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In Pictures: Laois teenagers take part in UK exchange and have their say on Brexit

Portlaoise Family Resource Centre’s youth club were invited to take part in a cross-border exchange with youth groups from Northern Ireland and Scotland.

The Department of Foreign Affairs 2018 Reconciliation Fund for cross border work saw the Portlaoise group taking part in the project with a youth group in Downpatrick in County Down and a youth group from North Lanarkshire in Scotland.

In total, 33 young people participated in the five day residential – which was based in Newcastle and Downpatrick in Down.

The purpose of the exchange was to explore cultural differences and build positive relationships between the three countries through participation in workshops and activities.

These programs were structured around the topic of “Brexit, Borders and the EU”- a topic chosen by the young people themselves as a relevant issue that they feel affects them and their future.

Ten young people, accompanied by one staff member and two youth work volunteers made the journey to Newcastle, county Down on October 28.

Here, they joined the Patrician Youth Centre and the ‘Getting Better Together’ project for the five day residential.

Staying in the St Vincent De Paul’s Clare Lodge residential accommodation, overlooking the Irish Sea, it was the perfect location for the young people to get to know one another better by taking advantage of the opportunity to visit the local ice-cream parlours and amusement centres as well as soak up the fresh sea air.

The first few days were designed to ensure that the young people were given the time to establish relationships with each other before getting involved in intensive – topic-based workshops.

This was delivered through a mixture of structured team building exercises, ice breakers and time to explore Newcastle themselves.

Once the young people were comfortable in each other’s company and natural friendship groups had formed, they were invited to participate in a concentric circles activity whereby they had to give quick fire answers on their knowledge of the EU and Brexit.

This was to establish a baseline of understanding on the topics to reflect on at the end and to measure the change in learning.

Other workshops included in the week were designed to involve the young people in negotiations, partnership working and trade.

These were delivered in a fun and challenging way, for example an “escape room” was set up to encourage the young people to work as part of a group but to also to get the young people to think logically about situations and challenges. T

Groups were also asked to participate in the “trade game” – a game which focused on sharing of resources to complete a set of tasks, whilst taking into consideration, inequalities and exploitation of individuals and indeed countries.

This activity was designed to get the young people to think about how countries work together to establish trade deals and alliances.

A discussion on the EU, how it was established, and its function took place afterwards to help the young people make sense of the activity and to begin thinking about how countered within the EU and across the globe work together.

The young people also began planning for a visit to Stormont by working in ‘parties’ to debate topics such as Borders and immigration.

Each team was assigned a stance – either for a hard border between Northern Ireland or against a hard border.

Groups also studies the pros and cons of immigration as well as pros and cons of Brexit as a whole. The young people assigned speakers within their group who would be responsible for expressing their points in the Parliament buildings in Stormont the following day.

Wednesday morning consisted of the groups making the journey to Belfast and receiving a tour of the Parliament Buildings prior to their debate.

They were met and supported by MLA for County Down, Colin McGrath, in the debating chamber where they learned about the format and structure of debates and conduct within the debating chamber itself.

Four young people from the Portlaoise FRC volunteered to speak during the debate and despite the pressure of speaking in front of 32 other young people, each of them did an exceptional job and made valid points in relation to their position.

Many young people also took initiative and proposed counter – arguments, which were unscripted however very much welcomed.

These counter arguments were executed with a great deal of confidence and passion, indicating the positive change in confidence and self-esteem that had manifested throughout the few days.

After the debates, the young people were given the opportunity to vote on the particular issues they were discussing.

These were: Should there be a hard Border between Northern Ireland and the Republic and should the UK remain in the European union?

The young people voted unanimously that there should not be a hard border between the two countries and that the UK should remain in the EU.

Main reasons for this included the consideration of the Good Friday agreement and concerns that if there was a hard border that this would result in issues arising again between North and the Republic of Ireland and also between Loyalists and Nationalists in Northern Ireland.

Reasons for remaining within the EU were around free movement and trade.

The young people were treated to an evening of fireworks and observing the street parade in Newcastle on their last night, which was run by the local council.  

As it coincided with Halloween, many of the young people took the opportunity to dress up and enjoy celebrating the end of their residential with a party in the centre.

On the final day, the young people were given a few hours to consolidate their learning through different workshops and activities, before being given free time to chill and say goodbye to their new friends.

From observations and feedback from the young people, many of the participants attending gained a great deal from the exchange on a personal level.

Many of them had stepped outside their comfort zones and pushed themselves to undertake new challenges.

It was noted throughout the week that significant changes were occurring each day with the young peoples confidence and self esteem.

In the weeks following the exchange the young people have stated that they have been in contact with their new friends from Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Some of the young people have also been involved in talks and speeches at school and Youthreach around the topic of Brexit and borders which they stated they felt confident to do, given that they had participated in the exchange.

This again highlights the positive impact that this type of work has on young people.

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Siún Lennon joined LaoisToday in a full-time capacity after studying Journalism and New Media in the University of Limerick. She hails from Rosenallis and her interests vary from news, sports and politics.