Young members of the Football 4 Peace program.
Young members of the Football 4 Peace program.
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I lived in Belfast, Northern Ireland, from 1982 until 2006, years that are widely regarded as the high water mark of the ‘troubles’ – the word most often used to describe the thinly-disguised civil war between Catholic Irish Nationalists and Protestant British Loyalists that blighted the region for so many years.

Like the conflict between Jews and Palestinians within Israel, and in the West Bank and Gaza, the roots of the Northern Irish troubles were buried deep in history. Back then it seemed to have an endless trajectory, best captured by the catch phrase of the Loyalist rabble-rouser, the Reverend Ian Paisley, ‘NEVER!’: Never to a united Ireland; never to a peace deal with the nationalists; and never-never to joining a coalition government with members of the political wing of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), Sinn Fein.

Those were the terrible ‘tit for tat’ days, and as bombing followed bombing, and assassination followed assassination, I felt the need to try to do something to help to make a difference. I had always been involved in sport and, through my experiences as a player and a coach, I believed that - underpinned with a philosophy of fair play and led by positive role models - sport had the capacity to override sectarian differences, and bring young people together in ways that few other areas of human endeavour could match.

So I began a small program called Belfast United, a cross-community sports project that brought together young Catholics and Protestants from some of the City’s most bitterly divided districts. Other cross-cultural community programs like it sprang up all over the province, adding their support to what was then an infant and fragile peace process.  By 1996 when I left, the peace process was robustly established and well under way to delivering a lasting legacy of co-existence and reconciliation. Today community relations are high on the agenda of those who govern sport in Northern Ireland.

I was back in Belfast only a few weeks ago. My visit coincided with that of the Queen who, in a moment of high theatre, shook hands with Martin McGuiness, a former Provisional IRA Commander, and now Northern Ireland’s Deputy Minister, in a government made of up of a coalition dominated by the Democratic Unionist Party, the party formerly led by the Reverend Ian Paisley, and McGuiness’s own party, Sinn Fein.

My experiences in Northern Ireland have been key influences on the development of the Football 4 Peace program in Israel.  Early in July 2012, over 1,000 youngsters - Jews, Arabs and Circassians, boys and girls - gathered last week to take part in the Football 4 Peace festival.

This was the culmination of a summer camp which uses values-based sport to promote equality, respect, trust and responsibility between neighboring Arab and Jewish communities in Israel. Since 2001, over 7,000 youngsters and 700 coaches have enjoyed this unique and exciting experience in Israel (a similar program exists for Jordan). Over 30 communities and regional councils participated in this year’s football camps. The summer camp is a multinational project that partners the British Council, the Israel Sports Authority, Brighton University’s Chelsea School of Sport, the Sports University in Cologne, Germany and the European Union. 

When I look back at the work of Football 4 Peace and the wider role of cross-community sport in Israel, I see two clear messages that emerge: Firstly, when it comes to conflict-resolution and peace-building, no matter how bleak things might look at a given moment, never say never. The wider conflict has deep cultural roots in the populations within Israel that are not always visible. The rocks, bombs and bullets may have subsided for the time being, but so long as there is fear and mistrust between Jewish and Arab communities in Israel, the specter of violence can never be far away. Bridge-building within Israel itself, in parallel to that between Israelis and Palestinians over the Green Line, is cardinally important.

Secondly, peace-making is not just a political enterprise, it is also a cultural endeavour. When, God willing, peace finally breaks out in the Middle East, and we look back at the ledger to see what contributed to that peace, I believe that the efforts of programs such as ours that engage and promote the development of civil society, that invite different communities to meet face-to-face, that cultivate mutual understanding, tolerance and, eventually, peaceful coexistence, will have played their part.

John Sugden is Professor in the Sociology of Sport at the University of Brighton. He is head of the Research and Graduate Centre in the School of Sport and Service Management and the Director of Football 4 Peace. This is an edited extract from an address given by Professor Sugden at a conference on the 'Impact of Cross Community Sport' in Nazareth in July 2012, hosted by the British Council in Israel.