Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution 1.3 - NUS-USI Program


The NUS-USI Community Relations Programme

Peter O'Neill

Introduction

The conflict in Northern Ireland has long dominated the work of both the British National Union of Students (NUS) and the Union of Students in Ireland (USI). Twenty-five years ago, in a unique transnational agreement, these national student unions agreed to jointly organise in order to represent the cultural traditions of the two main communities in Northern Ireland. In many ways, the recent Belfast Agreement reflects this basis of co-operation by proposing a framework for sharing power between Nationalists and Unionists in this contested region. Hopefully, the work of our Community Relation Unit may be of interest to other organisations working in the conflict transformation or managing diversity fields.

Throughout its history, NUS-USI, the representative body for students in Northern Ireland, has always promoted a non-sectarian agenda reflecting its mission to unite students in Northern Ireland across the religious divide. However, following an internal review in 1993, it was decided to pro-actively pursue an anti-sectarianism programme, which would directly challenge prejudice and discrimination in further and higher education. This strategic move to a more interventionist policy was further assisted when we were able to secure funding in 1994 from the European Union PSEP programme and The Ireland Funds to establish a dedicated community relations unit, resourced by two staff members. We have been fortunate to have our European funding recently extended to allow our work to continue until the end of 1999. The programme is based on the following objectives:

Mission

· To be sought out and respected as a leading authority in the promotion of effective anti-sectarian initiatives in post-school educational provision in Northern Ireland.

Specific

· To promote an increased understanding and acceptance of the different political, cultural and religious traditions shared by students in Northern Ireland through the provision of relevant information materials, opportunities for inter-group contact, conferences and training events.

· To facilitate and encourage the participation of students in activities promoting peace, reconciliation and an end to violence in Northern Ireland.

· To encourage institutions and other partners in post-school education provision to develop and implement anti-sectarian policies on campus.

Most commentators in the field have generously praised the success of the programme to date and have cited our work as a contributor to creating a more inclusive atmosphere on campus. Most critically, however, has been the positive feedback from students who have enthusiastically supported the programme's work and participated in its activities. The programme has attempted to stimulate innovative and imaginative approaches to community relations work in the following areas:

Development

By developing and refining strategic plans for student organisations and institutions in the post-school sector, NUS-USI has encouraged the promotion of effective community relations programmes throughout further and higher education. Conferences jointly organised with the Department of Education for Northern Ireland have consolidated this work, helping to place this issue as a priority in the development of colleges' strategic plans. The publication of a comprehensive guide to developing Student Community Relations Work in 1997 and Promoting and Managing Diversity in Tertiary Education (1998) have assisted this development work.

Training

An extensive training programme is delivered to approximately 400 students and staff each year using a variety of formats. All training modules are accredited by the University of Ulster and continually evaluated in order to meet specific needs. Training has also been provided to student teachers as part of the Education for Mutual Understanding Programme in the Colleges of Education. An intensive leadership skills programme is provided under a Student Capacity Building Programme funded by the Nuffield Foundation, to young opinion-formers, particularly in border colleges in Northern and Southern Ireland. Other training events have focused on students from religious groups, women students, staff in colleges and student union officers in Britain and the Republic of Ireland. Large training conventions, attracting in excess of a hundred participants, have examined a number of politically contentious issues, such as student participation in the formal political process and policing issues in Northern Ireland, as well as introducing the core elements of successful community relations work. All these events have been supplemented by a range of in-house training modules, designed to meet the specific requirements of individual student organisations. In total, approximately 1,600 students and members of staff have attended training and conference events to date.

Research

A number of research initiatives have been developed, most notably perhaps, the provision of an annual bursary of £1,000 for postgraduate students seeking to research community relations issues of relevance to the student environment. Funded by the Government's Central Community Relations Unit, a great deal of interest has been generated in this facility. In the near future, a major survey of student inter-group contact in both further and higher education will be conducted, in association with the Centre for the Study of Conflict at the University of Ulster. NUS-USI has also contributed to a number of other research studies mediated by external bodies and commissioned a major external evaluation of its community relations programme, carried out by Williamson Consulting in 1997.

Information

The Community Relations Unit responds to a wide range of information requests from students and increasingly from external bodies, many of which are located outside Northern Ireland. Thousands of promotional and briefing materials have been distributed, eliciting a positive response from our target audiences. All colleges in Northern Ireland are visited as part of an "Information Roadshow" which promotes the objectives and functions of the programme.

Our work in this area has also attracted positive media coverage, promoting the programme to a wider audience. This was particularly evident when we commissioned an art exhibition from one of our leading student artists, Adrian O'Connell, which met with much critical acclaim. Relating his personal experience of the conflict in Northern Ireland and entitled "Communication in Conflict", the exhibition toured colleges in both the UK and Ireland. A short film entitled "h" was also commissioned from students at the Art College, University of Ulster, which examined how sectarianism impacted the youth culture in Northern Ireland. The film won the prestigious Greer Carson award for young filmmakers and was enthusiastically received in student and youth service venues. This innovative way of promoting good community relations on campus has proved to be a very successful project for both the students involved and NUS-USI. In addition, our popular Internet site (www.nus-usi.org.uk) is devoted to student community relations work which attracts in excess of 5,000 hits each month, many from international visitors.

Exchanges

In recent years, the Community Relations Unit has explored the potential of organising exchange schemes in order to expose local students to other environments which have experienced community conflict. In conjunction with our American partner, Project Children, NUS-USI assists in placing over twenty-five key student leaders in a rigorous six-week internship programme based in the USA. Students have the opportunity of "shadowing" leading members of Congress and business leaders, gaining valuable skills and experience which can be incorporated into our local training programmes. This annual intern programme has been extremely valuable in cementing contracts with American conflict resolution and reconciliation organisations. NUS-USI was also privileged to host a European Youth Forum Conference entitled "Youth Ways Out of Conflict" attended by young people from all over Europe which established the organisation within a European context. This event attracted over seventy participants from twenty-six different European countries and was held in November 1997. We also assist in placing students with other exchange programmes such as the Spirit of Enniskillen Bursary Scheme for example.

Networks

NUS-USI is closely involved in a range of networks in the community relations field, including the Community Relations Youth Work Network, Community Relations Council and international bodies such as the Council for Europe and the European Student Information Bureau. We liase with a wide spectrum of political and cultural organisations and resource a number of student peace groups.

Conclusion

All in all, the Community Relations Programme has already been a challenging and rewarding experience for the many students who have participated in the programme. It is clear that community relations work is becoming embedded in the work of local student organisations and, hopefully, the wider student experience in Northern Ireland. Our development strategy will focus on further integrating this work into all levels within the formal education provision of institutions and establishing more innovative and capacity building methods to promote our mission. Through this, we believe we can continue to develop a more inclusive environment on campus for all our students, thus contributing to a political accommodation on these islands. We welcome the support of other organisations as we approach a critical juncture in our history and will be pleased to forward additional information as required.

NUS-USI Northern Ireland Student Centre

29 Bedford Street

Belfast BT2 7EJ

Northern Ireland

Tel +44 1232 244641

Email info@nus-usi.org.uk

Web http://www.nus-usi.org.uk



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