Name: Gareth Harper
Position: Managing Director PeacePlayers Northern Ireland
About PeacePlayers NI
PeacePlayers utilise sport and its inherent lessons of teamwork, cooperation, communication and determination to unite young people from the historically divided traditions. PeacePlayers is core-funded by the Community Relations Council.
Through core funding, PeacePlayers will extend its programme to work with more young people in more geographical locations as well as train, support and equip those working with the children and young people to fully realise and release the potential of sport for community relations and peace building work.
How long have you worked in community relations?
I took up the position of Managing Director with PeacePlayers in March of 2009 having previously served as programmes Manager with Rural Community Network, so I have worked in the community relations and peace building field for almost 20 years.
What does your job entail?
A big part of my job involves engaging staff, board members and other key stakeholders (funders, community leaders, principals and teachers) in mapping out the strategic direction and contribution of PeacePlayers. Since its inception in 2002, PP-NI has stuck firmly to its core objective of building positive relations and promoting peace building through sport.
Like most that work in this field, quite a lot of my time is taken up thinking about fundraising and working with the Board to develop a strategy to raise funds to sustain the work and to diversify PeacePlayers funding mix. I am also lucky enough from time to time to get hands on and to support the delivery of PeacePlayers community relations through sport programming with our brilliant young people.
Why is community relations important?
Whilst we have peace in Northern Ireland there is a continued need for a focus on reconciliation and relationship development. Despite it being 20 years since the signing of the Good Friday agreement over 100 peace walls still exist across NI, 90% of public housing remains segregated along sectarian lines and less than 7% of children in NI attend integrated schools. As such, opportunities for young people to engage in productive and cooperative cross-community activities are very limited. Many young people continue to live in separate areas and attend separate schools.
Tell us about your background.
I grew up in Newcastle Co. Down and attended St Patrick's Grammar school in Downpatrick. I have a BSc (Hons) Degree in Geography, and an MSc in Town and Country Planning – both from the Queen's University Belfast. I also have a Post Graduate Certificate in Management and a Masters in Business Administration (MBA), both from the Open University. I am a certified Practitioner of Neuro-Linguistic programming and most recently completed a Level 5 Certificate in Coaching and Mentoring. I live with my wife Eileen and daughters Alana and Ella just outside Castlewellan, we share our home with a dog and three cats.
Why did you get into peacebuilding and community relations?
Whilst I went to an all Catholic primary school and all Catholic secondary school I was lucky enough to grow up with a mixed friend group in a mixed town. Having to have two of everything always seemed really strange and unnecessary to me. As a newly qualified Town Planner, my first job with Rural Community Network involved conducting research and consulting on what makes for a sustainable rural community. This further whet my appetite for exploring what could be achieved if everyone worked together. When the opportunity with PeacePlayers came up, I jumped at the chance to work for an organisation that has as its purpose realising and releasing the potential of sport for relationship building, reconciliation and peace building.
What has been one of your best experiences?
One of my best work experiences was when PeacePlayers’ innovative work on the Game of Three Halves was referenced in OFMDFM’s Together: Building a United Community strategy as a case study of best practice. Another particular highlight occurred in 2010 when PeacePlayers was selected as one of only two NI-based charities to benefit from the Royal Wedding Charitable Gift Fund - PeacePlayers received MacBook computers from President Obama as his gift to Will and Kate.
How does the Game of three halves work?
We have these huge walls which divide the two traditions here, with people living on either side experiencing exactly the same problems. But the power of sport can help remove the barriers that exist in people’s minds. What we try to install is a sense of responsibility. The kids have a role here to play in making Northern Ireland better, and we’re going to try and give them the skills, experiences and opportunities to allow them to do that. Drawing on its local and international experience of using basketball to bridge divides, develop leaders and change perceptions, PeacePlayers – working closely with the Ulster Council of the GAA, the IFA and Ulster Rugby – helped evolve and develop the Game of Three Halves model – which typically uses Gaelic football, rugby and soccer to challenge perceptions and attitudes.
But it was the inclusion of an expertly facilitated 4th half of community relations conversations and capacity building that helped realise sport’s peace-building potential.
This innovative work was referenced in OFMDFM’s Together: Building a United Community strategy as a case study of best practice.
If you had a magic wand and could make any change – what would it be and why?
Whilst I don't think there is one magic wand solution for resolving all of our outstanding issues I think that one thing that could help us along the way is allowing ourselves the luxury of dreaming about and imagining how great this place could be. Folks have become happy with the current status quo – things are much better than they were in the bad old days – and therefore don't want to rock the boat too much for fear of going backwards. Using a magic wand to show folks how great a shared future could be for everyone could provide for renewed energy and passion for work towards realising that vision.
What advice would you give to other people in your field?
Sometimes the challenges and divisions that remain in Northern Ireland seem so massive and institutionally embedded that it can be overwhelming and disheartening. It's really important to take stock of how far we have come, to take the time to celebrate the successes big and small, and to recognise that the contributions we are making are really important in building a better truly shared future.
How have you been involved with the Community Relations Council?
Having our contribution and that of sport recognised by CRC through the awarding of core funding status, has helped PeacePlayers to raise the profile of peace-building through sport work and to develop new and innovative sports-based programming that has already helped and will continue to help children and young people to come together.