Belfast community centre still defying sectarianism

 

In the reception area of the North Belfast Community Development Centre stands an exhibit by a local artist featuring a burnt doorway against a backdrop of colour. It is the original doorway of a previous premises for the centre, which was fire-bombed in the early 1970s.

"Going against the tide can be a difficult place to be, it can be uncomfortable and it can be dangerous," says the director of the centre, Ms Vivienne Anderson, "but the rainbow of colour symbolises this community's hope for the future."

North Belfast has borne the brunt of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, with 600 sectarian or political killings, the highest number in a particular area over 30 years. The area is interspersed with "peace walls" at interfaces between Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods, a sign of the deep divisions.

Over the last 25 years, the North Belfast Community Development Centre (CDC) has attempted to challenge sectarianism and promote engagement and dialogue in an area which also suffers from high unemployment and relative deprivation.

"There are those people you know you'll never change and there are those who are prepared to change and we try to build and capitalise on that. At the same time, it has to be acknowledged that life has been very tough in this part of the woods and people have earned the right to mistrust each other," says Ms Anderson.

The centre was founded in 1974 when the Shankill Butchers stalked north Belfast for their next Catholic victim. Residents along the then newly-erected peace line barricades between the nationalist Ardoyne and the predominately loyalist Alliance Road were worried at the destabilisation of the area.

Mr Brendan Bradley, now the joint chairman of the centre, was one of the founder members. "I joined the centre as a young person because I didn't want to buy into what was going on then. To me, the initiative represented the only opportunity to talk with the other side.

"The problem with north Belfast is that the two communities are living jaw to cheek, so to speak. But the peace lines didn't save any lives, if you ask me. They just allowed suspicions to build up and the attitude fester that `they're gettin' everything, we're gettin' nothing'."

The CDC offers many services and this year helped to resource 240 projects. Advice, counselling, transportation and creche provisions are also provided by the centre, which is now situated on the Cliftonville Road after two moves from premises on Alliance Avenue and the Antrim Road.

New initiatives are also introduced and when the Drumcree stand-off in 1996 led to widespread civil unrest in north Belfast the centre introduced a mobile phone network. The network allows community workers on both sides of the peace lines to communicate during times of heightened tension. This helps them to defuse volatile situations.

After this turbulent summer, which saw 80 families in north Belfast intimidated from their homes, workers from the centre investigated the source of the violence and attempted to gauge people's views on who was responsible.

According to Ms Anderson, there were very different perceptions between the two communities about what had triggered the violence and who was at fault. "People were in denial or were too proud to accept any responsibility for what happened and thought there was no way their community could possibly be the instigators."

The political parties associated with paramilitary organisations work closely with the centre and it also receives co-operation from prisoners' groups. However, the history of the centre has been marred by threats made against staff by paramilitaries.

While pregnant with her fourth child in 1997, a worker in the centre was subjected to visits from a paramilitary figure unhappy that she would not provide him with an alibi for the RUC. She was subjected to a series of "visits" but insisted on continuing to work.

At the height of the Troubles, the trauma of working at the centre often became nearly unbearable. "Sometimes I wondered how we stayed sane, coming into work in the morning knowing someone else we knew had been shot dead. In a way we just accepted it - the horror of what was going on around us," says Ms Anderson.

Despite the success of the centre, and its acceptance by both sides of the community, funding was withdrawn last year by a British government department and the centre was almost forced to close. "It was a real kick in the teeth," says Ms Anderson. "After petitioning Mo Mowlam we secured funding for this year but the future is uncertain."

This funding problem comes at a time when the centre's years of work promoting an ethos of community development had borne fruit, explains a community project worker with the centre, Ms Jo Murphy, based with the New Lodge/Duncairn Health project.

"Community development is now the buzz-word. Agencies now realise they need community participation for a project to succeed. Before, communities had things done to them, not with them, but people are becoming more assertive and articulating what they need and don't need."

Ms Jennifer Crockard, a community development officer with the Ligoniel Improvement Association, says the centre has enabled her to see that problems experienced by both sides of the divide are identical. "If this place wasn't here I wouldn't be where I am today and I'm sure everyone else could say something similar. It's through the resource offered by this centre that people have been able to progress."

As a Protestant working with mainly nationalist groups, she believes she has benefited from seeing problems from both sides. "It has changed my view of people and my past perceptions - nobody has horns on their head. You take flak for working in a nationalist area when you get home to Sunningdale, but you get used to it."

With the main paramilitary groups on ceasefire, the rate of sectarian killings in north Belfast is at an all-time low. So-called "punishment" attacks are also rare in the area. However, Charles Bennett was abducted from north Belfast and killed by the IRA in July, and last year dissident loyalists shot dead a Catholic man, Brian Service, on Alliance Avenue.

"The paramilitaries are more disciplined here than in other areas but I would never underestimate the potential for a full-scale return to violence. You've got to remember paramilitarism brings power," says Ms Anderson.

Mr Bradley is also cautious about the prospects for lasting peace as a result of the Belfast Agreement and indicates that the reality of the accord was its signing on a Friday and the erecting of yet another peace wall in north Belfast the following Monday.

"Both sides of the community are very fragmented and divided along pro-agreement and anti-agreement lines, maybe more than people realise. It is potentially a very volatile situation."

Ms Anderson fears history could repeat itself and she recounts the collapse of the Sunningdale Agreement in 1974 and a fresh wave of intense violence.

"Last year, there was a lot of euphoria around the agreement and a sense that things were going to change and that change would be fairly rapid. But the meandering of the politicians has meant that a lot of insecurities have crept into the communities. There are anxieties and an element now of people defending their own turf.

"The future is a bit of an unknown quantity now and people don't want to be seen to be making too many moves. But we have to take this process seriously: we can't possibly allow the same situation to return. Not if we care in any way for our children or for past victims - it would an insult to them."