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Let first generation of peace escape traps of divided past

This year, thousands of young people across Northern Ireland will celebrate their 18th birthday.

 That is no different to every other year, except for one important point: this year young people reaching the milestone will have been born in 1994.

A short perusal of the Wikipedia entry highlights many significant events in that year, but, from a Northern Irish perspective, two events catch the eye: the republican and loyalist ceasefires.

We now have our first generation entering adulthood that has lived during relative peace. One might expect young people who didn't endure daily digests of sectarian murder to make a significant departure from the entrenched mindsets of our past. Unfortunately, events in recent months bear out a different reality.

The despicable murder of David Black, the attempted murder of police officers and the seizure of rocket-launchers, explosives and firearms in Tipperary and Cork all signal that there are violent republican extremists determined to threaten our hard-won freedoms.

Furthermore, when disquiet erupted over the decision to fly the Union flag over Belfast's City Hall on designated days, young people from loyalist communities were at the forefront of the agitation. There are many peaceful protests, but time after time we watched young people out on the streets, blocking roads and engaging in rioting.

It brought into sharp relief the distance yet to travel for Northern Irish society in tackling sectarianism and building a truly shared society.

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While we have made enormous progress, the cycle of sectarianism continues unabated and recent weeks have shown us what happens when it spins out of control.

Regardless of the merits of the arguments over the flying of flags, what this has demonstrated is that Northern Ireland is a high-octane society and, when the touch-paper is lit, years of progress can be scorched.

Programmes under Co-operation Ireland's control are designed to challenge mindsets; to help people understand that they have a choice between the constructive and the destructive. Our two Youth Leadership projects – at Kilwilkie in Lurgan and Shantallow in Londonderry – provide participants with a support structure to address personal and social challenges in their lives.

The Entwined Histories, The Signing of the Ulster Covenant programme saw six groups of young people from schools and youth clubs across greater Belfast participate in a range of activities designed to explore the social and political history of 1912 and the impact the signing of the Ulster Covenant.

Through innovative programmes, we can help young people understand that they do not have to remain within a sectarian mindset. We show them they have the potential to step outside. The recent disturbances show the enormity of the task ahead. That is why we recognise we can only do so much.

It requires a holistic effort, from parents, political and community leaders, Government and schools, to work together to deliver the new era of community relations this ceasefire generation deserve.

Secretary of State Theresa Villiers MP was right – protest must be replaced by dialogue. The question we must answer collectively is how and when will we break the cycle of sectarianism? When will we understand that it is more productive to talk to other communities than to block a road, or lob a brick over a so-called 'peaceline'?

Which generation will have the vision to figure this out? We thought it might be this one – and it can still be. Collectively, we can't let another generation be enslaved by the snares of the past. We will have to get to a point where, as well as demanding our rights, we also pledge ourselves to protecting the cultural tradition and religious ethos of the other community.

At Co-operation Ireland, our programmes point people towards that answer. But each person must learn the lesson themselves.

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