Northern Ireland's full-court press for peace

Young basketball players from both sides of the religious divide put aside differences to learn new skills and teamwork.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    TEAMMATES: JairusTubera (l.) of St. Joseph's College and Aaron Scates (r.) of Orangefield High School play on the Belfast Blazers basketball team.
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    American Mike Evans (pictured here) is a cofounder of Full Court Peace.
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    HOOPS: Members of the Belfast Blazers at a practice. The Blazers have traveled to the US to play high school teams.
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The Roman Catholic students were nervous as they walked toward the Protestant school for the first practice with their new teammates. They huddled together and covered the school crests on their shirts.

On the court, though, the students quickly focused on basketball, not the religious divide that lingers in Northern Ireland.

"First there were one or two high fives, then someone calling out someone's name, then an arm around the shoulder," recalls TJ Reynolds, of Full Court Peace (fullcourtpeace.org), the nonprofit group that brought the students together. "Eventually, after practice they would walk down to the bus stop together and soon they were exchanging mobile phone numbers."

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Apart from a brief eruption of sectarian violence in March that saw the shooting deaths of two British soldiers and a police officer, the worst of Northern Ireland's "Troubles" seems to be in the past. But with almost 95 percent of pupils in the province still attending a single-religion school, it's not the easiest of settings for friendships to be forged – friendships that many believe are key to creating a lasting peace.

Full Court Peace (FCP), a volunteer group formed by American Mike Evans and Belfast native Dave Cullen in 2007, hopes to do that through a cross-community basketball team.

"As a kid, I became best friends with my teammates because we were sweating, winning, and losing together and listening to one coach all the time," says Mr. Evans.

The FCP team consists of an equal number of students from a Protestant and a Catholic school. They alternate weekly practices in the schools and play local teams. The season culminates with a trip to the United States to play high school teams.

For Mr. Cullen, the key was to focus on basketball, not forced reconciliation. He avoids buzzwords that have emerged out of the peace process – terms like "mediation" and "conflict resolution."

"These kids are smart and once they hear these words they'll start giving you the classroom answers," Cullen says.

Player Michael Guirov, a student at St. Joseph's College, came of age following the 1998 Good Friday Peace Accord and had no reason to dislike his Protestant teammates, but he wasn't exactly looking to be friends with them.

"I didn't really have anything against the others when I came along at first. I just think that now I have a better attitude to them," he says. "That's come through playing basketball."

The inaugural team, the Belfast Blazers, was thrashed by high school teams in the US. But the experience of playing and traveling together had the players returning home with boosted self-confidence and changed attitudes, says Dave Tierney, one of FCP's coaches. "One father told me how his son came back a completely different person after the trip."

A second team, the Belfast Bulldogs, has since been formed. Team members are now raising funds for a basketball trip to the US later this year. FCP hopes to expand the program soon with additional teams in Belfast and is hoping to launch a project later this month that aims to unite Cubans and Cuban-Americans on the basketball court. Someday, FCP hopes to bring their game to the Middle East.

Reconciliation might be the goal, but it can only happen by taking the basketball seriously, says FCP's director of basketball operations, Colin Powers. "If we put you in the same court with another guy for nine months, you'll learn about him in a real way, not in an artificial way."

Also, in Northern Ireland, basketball is not associated with either community – unlike rugby or Gaelic football. Many of the participants are playing for the first time and learning the new skills together.

For cofounder Evans, a former college player from Connecticut, the teamwork exhibited on the court represents something more meaningful than the widely broadcast images of IRA and Ulster leaders shaking hands." I met the kids' parents, and politicians mean nothing to them – they don't care what a guy in a suit is saying. They just remember when their house was bombed or their family was burned out."

Members of the Blazers prefer talking about basketball over reconciliation. When pushed, they merely acknowledge something bigger than basketball might be taking place.

"I wouldn't think I'd be friends with guys from Orangefield, but we get on great now," says Clinton Kamara, from St. Joseph's College.

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