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Boston Program Gives Young Irish Job Training and a New Outlook

Three months ago, 22-year-old Paul McErlane was knocking around West Belfast, Northern Ireland, dreaming of a career in photography, a bleak prospect in a city with 40 percent unemployment. But this fall, he's been scrambling all over New England snapping photos as a trainee for Reuters America Inc.

Thanks to ''Springboard,'' a 10-week job-training program that places unemployed young people from Belfast and Dublin in Boston companies, Mr. McErlane is gaining business experience he could not have found at home.

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''I'm very motivated and career-oriented, but there was no way to break into a career in Belfast,'' McErlane says from his Boston office. ''Here, I've already covered the [United States] Senate race and President Clinton's two trips to New England, and I'm putting together a portfolio for when I go home.''

Springboard is a three-year old Belfast-based program that helps chronically unemployed young people from Protestant and Catholic sections of West Belfast, which has the highest unemployment in Britain, and Tallaght, a section of Dublin with nearly 25 percent unemployment. The program has a dual purpose: to train young managers and entrepreneurs to return and expand business opportunities, and to teach Protestant and Catholic youths to get along despite 25 years of acrimony. With the current paramilitar y cease-fire in place in Northern Ireland, organizers say achieving these goals has become easier.

''We've been locked into a very negative situation for so long, and it suddenly changes,'' says Jackie Redpath, Springboard leader and director of the Greater Shankill Development Agency, based in Belfast's Protestant area. ''Young people have never known anything else but violence, and it's very important that they go beyond that. These youths train together, work together, actually live together abroad, and come back home together.''

And succeed together. Over 65 percent of the 300 alumni of the program have found work upon returning home, a welcome opportunity considering that unemployment exceeds 60 percent in some Catholic parts of Northern Ireland. In addition, 35 percent of the young people involved with the program have set up their own businesses, Mr. Redpath says.

Springboard, with similar programs in Pittsburgh; Toronto; and Fresno, Calif.; is funded by the International Fund for Ireland (IFI), an agency established by the British and Irish governments in 1986 to promote economic and social initiatives while encouraging reconciliation between Protestants and Catholics. The US contributes $20 million a year to the IFI, and President Clinton recently added $10 million to stimulate the peace process. Springboard is administered locally by Boston Ireland Ventures (B IV), a nonprofit group founded in 1987 by then-Mayor Raymond Flynn and John Hume, head of Northern Ireland's Social Democratic and Labour Party. Its mission is to promote jobs, investment, and youth-training in troubled areas of Ireland, north and south.

BIV Director Bill O'Donnell, who has coordinated two similar jobs programs for Derry, Northern Ireland's most-Catholic city, says that Springboard establishes a Belfast-Boston link that helps correct false perceptions about Boston, where 22 percent of residents claim Irish ancestry.

''[At first] there was a feeling that Boston-Irish Catholics won't be receptive to people coming over from the [Protestant] Shankill area,'' Mr. O'Donnell says. ''But Boston is an open city: You're accepted for being from Northern Ireland, and no one asks your religion. It's been an eye-opener for many Protestant people coming to Boston.''

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The trainees, whose ages range from 20 to 30, live in an apartment complex in nearby Quincy, and work four days a week in unpaid positions at companies like the World Trade Center, the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, and the Tara Sheraton Hotel. Here they learn basic business practices and concentrate on chosen areas of interest. Their living expenses are paid by the IFI grant

One day each week they attend class at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, where they study business principles.

According to Sharon McCourt of Derry, the group's supervisor, self-esteem and confidence are as important as learning business skills. ''They're seeing opportunities that they won't see anywhere in Ireland. As they become more open to trying new things, they're opting away from the negative image they sometimes have of themselves and of each other.''

The enthusiasm of the trainees, many of whom never had a job back home, is a windfall for sponsors. The Sheraton Tara Hotel in Newton, Mass., (owned by developer Thomas Flatley, himself an Irish immigrant) is delighted with its trainee, Brendon Ferron of Dublin, who is learning all aspects of hospitality, from hotel management, banquets, and customer service to billing, inventory, and front-office duties.

''Brendon is getting a very good insight into how business is run in the United States,'' says Mark Lahood, the hotel's general manager. ''He will have a well-rounded knowledge of the hotel business by the end of his stay.''

For McErlane the experience has opened personal and professional horizons. He wants to return to Boston some day with an exhibit of Belfast photos, so that Americans can better understand not just the intensity of living under siege, but also the great promise that his country holds, now that peace and tolerance are the buzzwords around Belfast.

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