Green, Orange and Black

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It's a rainy Saturday, a tall figure in a dripping oilskin walks into a school in Bray, Co Wicklow. His waist-length grey beard and trademark black hat, banded in the red, yellow and black colours of his people, have made him one of the most easily recognised leaders of Aboriginal Australia. Patrick Dodson has come the 12,000 kilometres from his home town of Broome, in tropical north-western Australia, to address 100 or so students and teachers gathered in St Cronan's Boys National School for a conference on Exploring Identities. As they wait, the teenagers chatter noisily, local voices mingling with distinctive Birmingham vowels, the flat tones of Skerries, the incisive accents of Dungannon and Belfast and broad Australian drawl.

As the veteran of many similar events on multiculturalism in Australia, I expect to find earnest, well-meaning people delivering one worthy paper after the other, a sociological study here, an analysis of prejudice there, the odd personal plea for more understanding. Instead, the hall is in an uproar. The delegates are racing around in a sort of musical chairs. The person left without a seat dreams up the next dictum: "Anyone wearing black shoes - change your seat now!" Pandemonium ensues as 60 people shoot out of their chairs. And so it goes: anyone with blue eyes, earrings, and the cheekiest, anyone wearing pink knickers. That brings a laugh - then total hilarity as one brave girl gets to her feet.

Such "icebreaker" exercises are standard at actors' workshops and the like, to overcome shyness and build team spirit. They can seem embarrassingly feel-good, too Californian for sceptical Irish taste, but convenor Colm Regan and his 80:20 organisation in Bray use them for an important reason. The participants are going to be asked hard questions about who they are, what they believe in and why, and there's no room for coyness. Divulging the colour of your underwear to a room full of strangers may seem an odd way of building bridges, but it works.

The name 80:20 refers to the division of wealth in society - about 80 per cent of the world's people live in the under-developed world, while the richest 20 per cent control 88 per cent of global wealth. Aid agencies have long striven to fundraise and campaign on behalf of the Third World, but after many years in development work, Regan was disillusioned. In the rush to throw money at the latest crisis, he felt long-term solutions were being neglected - to educate and inform people so that they could determine their own future and take appropriate action.

So, in 1996, he and several colleagues co-founded 80:20 Acting and Educating for a Better World, "to address issues of development, justice, poverty and human rights". Already, it has established initiatives with the slum-dwellers of Sao Paulo, Australian Aborigines, victims of war from Rwanda, community projects in Bangladesh, Vietnam, Zambia and, on its own doorstep, the Bray Travellers Development Project.

With funding from the EU Special Programme for Peace, plus charitable and development agencies, 80:20 produces stimulating and lucid educational resources. But its most striking impact is face to face. To "provide perspective", 80:20 brings people to meet marginalised groups from some wildly different backgrounds. On this occasion they've brought together Belfast Protestants, Australian aborigines, who were stolen from their parents as children, an English group, some of whom have faced prejudice on account of their Pakistani background, and a slew of "ordinary" Irish teenagers. It all sounds a bit Monty Pythonish - everyone vying to be "victim of the week" - but although highly attuned to the charge a title can convey (the shades of meaning between unionist and loyalist will be teased out at one workshop), the 80:20 people are deliciously non-PC.

"We often refer to the MOPE syndrome," explains Regan, deadpan. "The Most Oppressed People." Such irony wasn't lost on David Ervine, leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, who met Patrick Dodson when he visited Stormont this month to solicit support for aboriginal human rights. The Sinn Fein delegation was late, so Ervine picked up the phone and drily advised they should get down to meet "a fella whose mob are even more oppressed than you lot". ail is expected to table a similar declaration.

In Bray, while Dodson sleeps off his jet lag, the conference is addressed by a 38year-old, shaven-headed Belfast man with a stud earring, combat pants and Heavy boots. An overgrown football hooligan perhaps? Or - it is easy to imagine the balaclava - a paramilitary? Matt Milliken confronts such stereotypes head on. He gets the participants to draw an Ulster loyalist. The posters have common images - a red hand, an Orange sash, a gun, skinheads with scarred faces, the name Billy, the Union flag. Milliken then introduces the two Loyalists accompanying him: teenage girls just like all the others. As an Orange sash is passed around the group, a girl from Birmingham in a Muslim chador (headscarf) wants to know if the Orange marches are about intimidating Catholics, while a teenager from Bray asks if it isn't gloating to celebrate a victory that goes back to 1690.ed, but when asked by one ordinary person of another, the ensuing dialogue is arresting.

The Belfast girls hesitate. Maretta recalls how, last year, she got a fright when the hundreds of men in balaclavas marched down her street. "But it was my own side scared me." Milliken asks how many observe Christmas. He surveys the sea of hands and wrily asks: "And you think 1690 is too long ago to celebrate?"

The glibness is momentary. The last thing Milliken wants is to skirt the issue, and so he launches, with controlled passion, into his perspective on Cromwell and Ulster and how he fits neither the loyalist nor unionist tag, but considers himself a British Irishman living in Ulster. But what has all this got to do with the plight of Australian aborigines, or Bray travellers? "You cannot divide human rights into `the bit that we want over there' (like East Timor)," says Regan, "and `the bit that we want over here' (like the Peace Process, but not the Travellers). When we're in Australia we're often asked, `What can we do to advance the Peace Process?' My answer is, `Treat the aborigines properly'. It's a total package and education is a vital part of the whole justice agenda." After a four-day visit to Northern Ireland, Nicole Breeze, a non-aboriginal delegate from Sydney in her 20s, has started to make the connections.

In Derry, they began the day with the Apprentice Boys, were taken round the Bogside murals by a local artist and finished up with Sinn Fein. Then it was on to an RUC station, a Belfast youth centre, and politicians of all hues at Stormont. "Earlier, I simplistically compared Northern Catholics with indigenous Australians," says Breeze. "I thought, `if the Brits will just go back home, it will all be sorted'. But Scots Presybyterians have been in Ulster 50 per cent longer than whites have been in Australia. I realised that if the Brits have to go, I've got to go!"

The Brazilian educationalist, Paulo Freire, one of Regan's many influences, estimates that if you can convince 15 per cent of the population, you can change society. The change in students and teachers who attended the Bray conference will undoubtedly have a knock-on effect, but what have they learned? "I think one of the transformations is that what heretofore were categories become human beings," says Regan. "And once you know people personally it's very difficult to pillory their beliefs. They also learn more about themselves . . . how to challenge and be challenged."

The teenagers are rapt as he addresses them with the same gravitas with which he meets world leaders. "Violence breeds violence, as we've seen, but dialogue is a precious commodity. We're adept at picking out what we don't like about other human beings - your colour, the way you talk, the way you walk - but the harder challenge is to find out what we do hold in common.

That's what the future's about - create the space, find the common ground, develop it, then come back and look at the differences and see have they any substance or do they ring hollow now - because half the time they are not of substance if the essential goal is to see another human being able to live with pride and dignity and equality.'

Growing up half a world away "in a long unbroken line of rustic small-holding Ulster Presbyterians", Milliken uses remarkably similar language. As a mediator, he advises groups to first build trust and seek shared interests, then not to be afraid of raising the differences. "You are not trying to create a melting pot, but a tapestry where diversity is appreciated . . . and fun." But on the rare occasions when Catholic and Protestant communities do mingle in Northern Ireland, he laments, the conversation is usually so elaborately polite as to be meaningless ("don't mention the war"), and no empathy is achieved.

Milliken's own road to Damascus ("although I don't want to use religious imagery" he grins) came in 1981, when the hunger strikes made the marching season particularly charged. In his almost deserted Protestant enclave, he saw a three-year-old girl stagger past, struggling to carry a half-brick. "Where do you think you're going?" he asked. Laying down her burden, she declared, stiff with pride: "I'm going to fight the Fenians with the biguns".

While his father, an RUC man, slept with a pistol under his pillow, young Milliken had a penknife under his. His teenage gangs had paramilitary overtones, his childhood songs were "full of hate about Bloody Sunday. But on that day something in me changed. An infant, barely capable of rational thought . . . how can they hate an image so much they want to throw a brick they can't even carry?"

A "Brummie" girl, full of moral outrage, asks: "Having heard the stories of the stolen children in the workshop, I want to know why you'd even want to be reconciled with people who did that?" Dodson, known in Australia as the father of reconciliation, for his statesmanlike steering over the past decade of negotiations for a formal acknowledgment of indigenous rights, gives a Mandela-like response. "You need to liberate the oppressor as well as yourself. Because in doing that, you can construct a decent future for both of you. That doesn't mean you forget history, but don't let it neutralise you into remorse and being a victim, or you become totally useless to your cause, which is about liberating your people and enabling the oppressors to be better human beings."

In a more simplistic arena, it might seem odd that this question came from an English girl - weren't they the colonisers, the perpetrators, the baddies? But she is black, her people are victims of colonialism too - and maybe also perpetrators of injustice in some area, just as the Irish were in Australia. You do not get away with comforting generalisations at 80:20. "I don't buy the argument that the Irish, because of their 50/200/700/900 years of oppression, are axiomatically on the side of the oppressed," says Regan. "Equally, the English are not axiomatically on the side of the oppressor. Cromwell killed many of his own officers for siding with the local Irish."

COMING from a self-described "cultural nationalist" whose grandfather fought in the Easter Rising, such views might be considered aberrant by those who prefer to deal in tribal certainties. But noone's story is black and white - in Dodson's case literally so. His great-great-grandfather was Irish - but he was an Ulster Protestant who, unlike many European settlers of the 1850s, saw his aboriginal partner as an equal.

The 80:20 approach constantly unpicks the prejudice and cosy assumptions that permeate our lives. The organisation is avowedly non-religious - its ethos is broadly humanitarian/libertarian. 80:20 believes that whatever the problem, the solution lies not in backing one side and hoping to demolish the other, but in getting both groups out of the trenches and into the No Man's Land in between. "If we're in the business of reconciliation - it's very difficult to do that in dialogue with yourself and those who agree with you," says Regan.

"Reconciliation means bringing back together those who have been apart. It may not be agreement, it may be commonality . . . to work forward together. It is ridiculous, for instance, that it's a big deal to bring three people from East Belfast 90 miles south - as if we're parading exotic zoo animals - but the positive side is that people want the talk."

As the head of a royal commission into the appallingly high death rates among aborigines in custody, Dodson knows only too well the suffering of his people. In his home state of Western Australia, aborigines comprise 1 per cent of the population, but 43 per cent of those in jail. Despite such retrograde steps as harsh new sentencing laws and the refusal of the Howard government to apologise for the Stolen Generations, Dodson has never lost either his dignity or his magnanimity. His final message in Bray, to those returning to sectarian hate in the North, or racial abuse in Britain, or poverty and opprobrium anywhere, is one of hope and humanity.

"The role of youth is to push and push hard for the dream and the ideal of a reconciled community . . . where the diversity and the difference that distinguish us is totally appreciated. Keep in your mind to treat them as you'd like to be treated. That sounds very Christian, but in honouring and respecting their uniqueness and enabling it to flourish through accommodations and compromises, your uniqueness can prosper too. The world is a pretty small place after all."

Siobhan McHugh's documentary, Irish Nuns and Stolen Aboriginal Children, was a finalist for Best Australian Radio Feature in the Walkley Awards in Sydney this month. Email smchugh@bigpond.com

80:20 Educating and Acting for a Better World: tel 01-2860487. E-mail: info@8020.ie

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