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Irish children spend a peaceful summer in US

Nicola Haigh, age 12, is too busy enjoying the northern Wisconsin summer to have much to say about the fighting back home in the streets of Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Nicola, a charming girl with a thick brogue and adult eyes, is one of 124 children from the strife-ridden country who are spending the summer in Wisconsin , Minnesota, and North Dakota through the Children's Program of Northern Ireland Inc.

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The nonsectarian program - the only one of its kind in the United States - is designed to remove youngsters for part of the summer from the tense environment created by battling Protestants and Roman Catholics. The organizers also hope it will give the children an opportunity to see Protestants and Catholics living peacefully together in the Midwest.

A Belfast woman, Sally Douglas, founded the program 10 years ago after her son was killed. She mailed letters to newspapers in the US telling about the circumstances in Belfast. A Minnesota family read the letter and invited Mrs. Douglas's surviving son to spend the summer with them.

Some of the children who come to the US have already learned to make bombs and think nothing of hurling rocks at soldiers and police. Others, like Nicola, have been thoroughly sheltered by their parents.

Howard and Carol Morgan, Nicola's host parents in Wisconsin, say the young Irish girl rarely talks about the fighting. Although she lives in a red brick row house on Ebor Street, less than two miles from the usual center of violence, Nicola says she doesn't have any idea what the fighting is about.

''There's no fighting where I live,'' she says. ''I don't know anything about it.'' A moment later she adds, ''I hear guns and bombs at night, but I don't wake up.''

As the conversation continues, Nicola discusses other episodes. ''There was a man shot in our alley,'' she says in a quiet voice. ''My mommy was the one who opened the door and found him.''

The Morgans understand her reticence and were coached by the program's organizers to expect it. ''They're fiercely proud of their country, and they believe you are condemning it when you ask about the fighting,'' says Carol Morgan. ''But we've been told they are definitely living in a dangerous place.''

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Even though Nicola's parents go out of the way to protect their children from the fighting, their lives are far from placid. It's a normal way of life for Belfast pedestrians to accept being checked for weapons as they enter shopping areas. Some streets are barricaded to separate Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. Because of car bombings, parking is severely restricted.

All children in Northern Ireland between the ages of 9 and 11 are eligible for the summer program, but preference is given to those whose fathers work in jobs that can make them the targets of violence.

Gordon Haigh, Nicola's father, was in a vulnerable position when he was a reporter for the Belfast Telegraph. To make for a calmer family environment, he resigned and went to work for the same newspaper in the circulation department, Carol Morgan says.

About every 10 days, while Nicola is in Wisconsin, the Morgans telephone the Haighs. The Irish family also prefers to avoid discussing the violence.

''They (the Haighs) say it's 'nothing - we stay out of it,' '' Carol Morgan says.

Nicola is spending her third summer with the Morgans. She describes the US as ''brilliant,'' although she admits that the rural Wisconsin area where the Morgans live did not fit her preconceived notion of what the US would be like.

''I thought it would be more built up,'' says Nicola, who spends much of her summer swimming, water skiing, and log rolling.

Carol Morgan admits she knew little about the conflict in Northern Ireland three years ago when she first noticed a small item in the Sawyer County Record, the local weekly newspaper, asking people to open their homes to the Irish chldren.

''I thought it would be a good experience for our children,'' she says. ''They have everything, they're so carefree. They don't realize what it can be like for others.''

The summer program works out well for her family, Mrs. Morgan adds, because it is the busy time of year for her husband, an electrician, and leaving for a vacation would be impractical.

''This is our vacation,'' she says, happily nodding in the direction of Nicola.

The Morgans paid about $550 to bring Nicola from Northern Ireland. The amount includes the charter air fare and health insurance that covers her stay in this country. Nicola's parents contribute about $150 toward the trip.

The Morgans are strong supporters of the program. ''If a family ever took a child for the first time, they would somehow scrape up the $500 to do it again, '' Mrs. Morgan says.

''It's a very emotional thing. We get so attached. When they leave, it's really tearful.''

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