About the Ulster Project
Ulster Project Background:
The Ulster Project was started in 1975 by Rev. Kerry Waterstone, a priest in Northern Ireland, in order to provide a safe place in North America for Northern Irish teenagers to discuss the climate of “ The Troubles” that was facing them at home. “The Troubles” was a period of ethno-political conflict in Northern Ireland which spilled over at various times into England, the Republic of Ireland and mainland Europe. The duration of the Troubles is conventionally dated from the late 1960s to the late 1990s – and specifically to the Belfast Agreement of 1998. Violence nonetheless continues on a smaller-scale basis today.
The principal issues at stake in the Troubles were the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and the relationship between the mainly-Protestant Unionist and mainly-Catholic Nationalist communities in Northern Ireland. The Troubles had both political and military (or paramilitary) dimensions. Its participants included politicians and political activists on both sides, republican and loyalist paramilitaries, and the security forces of the United Kingdom and Ireland. In short, because of the political polarization falling along religious affiliation lines, Protestants and Catholics became enemies in the struggle.
After living in Connecticut through a pastoral exchange program, Rev. Waterstone witnessed the freedom and safety of exchanging ideas and viewpoints in the United States. Upon his return to Ireland, he found a willing group of teenagers to spend part of their summer with host families in the U.S. He recruited various Catholic and Protestant clergy to support the idea of a project based on reconciliation, peace, trust and the destruction of stereotypes.
After successfully bringing the project to the U.S., Canon Waterstone concentrated on expanding the project to cities across the U.S. This allowed for more opportunities for Northern Irish teenagers to be involved and to learn of the similarities and differences between their religious affiliation, as opposed to the prejudices and bigotry that was so prevalent in the 1970s.
Currently, the project brings teens from eleven cities in Northern Ireland. The teens from Northern Ireland live with their host families for the month of July, becoming an extra son or daughter of the family with whom they are staying. The Northern Irish teens are selected for this experience based on recommendations from their clergy and teachers, after completing an application and interview. The host teens and families in the U.S. are selected in much the same manner, with an application process and home interview to ensure the willingness of the family to participate and to also prepare them for the hectic schedule that will be followed during the actual project.
Once selected for the project, the Northern Irish teens will meet extensively to form strong bonds with each other before leaving the country. As they will be far from the comforts of home, with only the rest of the teens and two Northern Irish counselors to guide them, the Northern Irish must trust each other implicitly before leaving the country. They begin meeting in January and continue to nurture their friendships until the project starts in July. These are opportunities not normally available to the teens, who mostly live in different parts of their communities based on ther religious affiliation.
In the United States, there are currently 29 cities and 17 states which host the Northern Irish teens. Each of these cities hosts a variable number of teens, from eight to sixteen, based on their ability to secure the appropriate number of host families and raise the amount of funds necessary to host the project.
How it works:
The Ulster Project is based on a simple idea of sharing experiences. Northern Irish Catholic and Protestant teenagers are hosted by American families of the same religion and with a teenager of the same age and gender. In this manner, friendships are created immediately to provide a safe and trusting atmosphere. The teens meet daily in structured activities designed to foster trust between the different cultures represented in the project.
The various projects across the U.S. have different specific methods they use to teach the peace-building tools to the Northern Irish, but central to all projects is a program called "Discovery", "Time of Discovery" or "Adventure Sharing". This weekly meeting involves discussions of the troubles facing the teens in their homes, schools and churches, and helps to teach new ways around the prejudices and stereotypes that contribute to the violence often found in Northern Ireland. A Discovery team of counselors, teachers and other facilitators organizes the activities and ensures participation from all the teens, both American and Northern Irish, in order to teach the message of prejudice-reduction.
These sessions are confidential, giving the teens the opportunity to speak honestly with their peers and approach what are often painful subjects for the Northern Irish teens regarding the ongoing conflict and historical slights viewed by both sides.