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Peace is the winner at Belfast interface games

Children from both sides of Belfast divide unite in sport

By Claire Williamson

It's a sporting competition - but the end goal is far greater than any at the back of a net.

They are children growing up in some of Northern Ireland's most divided communities. While peace walls may keep them apart, they are tearing those barriers down as youngsters from both sides of Belfast's notorious interfaces come together to compete in the PeacePlayers Games, at Queen's University.

They begin with the neutral sport of basketball, playing as part of integrated teams before developing new skills in sports they may not have had the opportunity to play before, like rugby, Gaelic games and football.

On Saturday, they had their basketball Summer Jam tournament and were joined by 18 American student volunteers from DePauw University.

Managing director Gareth Harper said: "We use the neutral sport of basketball to provide opportunities for kids from two main traditions to develop positive relationships by playing sport. To facilitate conversations around things like stereotypes and prejudice and sectarianism."

He continued: "We try to create a safe space on the basketball court where they can meet people and be in direct contact with people from the other tradition and play sports. We believe children who can play together can live together."

Connor Kennan (18), from north Belfast, has been involved in PeacePlayers for seven years.

He said: "I was able to go out and meet other people that I wasn't able to meet before. Growing up in one area that was full of Catholics - now I can see both sides and am really appreciative of the work PeacePlayers does. I see everyone as the same now. There is no difference in what you are and who you are."

Finlay Blockley (12), from east Belfast, has been part of PeacePlayers since he was in primary school.

He said: "I get to meet new people from different backgrounds and learn new things. My favourite thing about being here is being part of a team. Everyone is different, but if you work as a team, you'll be fine."

Claire Moore's son, Sam (11), has Asperger's and said PeacePlayers is the only place that has accepted him. She added: "They live around the street from one another, but never see each other because they go to different schools and have different backgrounds."

Gareth explained it all begins with a "positive first interaction" - where children see each other as teammates.

He said: "While sports are open to all, they all have baggage. We challenge those stereotypes. They (children) don't have the same baggage we have.

"They have these conversations from a different starting position.

"Any sectarian bias has been learned rather than experienced, so it can be unlearned much more easily."

The next PeacePlayers Interface Games takes place in July.

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