Breaking barriers to build better communities

Why I am passionate about what Spirit of 2012 does

By Paul Wyatt, Youth Advisory Panel member

Northern Ireland is quite possibly the most misunderstood part of the United Kingdom, and understandably so. From 1969 until 1998, our region was embroiled in a deeply sectarian conflict between Unionists, who wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, and Nationalists, who wanted the island of Ireland to be united, with the removal of links to the British state. To outsiders, it was almost incomprehensible that in the late 20th century, a part of the West could be embroiled in such a seemingly religiously-based conflict.

Northern Ireland is now rarely in the news, unless there is some incident that can be linked to the past conflict and this reinforces ideas that Northern Ireland is still very much a ‘backward’ region; the reality isn’t quite as simple as this and my trip to east Belfast would be a perfect example of how this is the case.

On 14 April, I visited a project funded by Spirit of 2012. Before I arrived, in my head, I assumed that I knew all the positive work that Spirit is doing, but the reality is that this can never really compare to physically visiting a project - and so with the help of Harris, I went along to an Inspired Action Workshop which was being run by the British Red Cross.

To put it succinctly, around 15 young people had taken time out of their evening - a gloriously sunny one at that - to learn about the benefits of volunteering. It wasn’t the case that they were ‘just there’, they were present too, and it was easy to see that they cared about their community, which is such a huge part of volunteering. In essence, I witnessed the dawning of a new idea for these young people, as the value of community engagement and local pride lit up for them.  The day sparked their belief that they could improve and support their community now and for years to come.

After that session, which has undoubtedly altered the paths that some of those young people will take, I couldn’t be more excited to see how they will go on to impact the lives of others. For me, this shows neatly and perfectly how powerful volunteering can be.

The session in east Belfast also reminded me of the need for us, as a society, to make volunteering more accessible for everyone - because of the huge impact it can have. The Youth Sport Trust commisioned research carried out by YouGov showed that 63% of respondents thought that there were less opportunities for disabled young people to volunteer in sport than non-disabled people; this must change.

On June 6, I will travel out to Washington DC on a leadership programme which brings together young people from both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland together, with the aim of creating future leaders that will go on to change Northern Ireland, to fully finalise the peace process. Our region needs more opportunities like this, for everyone. I know I’m on the Youth Advisory Panel, but I feel that volunteering opportunities for our older people are also absolutely crucial for moving our society forward. It’s delusional to think that in Northern Ireland, we will move our society forward by consigning and writing off our older generations. We shouldn’t volunteer apart.

Northern Ireland isn’t perfect and we still have many issues in our past that we need to confront, but volunteering opportunities need to be given adequate space and support for this to happen and the barriers to volunteering must be broken down sooner rather than later.