N. Ireland Catholics, Protestants look to break down barriers

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SALT LAKE CITY — Visiting from Northern Ireland, a group of young people are forming friendships in Utah they hope will break down barriers back home.

For 27 years, Catholics and Protestants in Utah have worked together to host teenagers from Northern Ireland in their homes as part of the Ulster Project. They provide them with an opportunity to meet young people in Utah and from their own community.

"In Northern Ireland, Catholics and Protestants fight — quite a big divide still," participant Jemma Walker said.

The conflict between the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland go back to the 17th century. Ireland separated in 1921 into the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of Great Britain, leaving citizens divided over religion, politics and the economy.

Every July, the Ulster Project, which was created by an American Anglican priest in 1975, sponsors 24 teenagers — 12 Catholics and 12 Protestants — from Northern Ireland to show them how much they have in common, as opposed to the religious/political divide in their community.

I was lucky enough to come here in 2003. I had a great time, made bonds with people of both religions.

–Stephen Rogers

"Glimmers of hope when from I first started this, going over there, with soldiers and barricades," program director Lee Sage of the Ulster Project of Utah said. "Now there is none of that whatsoever."

While participating in a service project, participants freely become friends. At home, in the city of Omagh, there are constant reminders of past violence.

On Aug. 15, 1998, a car bomb exploded in the main shopping district of Omagh. A Catholic splinter group, called the real NRA, accepted responsibility, resulting in 31 deaths and several hundred injured.

"I was aware that there were difficulties over there, but I didn't realize how serious they were, like bombings and killings," host Ian Gorrell-Brown said.

For decades, Catholics and Protestants couldn't associate in Omagh. Now, there is an integrated school, sports teams and even an orchestra. Their parents sent them with to Utah with hope of breaking down barriers.

"They're very neutral," participant Gerard Duddy said of his parents. "They're not big into one faith, but into the other — very in the middle."

Although they may not have known each other before they came to Utah, they have hope they'll be able to remain friends once they go back home.

"I was lucky enough to come here in 2003," counselor Stephen Rogers said. "I had a great time, made bonds with people of both religions."


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