Leona O'Neill: Good Relations Week reminds us of the power of positive change
It's Good Relations Week, the perfect time to reflect on the healing power of cross-community engagement, peace building and cultural diversity – especially as there is still so much work to be done, writes Leona O'Neill...
THIS week is Good Relations Week and never has there been a more important time to shine a light on the things that bring us together. The theme this year is 'Brighter Days Ahead' and the aim is to focus on the peace building and cultural diversity efforts of young people and the challenges they are facing.
Twenty-three years on from the Good Friday Agreement, I would have hoped that we would have been further along the road to peace than we are now. Don't get me wrong, we are not where we were. When I was growing up, hate, violence and the destruction of each other's lives, livings and peace of mind was completely normal – indeed, it was cheered on.
Back then everyone knew someone who was lost to the Troubles, we were brought up on a diet of horrifying and terrifying events, some which hit close to home, others we could watch from a distance and forget about the following day when the next awful spectre arose. It damaged so many of us and we are still feeling the impact of intergenerational trauma in our society.
Thankfully, this generation of young people have not had those experiences thrust upon them, although they are also no strangers to violence, albeit sporadic.
I remember making serious moves to relocate somewhere else in the world before the Good Friday Agreement was signed. My husband and I didn't want our children to grow up in a place that destroys childhoods and traumatises its population. The promises made in the Good Friday Agreement made us stay.
Unfortunately, 23 years later, my children know of paramilitaries, they know of threats, security measures people have to take to protect themselves, they know of riots, bomb scares, shootings. I honestly wish they didn't, but that's life here.
They also know a peace that we didn't know, prosperity, they see no religious division in their friend groups, being Catholic or Protestant means absolutely nothing to them when it comes to their peers.
They have a greater hope and faith than we ever did in Northern Ireland. We just wanted to reach an age where we could get out because it was so grim. They want to stay and make it better. And that is the impact those working to build and sustain good relations have had.
Good Relations Week is the annual celebration of the work that goes on day and daily to build peace here in Northern Ireland. This year's theme, Brighter Days Ahead, will see a really colourful programme of events – chosen by young people – play out over seven days.
The programme will showcase the work that young people have designed, led or are involved in to break down barriers here, to unite communities and promote inclusive change that impacts everyone in society in a positive way.
Organisers also hope that the week will allow them to better understand the issues our young people face as they move towards building better, brighter futures for themselves here in Northern Ireland.
There is still so much more work to be done. When rioting erupted on our streets earlier this year it was young people who were at the forefront of it. Our paramilitary organisations seem to have no trouble recruiting young people into their ranks.
During our recent bonfire season it was young people who were building the structures on which horrible, hateful sectarian slogans were mounted to hurt those they apparently oppose.
But it's never too late to make a change. Any small step towards a better future is worth taking. Great oaks from little acorns grow and we have to keep moving forward and keep working on peace and for a better future for everyone.
For more information on Good Relations Week events and how you can plan your own event to mark the week, log on to goodrelationsweek.com.