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Tall Ships: Breaking down sectarian barriers with the tides of change

By Helen Carson

Belfast Lough will be awash with Tall Ships today as the spectacular vessels pull into the city's port again - the first of which arrived yesterday for this year's maritime event.

The city first saw the flotilla of spectacular sailing ships arrive in Belfast back in 1991, returning in 2009.

As tourists and locals alike flock to the riverside over the next few days to enjoy the sailing ships, one cross-border organisation is lobbying both the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Republic's government to contribute funding for two purpose-built sailing ships which they claim could transform lives for young people all over Ireland.

Neil O'Hagan (31), executive director of the Atlantic Youth Trust, which has offices in Belfast and Dublin, says the two ships could facilitate up to 1,000 teenagers a year who would sail the ships as part of a 40-strong crew.

The youngsters, aged between 15 and 18, will learn communication skills and how to work as a team during the 10-day voyages around the coast of Ireland. Neil's passion for the project, though, is fuelled by his desire to help break down sectarian barriers among young Irish people on both sides of the border.

"At the very least after 10 days the young people will have a new group of associates, but hopefully they will have made new lifelong friends. It is an opportunity to change people's attitudes to age-old tensions, because there is so much ignorance. What I want to achieve is the sense that when young people from all over Ireland, north and south, see the ship they say 'it's our ship'," he says.

Long term he sees the role of the purpose-built sailing ships - each would be a 40 metre long brig - as vessels which would carry the next generation into a more peaceful, tolerant and prosperous society.

"I was born in Dublin, and lived and worked in Belfast for two years with a public relations agency, but my mother is from Belfast and my father is from Rostrevor," says Neil.

The recruits, or trainees, would comprise of 20 girls and 20 boys from all over Ireland, north and south, and both sides of the sectarian divide. The trust will work closely with post primary schools, the PSNI and Probation Boards to select youngsters from all walks of life. "Someone who has grown up on the Malone Road has just as much to learn about themselves as someone from a deprived background," adds Neil.

So far, both governments have responded positively to the trust following extensive meetings at the highest level. Neil says there is a sense among the Irish government that they want to do business, while meetings at Stormont with the First and Deputy First Minister have proved promising with support also at civil servant level.

Atlantic Youth Trust backer and local businessman Peter Cooke says: "People can work things out at sea that they just cannot on land - when they are on land, they can just walk away. The young people go onto the ship not knowing anyone. When two young guys are stuck up a mast together they have to cling onto each other and work together. It's a shared space and a mobile asset. That is the joy of a ship."

The young people will also learn about the importance of the environment while on board.

The crew also have a main large room in the stern of the ship where they take part in educational exercises and eat together during the 10-day excursion.

The ships will cover a variety of routes between Northern Ireland and the Republic, for example, Cork to Londonderry and others.

There are few other organisations that are facilitating a project of this nature, according to Peter, a keen lifelong sailor who was previously chairman of a similar organisation, the Ocean Youth Trust in Northern Ireland.

Peter, now a trustee for Atlantic Youth Trust, doesn’t need any convincing of the scheme’s character-building benefits. He recalls the experiences of one of the earliest participants in the Ocean Youth Trust — a young girl from west Belfast who had suffered sexual abuse.

“She hadn’t spoken since she had been abused and wasn’t keen to get involved in crewing the ship,” he says.

Even after the trip she still wasn’t speaking. Then she turned up at our office in Carrick with the most beautiful poetry she had written about a sunset she had witnessed on the ship. She said she wanted to work for the trust as a volunteer.”

Neil agrees the necessity of pulling together while at sea is not just about learning how to hoist a sail and sleep in a hammock. “The biggest challenges on board are getting on with other people rather than sailing a boat,” he says.

“Some of the most interesting conversations that have taken place on some of our initial sailings have been between young Catholic men and their counterparts from the Republic. They discuss their struggles with identity and what this means to them.”

The trust’s business model is based on a 40-year-old scheme in New Zealand created and run by the Spirit of Adventure. And this template will be used by the Atlantic Youth Trust.

“New Zealand had issues with islanders and the Maori community so there is a lot to learn from them. What they are doing is considered almost part of the educational curriculum,” says Neil.

The cost of sending one young person on what could be the trip-of-a-lifetime has been set at £100 per person per day by the trust. They have opted for purpose-built ships which will be seaworthy for up to 30 years, as well as ticking all the necessary health and safety boxes, rather than refurbishing an existing vessel which they say would be a false economy.

“It takes two and a half years to get a ship built and onto the water, then it’s good for 30 years. Over that time we can put 1,000 young people onto the ships to be part of a 40-man crew for 10-day voyages,” Neil says.

As well as seeking government funding, the trust will tap into groups in the north and the south, such as the International Fund for Ireland, to help offset some of the costs.

“We think if you can afford to pay you should,” Neil says. “That includes young people from a wealthy family, or perhaps someone from a youth group who could fund raise on their behalf. Ultimately, we hope to have funding from other organisations which will cover 30-40% of our capital costs.”

And when it comes to involving schools and youth groups, the Trust is clear that one person is chosen to become part of the ship’s crew. “A school can choose a pupil based on the fact that the individual is struggling to succeed, or as a reward for success — it’s up to them. The process ensures that youngsters aren’t coming on board with their friends — they are coming onto a ship where they don’t know anyone,” Neil says.

The all-Ireland initiative has also forged important partnerships with significant agencies from those involved in peace funding to ports north and south, including the Reconciliation Fund, the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Port of Larne, Peace Players and the Harbour Commissioners among others. The trust is also teaming up working with significant maritime architects who have worked with Harland & Wolff in a bid to harness the high level local expertise.

The trust relied on the belief of its investors to set up a £160,000 seed fund which came mostly from individuals and corporations who shared its vision.

“Before we asked for any capital investment we had to set up this fund which business people on both sides of the border invested. They believe in what we are trying to achieve,” says Neil.

A subsequent Ernst and Young report prepared a business case on the project and analysed how its objectives fitted in with education and youth justice policy in the UK, the Republic and the European Union.

Neil is happy to report the findings identified the main four objectives of youth development, cross-border peace-building, maritime educational and economic benefits with an ambassadorial element, which were all contained in the scheme.

“The cross-border, cross-community element of this facilitates peace building, while introducing young people to the sea in a safe way and identifying possible careers as a consequence contributes to the maritime experience,” he says. “Finally, the template we hope to create can easily be transferred to other communities in London or South Africa, for example.”

Neil says they hope to see big capital investment from now until the end of next year, from which point it will take just over another two years to get the ship sailing.

He is confident the ships can help young people to change the course of their lives: “We sent four young people from Galway, who were all members of the travelling community, none of whom were in full-time education to take part in the New Zealand scheme. When they came back two returned to full-time education and a third got a job.”

There is even a possibility one of the ships could be built in Belfast, should government monies be forthcoming. "This is an opportunity for us to rediscover our maritime past since the loss of our shipbuilding industry," Peter adds.

"Government has a commitment to build structures that operate across the border, so this is very appealing to them. The politicians are very interested in this. It is aspirational at this stage, but there could be a possibility of building one of the ships in Northern Ireland, where usually this would go out to European contract."

The young crew's daily challenges will include being divided into watches as they sail the ship.

"When you are on watch, someone else will be in their bed sleeping," explains Neil. "Everyone will get the chance to lead a team during the 10-day voyage."


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