15 May 2006
by Charlotte Ashton
Nine o'clock on a Friday evening a group of 10 Catholics and Protestants from Belfast sit round discussing the terms of a contract they have all agreed to sign. The contract will serve as a code of conduct and negotiations have gone smoothly so far.
They agree to treat everyone kindly and to respect other people's property, but there is a glitch when it comes to the issue of a night-time curfew. A small faction feels midnight is too early and passionate calls are made for an extension to 1am. The speaker calmly restores order and a compromise of 12.30am is reached quickly. The contract is signed and the delegates retire to the beach for an evening walk.
The location of the talks is the pretty seaside town of Ballycastle, County Antrim, and the delegates in question are aged between 9 and 13. They have been brought together by the Northern Ireland Children's Enterprise (NICE) and I have joined them for the weekend as one of five volunteer leaders.
The charity was set up in the late seventies by American families who invited children from both sides of the Troubles to holiday with them in Westchester, New York to escape the violence in Belfast and form friendships on neutral soil.
Since then NICE has acquired premises in Belfast from which it runs community relations courses in both Protestant and Catholic schools. The children are then invited to spend a weekend at the residential centre in Ballycastle, where school, parents and religion have zero influence and the emphasis is on having fun and making new friends. I certainly did both.
Saturday began with a brief "getting to know you" session before we headed to the beautiful White Park Bay beach where we spent the morning running up and down sand dunes and taking part in a sand castle competition.
After lunch we continued along the coast to Giant's Causeway where the children enjoyed playing on the huge rock. Apart from a couple of bruised knees, we headed back to Ballycastle tired, wet but otherwise healthy.
While dinner was cooking, the group-leader, Jonny, and I helped the children draw "life-lines" on which they had to plot their first childhood memory, a good experience, a bad experience and the time they first felt proud to be from Northern Ireland. We then took turns to tell the rest of the group about our memories of pets dying, first Christmases and England v. Ireland football matches in order to learn a bit more about each other and in the words of one child, to "see that we're all really the same".
Dinner was followed by another wet outing, this time to a forest, and our very own X-factor competition, which was infinitely more entertaining than the television version. We finally made it to bed at 1am (admittedly in violation of the contract) after another night-time walk along the beach.
On Sunday morning, beds were stripped and rooms vacuumed before we met for a final de-brief. For the first time all weekend I broached the issue of religion and asked the children what they thought the purpose of the NICE weekends is. "To have fun" was the initial consensus, and then "to meet people who are different".
I pushed them further as to what "different" means and eventually extracted "Protestant and Catholic" out of one of the older boys.
"And why is it important to make friends with Protestants and Catholics?" I ventured further. "Because otherwise we'd be fighting" the youngest girl piped up. "But now we know that we're all the same, just with different ways." Perhaps a weekend away at the seaside together might help the politicians at Stormont.
My weekend in Ballycastle has definitely been one of the highlights of my last five months as a volunteer, and my time with NICE is proof of the unique insight voluntary work can afford you into places and communities in which you would otherwise be a complete outsider.
As I sat in the sun on the beach at Ballycastle it was easy to feel positive about my choice of gap year. I am half way through now, and looking back there have been some pretty low points - County Durham prisons in March are pretty dreary however friendly the people are, and having to take time off work to earn some money is exhausting.
But so far the hopes I wrote about in my first Free Time column of getting to know people and places I would not otherwise come across have been more than fulfilled, and I wasn't sorry to be sitting on the beach in County Antrim rather than Thailand.