Kids from Northern Ireland, as part of the Ulster Project, made their way to Salt Lake City last week for their annual rendezvous.
For 23 years Utah has participated in the program. It may seem like an unlikely connection — conflict-torn Northern Ireland and Utah — but over time, little by little, this annual tradition, which takes place nationwide, can't help but make a difference.
The Ulster Project was founded by people who believe religion should not be a cause of conflict but a reason for sharing and caring. Catholic and Protestant youths from Northern Ireland are brought together to get acquainted, then they are linked with young people from 20 U.S. Ulster chapters in a kind of "getting to know you" exchange. This year 12 teens from Northern Ireland have joined the families of 12 Utah teens for a month of activities like rafting on the Green River, visiting Lagoon, sharing meals, shopping, playing video games and participating in humanitarian efforts.
On June 29 the combined group met at the Lion House for a lunch and a chance to take each other's measure. Jokes abounded — from stories of young Americans who believe Irish families have leprechauns to do their housekeeping to the unfairness of various stereotypes. It was a time to remind everyone of the human qualities that unite them, in spite of other differences.
Over the years, the Utah chapter has had few problems. Much of that is because patience and understanding have been the watchwords. And many Utah teens have kept in touch with their Irish friends after they've returned home.
"We've found that if we can get them at about 15 years of age, the kids haven't built up their prejudices yet," says Greg McDonald, board chairman of the Utah Ulster Project. "While many believe that Northern Ireland is a peaceful country, the 'troubles' are still simmering under the surface."
In Northern Ireland, "the troubles" — as the Irish call them — began in 1969 and were the cause of armed conflict for 25 years. Generally, the Protestants believed in a union with England while the Catholics held out for an independent Northern Ireland. The debate turned into violence, and 3,600 Irish citizens were killed in skirmishes. Today, the peace project in Northern Ireland has blossomed on several fronts, with the Ulster Project being just one of the many tools that humanitarian souls are using to help heal the wounds and guard against any future bloodshed.
In Utah, two specially trained counselors are traveling with the Ulster teens to help create a fresh bond between young Catholics and Protestants. The truth is, ingrained prejudices won't disappear overnight. But give enough members of the emerging generation a taste of understanding and cooperation, and over time it will make a difference.