Message from General John de Chastelain (ret’d)

PSI Team Visits Belfast, Northern Ireland

During the week of September 21 – 28, 2005 a PSI team visited Belfast, Northern Ireland at the invitation of Barnardo’s, a charitable organization working with children and their families in the community – giving them practical and emotional support to deal with disadvantage.

On September 26, 2005, the headlines of the Belfast Telegram read: “IRA disarms.” The article began,

History was being made today as the International Decommissioning body confirmed that the Provisional IRA has put its arsenal beyond use. General John de Chastelain and his two fellow commissioners were briefing the British and Irish governments this morning ahead of publicly announcing this afternoon that the IRA has disarmed.”

On this same day, at the invitation of Barnardo’s, Paula George, guidance counselor at Leary’s Brook Junior High in St. John’s Newfoundland and Labrador; Heather Harris, principal at Kingston School, Nova Scotia; Dr. John LeBlanc, researcher at Dalhousie University; Hetty van Gurp, founder of Peaceful Schools International and her husband, Ward Carson – the PSI team, was making presentations to teachers and principals from Belfast schools at Belfast Castle. General de Chastelain, a member of the International Advisory Board of PSI unfortunately could not be in attendance as he was otherwise engaged. His message is below.

It seems more than just a coincidence that all of this was happening at the same time. Besieged by decades of sectarian division and violence, it may be that Northern Ireland is at a critical juncture in its history and that the time has come when people on both sides of the divide, are ready for peace.

In addition to the presentations made on this day, we also had an opportunity to visit the three PSI member schools in Belfast: Edenbrooke Primary School, St. Gabriel’s College and Brownlow Integrated College in Craigavon. In each of these schools, it was evident to all of us that the principles and practices of PSI have contributed significantly to creating a positive ethos.


Head of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning in Northern Ireland


I would start by saying how I much regret I am not here to deliver this brief message in person. Some months ago I promised Hetty I would do all I could to take part in this important Seminar, although I had to add the caveat that the role which brings me to Ireland might force me to withdraw at the last moment. Sadly for me that is now the case.

Had I been able to attend I would have said how pleased I am to see the way in which the work of Peaceful Schools International has been embraced in the past few years by several schools in Northern Ireland, as indeed it has been in other parts of the world, and how much I hope that the initiative being launched today by PSI and Barnado’s will build on the success that has already been achieved here.

It is surely a truism that a child’s health, happiness and freedom to learn is the long-term key to addressing the many problems that exist in a world beset by conflict, hunger, disease, poverty and violence. If we take for given the credo that attendance at school is the right and obligation of all children everywhere – and sadly that is still not the case in far too many parts of the world – it must surely follow that children should have the unimpeded ability to get to school safely and once there, to interact, play and learn free from threat, intimidation or interference. It is also important that children learn tolerance, respect and an appreciation of difference at an early age, and that their school experience builds on that understanding so that when they leave as adults it is firmly implanted.

In so many parts of the world children who are willing and anxious to learn are prevented from doing so for reasons as diverse as war, lack of resources, political instability and fear. Measures to address this daunting problem continue to be pursued by politicians, NGOs, the United Nations and charities world-wide. But even in settled and prosperous societies, where schooling is available and where attendance is mandated by law, problems exist that prevent children from profiting fully by the experience or from reaching their full potential. Problems such as bullying, peer pressure, community or domestic instability and lack of self-esteem continue to affect some children in even the most sophisticated and forward looking societies.

Northern Ireland is a highly advanced society with one of the best education systems in the world. Graduates of Northern Ireland’s schools and universities are at the forefront of technical, social, medical and artistic achievement in the United Kingdom and Ireland as well as elsewhere in the world. And yet if the lingering effects of a once-divided society are permitted to put pressure on young people when they are at their most vulnerable and impressionable – that is when they are at school — then the efforts that so many are making to overcome the difficulties of the past will continue to be hindered.

In March 2003 I had the great pleasure of visiting Brownlow Integrated College when it adopted membership in Peaceful Schools International, an occasion on which I was able to represent Hetty and her Committee. I was very impressed by the school and by its staff and pupils. I had the chance of chatting with the Head Boy and Head Girl and I was struck by their maturity and intelligence and by the way they accepted responsibility in providing leadership and acting as role models for the remainder of the students. Indeed, what struck me most about the atmosphere at Brownlow was that it already reflected exactly the result that Peaceful Schools International seeks to achieve. And yet the school chose to become a member of PSI, demonstrating its continuing commitment to providing all of its students with an excellent education in a milieu free from intimidation.

As a member of the PSI Advisory Board I am most grateful to those who have supported its work in Northern Ireland and who continue in their efforts to promote that work here. Without the support and active involvement of Northern Ireland’s politicians, and of its schools, teachers and cross-community workers, as well as of organizations like the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and Bombardier Aerospace Northern Ireland, I am sure that the progress that has been made here already would have been impossible. In that vein I applaud the initiative Barnado’s is taking in seeking to move the work of PSI even further forward in Northern Ireland. I am confident it will serve to encourage other schools to join in and pursue the PSI principles already adopted at St Gabriel’s College, Edenbrooke Primary School and Brownlow Integrated College.

I re-iterate my belief that the future peace and prosperity of Northern Ireland lies very much in the education of the young people here, and from what I have seen myself during the past ten years, that future is one of great promise.

I wish you a most successful and enjoyable seminar, and once again I express my very real regret to Hetty and to you that I cannot be with you.

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