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January 2020 Newsletter

PEACE IV – January 2020 Newsletter.

 

Happy New Year, or if we’re too late for the conventional one, 新年快乐 and 恭喜發財. This month our e-newsletter is focused on feature articles on two shared spaces projects. One is an amazing project between residents in the Waterside areas of Bonds Street, Shepherds Glen and the Triangle; the other is on the hot topic of Bonfires and Alternatives to Bonfires. We promise you, neither are the ‘same old, same old’. Both are about inspiring, new conversations. So read on…

 

Feature: Burning Issues.

   

Something is afoot with bonfires. Not the ‘same old.’ Something new.

‘Crowds came from Irish street, Top of the Hill, everywhere. Deckchairs, wheelchairs, families, older residents… they arrived at 4pm and stayed until the fireworks,’ says Claire, Community Worker in Irish Street. ‘Jimmy Buckley had a Dublin Reg Mercedes. He was like ‘Am I OK? Is my car alright?’ By the time he hit the stage he was ‘Unbelievable. Such a welcome!’ Claire smiles. You’d be forgiven for not realising she’s describing bonfire night. At an interface.

Bonfires are a tough area of peace work. A poisoned chalice with rare breakthroughs. So what’s changed with the PEACE IV Bonfires/Alternatives project?

‘Previously council had no reference point for bonfires – no policy, no officer,’ says Sean, Community Engagement Officer on bonfires. . He recalls the project starting two years ago. ‘Bonfires were a high profile issue in many council areas. In unionist areas the move on bonfires was seen as a cultural attack. In nationalist areas bonfires were in defiance at unionist bonfires and  largely unwanted events by the majority within the community.   The flip side was communities wanted to transform their celebrations. Some for total alternatives, others in terms of toxic materials and flags.’ Sean’s job? Connect with communities, build trust, transform practice. Tough enough for one bonfire. The council area has nineteen.

‘11th July, 12th August, 15th August, Hallowe’en…’ Sean gestures across landscape. ‘Bonfires spanned from Castlederg to Creggan. We started with scoping who, what, where and why – understanding the dynamics, the influences behind the fires.’

Key initial building blocks included a council bonfires policy and an all-party interagency working group. ‘Political consensus means we’re possibly the only council issuing unified press statements,’ says Sean. ‘The bonfires policy when developed  was endorsed by all political representatives at that time and recognises bonfires as a legitimate cultural expression if done safely and respectfully.’ In the political and community context, confidence and trust building, frank conversations and confidential meetings were essential.  Listening, understanding and engaging communities in action planning was vital.

Seeking external support was of great assistance. The Diamond Regeneration group in East Belfast hosted a site visit and then facilitated a cross community conference in Derry and Strabane Council area. They explained howbonfire celebrations there were transformed through connection with neighbourhood regeneration and re-imaging.

‘Every neighbourhood’s different,’ explains Sean. ‘The next stage was cross-community. Collective dialogue asking what would impact positively? What were shared issues? Anti-social behaviour? Fly tipping? Interface tensions? What did communities want? Tyres, flags and election posters or wood only emblem free? Could working together create unity?’ Engagement became dynamic. Constructive. The project wasn’t about usurping but enhancing celebrations – making area plans with agreed goals.

Collectively council, communities, statutory agencies and emergency services, co-ordinated cross-community training - Events management, bonfires alternatives, health and environment awareness, good relations, fire safety. Conferences, site visits and dialogue challenged thinking and awareness. ‘Clooney, Irish street, Lincoln Courts, Galliagh, Bogside, Creggan, Top of the Hill… people worked to understand each other’s communities,’ says Sean. ‘Ultimately they championed each other’s areas and positions.’ When a Waterside community worker  said ‘We want an event like in the Gasyard – no alcohol, no flags.’Bogside community workers said ‘We’ll support you in getting that.’

It wasn’t just talk. ‘The project’s been hands on. We’d direct access to council,’ says Claire from Irish Street. ‘If the lads needed non-wood materials lifted, it worked. That feeling of being understood… Council got their heads round the why Protestant communities want bonfires. It’s about cultural diversity.’ She grins. ‘You could say council’s really flown the flag.’

‘Council’s changed thinking was significant,’ says Alison, Waterside Neighbourhood Partnership Manager. ‘The policy, protocols, the working group… mindsets changed. Unionist bonfires were recognised as a cultural celebration. That enabled working with communities on event management and hard conversations about what’s burned.’

The project built on existing work. ‘We’d already tackled tyres and anti-social behaviour,’ says Don from Clooney. ‘PEACE funding took us further – a culturally oriented day. Pipes. Drums. Highland dancing. With mediation the fire’s down to one flag. The event is properly stewarded. It’s the progression of five year’s effort. We need continuing education. These boys are engaging but there’ll be a next group.’

Community workers identified strength in combined working. ‘Tackling bonfires here is a genuine multi-agency thing going on eight, nine years,’ says Cathal, Shantallow Centre Manager.  ‘This community doesn’t want bonfires. Our alternative summer programme is a collective effort. PEACE money filled in gaps. Working with bonfire builders meant we’d only one bonfire. 300 tyres were removed. No toxic material. No reports of anti-social behaviour. No arrests. Three times young people moved the bonfire – away from gas mains, roads, housing.’ Galliagh’s bonfire strategy involves eight weeks of developmental work with teenagers and a residential. 200 teenagers are away on bonfire night. The same teenagers run the summer programme – turning former bonfire sites into community fun days. ‘Young people usually collecting were doing their bit instead – setting up, contributing positively. Or saying we can’t build here, there’s weans on bouncy castles...’

Conchúr, Youth and Health Co-ordinator, reflects on the situation years previous. ‘One weekend cost over £100,000 damage. Road surfaces, traffic islands, police and fire callouts… never mind the social impact of a community in distress. All it takes is investment. In this area, with funding, we can eradicate bonfires.’

Success went beyond the city. In Castlederg the bonfire was swapped for a three day festival with broad community appeal. ‘The marquee beside the Orange Hall had GAA supporters and local bandsmen,’ says Sean. ‘In Newtownstewart the Somme Memorial Hall is close to the GAA club. The family event had a flute band parade and a wood only, emblem free bonfire. People from different communities intermingled.’

Yes, there are setbacks. Some communities aren’t yet engaged. Flags remain an issue. Clearly though, the project is influencing behaviour. Of 19 bonfires, this year only 2 burned tyres.  Paramilitary flags and poppy wreathes were removed. Communities empowered. ‘Despite everyone’s best efforts,’ says Sean, ‘with bonfires sometimes at the last minute things go backwards.’ This project breeds cautious optimism. Sometimes things go forwards.

 

Feature: Shared Space Bonds Street/Shepherds Glen/Triangle

Bryan Adams crackles on the bus radio. Many of the Senior Citizens on the bus remember a very different Summer of ‘69. ‘We’re waiting on Mavis,’ says one. ‘We may buy her an alarm clock.’

Today’s trip to Belfast has two destinations – the Museum of Orange Heritage and Belfast Islamic Centre. Residents from the Triangle, Bonds Street and Shepherds Glen have worked together for the first time strategically on this Shared Space project linking the three communities. ‘We’ve really gelled together,’ says Fiona, project worker. ‘You can see the friendships.’ She talks of the parenting classes; summer scheme day trips to the zoo, W5; a picnic in the park; sewing classes; the older people’s project… ‘We had a registration day in All Saints Clooney Hall. The number of residents who said “We didn’t know this was here!” We’ve been taking people out of their comfort zone to places they wouldn’t usually have gone to.’

Lloyd from Bonds Street Community Association agrees. ‘Our group is going 19 years and this is something we’ve never done. It’s our first time. At the beginning you do be a wee bit, is this going to work? It’s been fantastic working with all the people. No fallouts. When we finish one thing we’re always asking about the next one. We’ve done the 2 cathedrals, the St.Columba trail, the Longtower, the Mem, Peace walls, the cemetery. Places you’d walked past but never been inside. Hearing history we’d never heard of. There’s always two sides to a story. One of the men from the Dam Busters is buried up there. Cecil Frances Alexander too who wrote There Is A Green Hill far away… I’d never met Thomas. Now I’ve a great friend. Working together – I love it. That’s what it’s about. What I worry about though is we do all this and then all of a sudden there’s no funding. It’d be terrible to lose what we’ve got here. Sad to fall back after 18 months.’ He gestures with his hands. ‘See if you’re building trust and building communities together, you have to keep it going. The trust is there now so we’ve got to mind where we go next. My fear is a sudden stop. The man above is looking down on us. On the open day in the Triangle the sun was shining. See all these trips – we haven’t had a bad day ever.’

‘The project has been amazing from the beginning,’ says Arlene. ‘The places we’ve gone through the Tourist in our city project have been really enjoyable – I was never in the Longtower Chapel or the City Cemetery in my life. It’s lovely to be able to see my whole city. I learned a lot. We’d cultural workshops too – learning to put on Saris with the Indian community, a Scottish Ceilidh. The most memorable day was when we toured Lifford Jail. The weather was glorious. I’ve no doubt people have made friendships across the areas. Everybody gelled really well. That’s what it’s all about – even beyond PEACE IV. Our annual dinner in March – now we can send invites out to the Triangle too. We’re only a little group but it’s important we’re seen to be out there.’

Thomas, originally a Brandywell man. ‘It’s been a very successful idea all round. It’s linked people. Big time. The way we’ve grouped up – it’s like a team. Fort Dunree – I didn’t realise how beautiful it was. I haven’t been in either of these places. Definitely not.’ Historical anecdotes galore. ‘The craic about me is I’m a former Derry City Player and International Pigeon Fancier, a newspaper man and a trouble maker.’ He’s played football against the British Army, played the wardens in Crumlin Road Gaol, he’s a proud newspaper man.

In the Museum of Orange Heritage there is sshhing as we listen to the guide. King Billy sits in solid silver astride his horse. ‘The Glorious Revolution wasn’t a standalone incident… The wars in Ireland were part of events going on across Europe… Britain had a succession of Protestant kings. James converted to Catholicism…’ We hear the main story and the quirks and trinkets of history. Williams’ gloves. Letters. Coins. William and Mary were the only joint monarchy in British History – their profiles are together on the coins. A 1690 Jacobite coin has James on it even though he wasn’t on the throne. He ‘made a mint’ in Dublin. Literally. Melted from guns and church bells. Paid his troops with ‘gun money’. The Battle of the Boyne was the only time in history that two crowned British kings have fought each other on a battlefield. ‘The Battle of the Boyne lasted half a day. We’re still talking about it 300 years later. Posters on the walls of the rights William introduced – Freedom of Speech, Freedom of the Press, Trial by Jury…

Loughgall. 1795. After the Battle of the Diamond the Orange Lodge is formed in Sloan’s Inn to defend Protestant faith, heart and home. We traipse round muskets, goblets, lambegs painted with the trial of Abraham. Banners of David and Goliath and the Parable of the sower. Canon Balls. A fragment of the Siege of Londonderry flag. 1916 slogans ‘For Crown and Country.’ War medals. Service Medals. A ‘Dead Man’s Penny.’ Wire from the liberated Belsen Concentration camp. RUC and B-Special uniforms. Collarettes. Solemn League and Covenant Pin badges. UVF Armbands. Displays of lodges in Cuba, Brazilian Sugar Plantations, French Trenches, a Belgian Jesuit College. A Memorial window for members of the Order killed during the Troubles. The staircase features a series of famous Orangemen – the usual suspects but also others. Dr Thomas Barnardo – a social reformer. Revd. Richard Rutledge – a Church of Ireland Minister and Gaelic Language enthusiast.

Over stew at lunch the friendships and project legacy are evident. May invites the entire table to the Clooney Hall luncheon club. Annette from Clooney enthuses about Irish language classes she’s attending in the Methodist church. At 94, Sylvia may be the oldest participant on the PEACE IV programme. ‘The trips out together are great,’ she says. ‘I loved Lifford Jail.’

We take our shoes off entering the Islamic Centre. ‘When we pray we place our foreheads on the floor,’ says Almar, the Iman. ‘Islam is an Arabic word that means submission. Allah is just the Arabic for God – event Arabic speaking Christians use the same word. But the majority of Muslims are not Arabs. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population.’ He shows us a Koran. Leather bound in navy and gold. The walls are decorated with pictures of Arabic script, orange sunsets, rushes by a lake. The thick red carpet is patterned for prayer. We watch a Youtube video – a melodic recitation of the Koran. The boy has memorised the whole book. He is 12. It issues a plethora of questions. Differences between Catholic and Protestant theology seem irrelevant. ‘What age do children learn?’ ‘Do you have simplified stories for children like our bible stories?’ Yes, children are encouraged from a young age. ‘What about life after death?’ ‘What about confession?’ ‘That boxer, Mohammed Ali. He was a great man.’ ‘Are there many converts?’ ‘Does Jesus play a role in your religion?’ ‘Would ye’s eat a wile lot after sunset in Ramadam?’ ‘Where is he, this anti-Christ? When is Jesus coming back?’ Some questions are harder to answer than others. Almar gracefully explains the 5 pillars of Islam pointing out similarities and differences with Christianity. ‘That was from the heart,’ says one participant as we board the bus home. ‘I never would’ve went here. Never would’ve thought of this,’ says another.

‘Now remember we’re on next week,’ says Fiona. ‘Personal safety workshops then the cross-border trip to Sligo. You’s have it on those wee leaflets. Then the Peace Walls residential.’ She smiles at conversations up the bus. ‘You’re asking about cross-community friendships?’ she whipsers. ‘I’d be wondering do we need to buy a hat!’

 

PEACE PLUS:

Have you an opinion on what should or shouldn’t be funded under PEACE PLUS?

PEACE PLUS will be the new programme that will follow on from both PEACE and INTERREG EU funding. It will build on the work of the current PEACE and INTERREG Programmes between Northern Ireland and the border counties of Ireland by contributing to social, economic and regional stability in the regions concerned; in particular through actions to promote cohesion between communities. It’s anticipated there will be about €650 million in the PEACE PLUS programme. For comparison, there is €588 million in the current PEACE IV and INTERREG programmes combined so it’s about the same size or bigger than current programmes. It will be at least a year or longer before the earliest opportunities to apply to PEACE PLUS may be available.  The consultation is currently live and you can help shape what is funded by inputting your views on: www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/PEACEPLUS

 

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