Basketball brings Catholic and Protestant teens together in a city that was once a conflict zone of petrol bombs and bricks.
BY ALEXANDRA FLAMINI
BELFAST, Northern Ireland—Teenage boys in red-and-black jerseys sprint down the basketball court, jostling each other for the ball. The swoosh of a two-point dunk generates an encouraging outcry from the coaches.
These teens are Catholic and Protestant high school students playing together in a city steeped in sectarian violence. A volunteer organization called Full Court Peace has brought them together.
Dave Cullen and Michael Evans founded Full Court Peace in 2008 with the goal of bridging conflicting cultures. Cullen was a member of the board for Peace Players International and had won an ESPN ESPY Award in 2007. Together with Evans, who had coached basketball in Belfast, they recruited students for Full Court Peace in both Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods.
During the academic year the boys practice after school at both Catholic and Protestant gyms. This can be intimidating for the students.
“We were riding over and get into the Catholic neighborhood,” said TJ Reynolds, director of Strategies and Operations for Full Court Peace. “We were in a van that very clearly says Dunmurry [a Protestant high school] on it. And the boys just go dead silent. They don’t even want to look out the window or make eye contact with any of the kids coming out [of the school] in case they recognize them and stones start getting thrown.”
Full Court Peace is planning a major expansion over the next year. Now nine teams strong, they hope to establish two girls’ teams and two junior varsity programs. Students ages 12 to16 can then play too.
During the summer the Full Court Peace teams travel to the United States to play in exhibition games on the East Coast. “The idea behind [the trip] is they’re teammates already, they’re friends, but they’re going to go away for two weeks and play together, live together, eat together,” Cullen said. “So when they come back, they stay life-long friends and team members, and that will change their lives.”
FROM HATE TO PASSION
Cullen’s inspiration for the organization is rooted in his past. “If I’m honest, I have no great love for the Protestants. My dad died during The Troubles. I’ve had the s— kicked out of me.”
When Cullen was 20, five Protestant members of the Ulster Defence Association attacked him because he was a Catholic. “The only way I could stop them was pretend I was unconscious, or they’d kill me. So for about ten seconds I just lie open while they continued to kick me in the face.”
Later, two of his five attackers died when they walked into a shop and, in Cullen’s words, “emptied their guns just because everyone in there was a Catholic.” That shop stands across the street from where the Full Court Peace teams play today.
Cullen doesn’t want his hatred to inflame younger generations. “I know it’s wrong to feel aggressive toward anybody, but I can explain why, and I can condone why I do. But I won’t let my children become what I am.”
GENERATIONAL DIVIDE: NAIVETY MEETS FEAR
The conflict in Northern Ireland, know as The Troubles, began in the late 1960s with tensions between the Nationalists (Catholics) and Loyalists (Protestants). This led to a resurgence of violent extremist groups, such as the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA).
The peace process that began in 1994 spluttered along until the Good Friday Belfast Agreement of 1998. As a result, a cease-fire exists, but tensions still linger. “You’ve seen recently that cease-fires as a whole stop people from dying, but it doesn’t change how people feel about each other,” Cullen said. “Catholics still hate Protestants, and Protestants still hate Catholics.”
But the scars of hatred may only be felt by the older generation. To some of the Full Court Peace players, there are no troubles. “It’s just a religion,” said 16-year-old Dean McDonagh. “I just go on with my life. It doesn’t bother me.”
McDonagh is a Catholic student at St. Colm’s High School in Belfast. At the end of June he’ll make his first trip to the United States with the Belfast Bulldogs, one of the two Full Court Peace teams. McDonagh would like to study politics, business and the performing arts while playing basketball in college.
“Yeah, I want a scholarship to America. I want to do a year at Queen’s and then go over to America,” he said.
A youthful sense of naivety surrounds these players, but fear resonates in the older generations of Northern Ireland. John Toland, a program benefactor, lives through the original Troubles. He worries about the fragility of the current peace. “I’d describe it like a glass. All you have to do is go ‘Bing!’ We’re forged from crystal. You just have to know how to tap it in the right place.”
Cheering from the sidelines, Toland, Reynolds and Cullen of Full Court Peace are confident that basketball is making a positive impact on a community that was once a battleground of petrol bombs and bricks.