beyond a turbulent past ever asked, it is only now that these issues have really been brought to light. It is true to say that Northern Ireland is no longer a relentless headline grabber in the global media like it once was when multiple killings and bombings provided a daily diet of negative news and images. It is now that questions surrounding how to make life better on the ground level of human experience and how to move on from conflict, rather than how to stop it are being asked.

Northern Ireland appears to be experiencing a period of relative peace, the Northern Ireland First Minister, Peter Robinson has coined it as the most settled period of devolution in almost forty years. However the eventual state in which Northern Ireland now finds itself in is arguably that of a negative peace, where the segregation and on occasion the violence which has been an evident part of this society are still ongoing. Sometimes a lack of adequate support for those in grassroots communities not only adds fuel to a predominantly dormant but still delicate conflict but it also results in young people not being given the opportunities which they deserve and that are enjoyed by those of a similar age in middle-class areas. Inevitably this has meant that large numbers of young adults have turned to crime, which of course cannot be justified as an act. However it is important that we attempt to put ourselves in the shoes of those who commit crime because it is important to have an insight into their frustration and realise that they, like anybody else need to be equipped with skills and understanding in order to break the vicious circle that they find themselves in.

For me, if the transitional justice process is to work and Northern Ireland is to make a full transformation, the younger generations should be targeted and educated. Of course it is important that the past is addressed; however we as a society should now be looking to the future in ensuring that those who at this stage are not overly affected or influenced by the conflict can learn to live with or alongside their counterparts in other communities.

The new project which I have been involved with during the month prior to departing for Washington D.C. does exactly this. The recently opened Helping Hands Centre on Royal Avenue in Belfast is closely affiliated with the Educational Shakespeare Company, a voluntary organisation which works with and encourages ex-prisoners and youth at risk to turn their lives around by getting involved in making educational videos about their experiences and issues such as mental health. In short, ESC gives troubled individuals an opportunity for personal growth, a chance to tell their story and to have a voice that will be listened to.

Helping Hands is only getting off the ground now but our main aim once it is fully operational will be for it to act as a learning and support centre for ex-prisoners (predominantly between the ages of 16-21) and youth at risk who are in trouble or who may commit crime/reoffend in the future. The number of young people put forward by The Probation Service and Youth Justice or who came into us that for example, did not have the basic literacy skills needed to carry out simple tasks in order to survive such as applying for a job or even signing up for welfare benefits was astonishing. The range of courses offered by Helping Hands, which aim to combat these obstacles include “Made of Money,” which supports ex-offenders on low income as they talk, listen and hear about money and its impact on their lives and “Toe by Toe,” a one on one literacy skills class

A convincing argument put forward by the people responsible for setting up Helping Hands is that in Northern Ireland there is too much focus given to former paramilitary prisoners or those who were involved in past conflict to the detriment of other individuals who need support. The Centre therefore offers a number of volunteer-led programmes but only to those who have never been or who are no longer politically affiliated. This idea links in with a major theme of the Washington Ireland Program, “Dealing with Difference.” It is of vital importance that children and young people in Northern Ireland are educated on how they can learn from and take something positive from each other’s similarities but also their contrasting characteristics as well; I hope that the Helping Hands Centre will offer a neutral environment in which this goal can be fulfilled.

Being involved in the Helping Hands Centre from the outset and prior to its opening was a fantastic opportunity and hopefully I will be able to see on my return, the progress and transformation that some of the Helping Hands members will make during my time in Washington D.C. The work I have carried out has been alongside two ex-prisoners predominantly, both of who are called Sam, they have been involved with ESC for a number of years and have done great work tackling the causes of conflict and crime discussed above. They offer a unique aspect to the programme in that they have at some point or another experienced what many of the young people enrolled on the programme are now facing. During the sessions this has led to open and honest discussion, it has meant that the youth are shown empathy and both Sam’s act as role models and examples of how it is never too late to turn your life around.

What I have been able to bring to the table are the research and writing skills that I have acquired at university and I have been able to fulfil many of the practical tasks which were needed in order to get this project up and running, for example forming literature for the website and constructing a code of conduct. If anything, my experience at the Helping Hands Centre has allowed me to see firsthand that a lot of young people don’t have it easy and so I hope we will see more initiatives such as Helping Hands emerging and being offered more government support in the years to come.

Get regular updates, follow the progress and support the Helping Hands organisation through the website at: www.helpinghandsbelfast.co.uk