Many organisations here try to use different methods to bring opposite sides of the community together. But for one South Belfast group, that technique uses the unique approach of basketball.
Peace Players International is a Lisburn Road-based body that works on the premise that children who play together can also learn to live together.
The ground-breaking group was formed in 2001 by two brothers from Washington DC named Brendan and Sean Tuohey. First arriving on these shores the following year, Peace Players has since grown to take in four trouble-hit areas around the globe – Northern Ireland, South Africa, Israel-Palestine and Cyprus.
Project co-ordinator Darryl Pettigrew said the organisation worked with around 900 participants last year, mainly around interface areas of Belfast, Lurgan and Antrim.
“We work with primary school kids from P4 right the way up to adults of 25 in three separate programmes. The first is with primary schools where we would bring together a maintained school and a controlled school for a week of basketball and community relations programmes.
“We also have an after-schools programme running for kids from nine-years-old to 17, where we go to community centres and high schools, getting them to play basketball in a league format. It’s the same concept we have for the younger kids.
“Finally we also have the advance leadership programme where we try and build up the skills of people who want to stay with the programme. They can end up with accredited qualifications where they can go back to the primary schools and work there delivering the programme themselves. That helps the idea that Peace Players is a pipeline right through the lives of those who take part.”
Darryl said basketball had been chosen by the Tuohey brothers deliberately due to it having no connotations here.
“It is a neutral sport in the sense that there is no real tribal history behind it. In football you tend to have a Catholic team and a Protestant team but basketball doesn’t have that and it is open for everyone.
“Because it’s a relatively new sport here as well it is ideal for bringing people together. They are forced to work with each other because it’s something new.”
Brendan and Sean brought Peace Players to Northern Ireland after they spent time here coaching basketball in 1999. Darryl says the international aspect is one that remains important for the group.
“We have a core American staff which works well in our favour. If I go into a gym with some young people, I’m just a 5ft 10in guy with a local accent. But if we have a 6ft 5in American doing the same thing, the kids love that and it helps break the ice a little bit more.
“It’s a great dynamic to have and shows our concept can be transferred anywhere really. We have taken more and more locals onboard over the years but the life skills and community relations can be taken anywhere with any group and it will work.”
Despite the success, Darryl admits there is always more Peace Players can achieve.
“I’ve been here for five years and we have come on leaps and bounds in that time. We’re adding more schools to our programme each year and we have tailored our work so it ties in more closely to the community relations curriculum schools employ.
“In the past year things have been really exciting here because we’re starting to work with the GAA, the IFA and Ulster Rugby – so we’re establishing ourselves as a good organisation that can deal with community relations.
“I’d like to see kids that have started with us in P4 come the whole way through the programme and sit here in the office one day. That way Peace Players really would be for life.”
“I’ve seen this programme come from where it was to where it is today, which is really exciting and unbelievable to be a part of.”
Although Peace Players is now a firmly established organisation, Darryl said there’s still more he would like to see.
“The way we are now, we apply for the funding ourselves that sees us go into schools. But I would like us to get to the point where the programme is working so well that the schools themselves get the funds together to bring us in.
“I’d also like to see our burgeoning partnerships with the likes of the GAA, Ulster Rugby and the IFA increase because the more we get those sports together, the more we break down the barriers of prejudice around them. The way things are now, people see Catholics as playing GAA and Protestants as playing rugby but we’d like to change that.
“Finally, I’d like to see kids that have started with us in P4 come the whole way through the programme and sit here in the office one day. That way Peace Players really would be for life.