Picking up the Pieces at Belfast’s Interfaces

imageThe last episode of RTE Radio One’s six-part ‘Picking up the Pieces in Northern Ireland’ series is set to air at 8 pm on Easter Sunday. The series has thus far examined the often unnoticed and unsung peacebuilding work of people at the grassroots, which I’ve highlighted on previous posts on this blog (see end of post for links).

I’ve just listened back to the fourth episode on the RTE website, on ‘Interfaces.’ The term interfaces refers to the areas in Northern Ireland between Catholic and Protestant communities – areas that usually only make headlines when there is violence or rioting. The series presenter, Barbara Walshe – a graduate of my School’s master’s in Reconciliation Studies – talks with an impressive range of people from community groups in North, West and East Belfast.

During the week I presented a paper at the Political Studies Association conference, held this year in Belfast. During the question time for my panel, an attendee from Britain said that he had taken a tour of the city and – like many visitors – had been taken aback by its imposing peace walls. He wondered why there hadn’t been more discussion about these walls at the conference, and if policy makers were doing anything about them.

It is of course well-documented that people living near the walls would like them to come down, but not yet.

There is still enough fear and mistrust that the walls make people feel safer. And without a sense of urgency from the residents themselves, there has been neither visioning nor planning by our local politicians. (The Observer carried an informative piece about the walls by Sean O’Hagan in January this year.)

Walshe’s programme provides a different perspective, following the trend of the series of trying to shine a light on the small stories of hope present in these communities.

Indeed, she ends the programme on a positive note, talking to people who participated in the process leading to the gate in the peace wall dividing Alexandra Park in North Belfast now being opened during the day.

At the same time, Walshe’s conversations with youth and community workers re-enforce impressions of a city still helplessly divided.

For example, Deirdre McMahon of the Forthspring Inter Community Group in West Belfast describes how youngsters living on either side of the peace wall live in almost total ignorance of each other’s lives:

[They are] very curious [about the other side]. … They would see me walking from one side to the other and think that I was not very intelligent [to do that] … so they would ask me, who are the people on the other side? What do they believe? What do they look like? Do they eat the same food even? … [They are] extremely curious but not always willing to meet.

Walshe’s interviews with women from the Catholic Short Strand and the nearby Protestant East Belfast Mission included similar stories. These women’s groups took part in a process over several years, which first included ‘single identity’ work and then coming together for a residential at Corrymeela.

According to Sandy Gallagher from the EBM group, at the residential, the women discovered:

When we looked back on it, we played the same games in schools, we ate the same food, we watched the same stuff at Christmas … we were made to go to church. … We were all doing the same.

The women now consider themselves one integrated group, rather than two separate groups, and they described how they supported each other last June during the rioting in the Short Strand.

During the programme, community worker Laura Coulter (another graduate of our master’s in Reconciliation Studies) raised the issue of the relationship between peacebuilding on the ground and the politicians in Stormont.

She acknowledged that some people in Northern Ireland think that the grassroots have been miles ahead of the politicians, with people having been willing to take part in cross community work all throughout the Troubles when the hardline politicians were unwilling to compromise. Others think that the grassroots are more bitterly divided than ever before – the evidence for that being that currently more peace walls are being put up than are being taken down. For Coulter:

Maybe it has to work at different levels. So if we see our politicians able to work together at Stormont, that is really setting a great example.

Walshe’s programme identified some areas where it should be vital for politicians to set an example, notably in effectively tackling the deprivation that afflicts communities in interface areas.

John Loughran from Intercomm in North Belfast pointed to the need for there to be integrated service delivery in these areas – something not possible if division and mistrust persists. For him, the example of the politicians, which Coulter speaks of, must be accompanied by recognition of on-going grassroots work. He said:

[There are] fundamentally decent people taking small steps forward. That is the kind of work that must be encouraged, acknowledged and shouted from the high heavens.

My blogs on the series so far:

Clonard’s Unity Pilgrims: Picking up the Pieces in Northern Ireland

Picking up the Pieces Through Sport in Northern Ireland

Ex-Prisoners: Picking up the Pieces in Northern Ireland?

(Image from the Forthspring Intercommunity Group website; Springfield Road Methodist Church is home to the group, located on the peace line in West Belfast)

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