When I was a child, July was a pleasant month to think about. No school. The annual beach vacation. Brother's birthday. And the start of Steelers training camp. There was never any bad news in July.
Then at some point, while connecting with my Irish ancestry, I came to learn about the ugliness that July has brought to Northern Ireland for centuries. I learned about the Battle of the Boyne, in which the Protestant King William of Orange defeated the Catholic King James II in 1690, and how that bloodshed continues each year.
Every July for 300-plus years, hundreds of Orange parades proceed through various cities, towns and rural communities all over Northern Ireland and even in some border areas of the Republic of Ireland. While most of them in modern times have been peaceful, a handful of parades remain contentious. Orange marchers parade through Catholic neighborhoods, commemorating their victory, and sooner or later, words are passed, then threats are made, then rocks are thrown, then blood is shed, then mayhem.
And in the aftermath, every year, come the talking heads -- men and women from both sides of the conflict, trying to prove that their side was right all along, that the other guys had it all wrong, that "they" committed all of the atrocities and that "we" were the victims.
Pick a conflict, any conflict, around the world. Sunnis and Shiites, India and Pakistan, internal disputes in Cyprus, Kosovo, Afghanistan or Syria. You can be sure that both sides spend a lot of time, energy and money spinning the one-sided argument that suits.
"The Troubles," the late-20th-century struggles of ordinary people around Northern Ireland's future, sharpened the conflict along religious and sociopolitical lines: Protestant and Catholic. Unionist and Nationalist. Loyalist and Republican. And while religion and political affiliation are used to identify the combatants, the fact is, most of them don't go to church. And many of them don't vote. But their cultural experience typically is tied to a neighborhood or school that's defined as belonging to one camp or the other.
They grow up learning history, but not the same history. They participate in sports, but not the same sports. And in the toughest communities, whether they are Loyalist or Republican, they have no time for the police who are duty-bound and authorized to protect them, to stop crime, to keep the peace and to lead operations in an emergency. In the toughest communities, crime is rampant and organized. There is little peace, and emergencies are part of the norm. It is in these most difficult places that we find scores of unemployed young people with little education, wandering aimlessly, looking to belong to something.
Ireland has come a long way in its search for peace and prosperity. A highly rated education system and attractive incentives ensure significant foreign investment from companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Intel, Mylan, PPG, BNY Mellon, UPMC, Federated Investors, and other local and global companies. And stellar work from both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations helped facilitate and solidify a peace process that continues to evolve and progress.
But the global economic collapse of 2008 continues to drag at the Irish economy. Unemployment is above 14 percent, and youth unemployment across the North and the border areas is at 50 percent. With the depressed economy comes the social ills of heightened drug and alcohol abuse, street crime and other antisocial behavior.
A majority of the men and women who took part in the war in Northern Ireland have stepped away from it. They are getting on with their lives, trying to be part of a new shared space that welcomes people of all races, creeds and nationalities. Some even have joined or started organizations to help heal the wounds -- physical, psychological and emotional -- from The Troubles' 30 years of armed conflict.
Still, there are a lingering few unwilling to end the fighting. These shadowy figures, who support and often control organized crime in communities across Northern Ireland, are always on the lookout for young, impressionable men and women who can be used to carry out their agendas. Unemployed, disenfranchised youth, out on the streets with nothing better to do, make excellent recruits for these paramilitary organizations on both sides of the sectarian conflict.
For about 25 years, Ireland's most disadvantaged young people, Protestant and Catholic, have had a meaningful alternative -- participation in the Wider Horizons Program.
The program was developed by the International Fund for Ireland, and it's been funded by the United States and other nations, with the support of organizations such as the Ireland Institute of Pittsburgh. The results have been spectacular.
Since 1986, more than 17,000 unemployed young people from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have traveled to various world cities -- more than 1,400 of them to Pittsburgh -- through the program. They have lived, worked and learned together, away from the hostilities that have defined Northern Ireland for nearly 800 years. For many, it was their first meeting with the other side.
In throwing support to the program, political leaders in Belfast, Dublin and Washington took a risk for peace. And for the young men and women who chose to participate in the early days, the risk was even greater.
But they came. The first 20 arrived in Pittsburgh in 1989. Some came from a place in Northern Ireland that the Catholics called Derry and the Protestants called Londonderry. Others hailed from small towns in the Republic of Ireland unknown to the Derry/Londonderry folks.
They spent the summer performing internships with local companies, attending classes at Duquesne University and participating in various social and recreational activities.
Pittsburghers did not pass judgment on their politics or religion but treated them all with respect and regard. What mattered was that 20 young people from some faraway place came here, and it was Pittsburgh's job to make the visit memorable and worthwhile.
And so host families opened their doors. Employers opened their companies. Ordinary people shared a meal or drink or night out. And young people learned that neither religion, nor political affiliation, nor cultural identity, should define them. For the next two decades, a steady stream of young people with little education and no work came here.
The program costs $11,000 per participant. That includes 12 weeks of pre-departure training, six weeks overseas and two weeks of repatriation and debriefing. That's training, airfare, visa costs, Pittsburgh accommodations, meals, administration, transportation, social and recreational activities and educational travel. And participants receive a stipend from their home government to cover entertainment and incidental expenses -- the same money they would collect at home on welfare.
Interestingly, the validation the young people always seek, to be on the right side of every issue, never comes. Instead, an epiphany, after some initial contact and dialogue, turns them inside out and upside down. In due course, they learn that the other guys are more or less the same as them. They like the same food, the same music and many of the same sports teams. By the end of their visit, ignorant enemies become well-informed friends. And the American spirit, which pervades every part of the experience, provides a vision for what can be achieved in Ireland. They return home with the skills and capacity to get and keep jobs, further their education, start families, build communities, contribute to society, pay taxes and envision a new social order, based on justice, democracy, liberty and freedom.
Of the 17,000 young people who have traveled to the United States and other nations through the program, more than 80 percent returned home to find and maintain employment or qualify for university placement. Put another way, more than 13,000 people moved off the unemployment rolls. They now pay taxes. They no longer depend on government. Government depends on them.
The International Fund for Ireland is ending the Wider Horizons Program this year. The IFI now wants to focus on peace and reconciliation, capacity-building and other initiatives exclusively in Ireland.
However, the Ireland Institute of Pittsburgh, our 1,400-plus alumni, our supporters on Capitol Hill and our friends in Ireland, north and south, believe so strongly in the program -- and are so proud of the youths we have helped to independence -- that we are making plans to continue it under a new name. We are working with members of Congress and Irish officials to make that happen. We also are planning initiatives to help other groups, such as university graduates and entrepreneurs.
We will celebrate Pittsburgh's impact on Irish young people through the Wider Horizons Program with Michael Collins, the Republic of Ireland's ambassador to the United States, when he visits Pittsburgh on July 11. We'll honor our most recent graduates and other alumni and describe plans for continuing this vital service.
The work to reconcile Northern Ireland is by no means finished. More young people with little hope and no direction are hitting the streets this summer. The annual rioting season is about to begin in Belfast and throughout the North.
Meanwhile, other regions in conflict, some of which I mentioned earlier in this essay, are in need of their own homegrown, Pittsburgh-trained ambassadors. Our leaders at the State Department and in Congress should consider this strategy and apply it elsewhere.
The founders of the Ireland Institute of Pittsburgh, the late Sister Michele O'Leary and the late Mel Madden, once told me that there's nothing complicated about changing hearts and minds. No advanced math or rocket science or brain surgery. But if you can create an environment of acceptance, unconditional positive regard, moderation, tolerance and care, the transformation happens on its own.
James J. Lamb (firstname.lastname@example.org) is honorary consul of the Republic of Ireland for Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia and president of the Ireland Institute of Pittsburgh.