The bus journey from Castlewellan, Co. Down, to Belfast is relatively short. Taking roads that lead through a number of small rural communities, you will reach the city in a little over an hour.

 

Though the trip may be comparatively brief, it reveals the political and ideological division in some of the places we visit. Even in the small villages of Co. Down – that likely have populations of just a few hundred people – there is evidence of a split. The Tricolour flies in nationalist areas, while in neighbouring communities, where the majority presumably identify as loyalist, the Union Jack is displayed.

 

That lack of cohesion becomes much starker the closer you get to Belfast city where political symbols of division can be found alongside physical barriers constructed to keep people apart.

 

Numerous ‘Peace Walls’ have been built in areas like the Falls and Shankill Roads, where they are effectively used as canvasses for the spread of political messages. In recent years, visiting the city with groups of students, we have seen loyalist paintings underlining a commitment to maintain ties with the United Kingdom, and nationalist murals expressing solidarity with marginalised people and groups around the world.

 

Given the need to build relationships between people from different traditions across the North of Ireland, the significance and value of the work being done by Cooperation Ireland is obvious, and its accomplishments are impressive.

 

Through my work with students completing the Youth Leadership Programme offered by the organisation, I have seen teenagers from the North and the Republic, from nationalist and unionist backgrounds, spend time with one another, discuss their experiences of life in their own communities, and come to the realisation that what they have in common is greater than their differences.