Category Archives: Belfast

Future from the past: why city regeneration needs to be authentic and involve people

Nearly sixty years ago, Jane Jacobs wrote that “designing a dream city is easy; rebuilding a living one takes imagination.” Her work is the basis for city planning across the world. She advocated dense, walkable, and authentic neighbourhoods. She demanded that our places make use of their uniqueness. She humanised place. Above all, she demonstrated through her own actions that people must be involved in our cities’ futures.

Joining the Committee to Save Washington Park moved Jacobs from criticism to activism. It also helped stop Robert Moses. New York’s “master builder” wanted to drive the Lower Manhattan Expressway through the heart of Greenwich Village. Jacobs became a hero to people who believe that our places are nothing without the human beings who live and work there.



Cliclovia, Bogotá – 29 July 2017


This idea is now central to how our cities are changing. Yet, too often, “urban regeneration” as actually delivered by cities ends up destroying the very distinctiveness and authenticity upon which their vibrancy depends. Development is not always regeneration. Development that takes no account of the place in which it happens is not regenerating anything. Development very often has “no hint of individuality or whim or surprise, no hint that here is a city with a tradition and flavor all its own”; more words from Jacobs.

Regeneration, by its very meaning, has to reflect what has come before. Ensuring an authentic sense of place means making reference to a city’s past. That is not the same as being trapped by the past. It simply means that character and distinctiveness do not magic themselves out of thin air.

An authentic sense of place also means involving people. Successful cities are the ones with the confidence to use the imaginations of their people. They recognise the two key lessons of Jacobs’ work: that distinctiveness is crucial and that people have to be involved in how our places are shaped.

Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” He may as well have been talking about place. The very character of our places affects us as people. Hanoverians are different from Berliners because its maritime heritage is different from Berlin’s political one; Angelenos are different from New Yorkers because of sunshine and beaches versus skyscrapers and pastrami; Belfastians are different from Edinburghers because of ships and linen against a castle and Adam Smith.

No formula exists for character or sense of a place. Nor is there is an easy way to measure it. But we absolutely know it when we see and feel it.

We know that it combines the tangible and intangible, the ordinary and extraordinary. It is, in varying degrees for various people, the look and feel of buildings, whether stone, brick or glass, the ways in which we use or don’t use our public spaces, maritime or landlocked, industrial grit or genteel merchant city.

More than anything else, it is people who articulate that character. Through the stories we tell and the welcomes we provide, people give a face to that character. So if our places have the power to shape us as people then we must have the power to shape our places.

A little over a week ago I embarked on a Winston Churchill Fellowship to explore how cities involve people in their regeneration. The research is built around two projects with which I’m involved. Successful Belfast is encouraging people to be involved in Belfast’s future in enterprising ways. Belfast City of Music has the ambition of telling the city’s story through music on an international stage.

Successful cities have a vibrancy built from a distinctive identity and civic participation. My travels will take me to six such cities in Colombia and the US. They will involve exploring the enterprising work encouraged by the Knight Foundation based in Miami, learning about Citizen Culture and the City of Music programme in Bogotá, seeing the work of the Moravia Cultural Centre in Medellín, looking at a city centre car park experiment in Lexington, experiencing the amazing energy of Chattanooga as ‘Enterprise City’, and finding out what makes Nashville tick as ‘Music City’.

All of it is possible because Churchill believed in the power of people to deliver change. Churchill also had the confidence to be Churchill. We must make sure that we have the confidence to truly regenerate our cities in authentic and meaningful ways. We must use the stories and energies of people to shape that regeneration.

Peter Ackroyd writes in “Venice: Pure City” that all cities “began as cemeteries.” It might be extreme, though accurate in the case of Venice, but the sentiment he is expressing, that all cities have a past, holds true. It means that we need to use that past to make sure that our cities remain living.

P.S. Applications for 2018 Winston Churchill Fellowships are open until 19th September. If you have an idea you want to explore, apply for the Fellowship!



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Filed under Belfast, Cities, Regeneration, Urban

Ruth Davidson and the power of change

Ruth Davidson doesn’t shy away from a fight. In 2011, at just 32, she became leader of the Scottish Conservative Party. For almost two decades the Tories have been an afterthought in Scottish politics. They’ve had one MP since 2001 and averaged the middle teens in numbers of seats in the Scottish Parliament until earlier this year. In May the party won 31 seats. Much of the credit lies with Davidson. It is only fitting that her party’s electoral performance has made her Leader of the Opposition in Scotland.

Davidson was in Belfast recently to deliver the annual Amnesty International Pride Lecture. Displaying undoubted charisma on stage, that intangible quality that politicians crave, she swept her audience along with her. They were an audience largely receptive to her message. But the qualities that have made Davidson talked about as a potential national figure for the Conservatives were all too apparent.

For some people, changing minds and attitudes is about believing they are right and the other side is just wrong. The problem, of course, is that the other side believes the same thing. The result is predictable. Davidson’s speech struck a chord for offering an alternative way to change minds: make it personal, be positive, and stop beating people over the head.

Her message has particular resonance in Northern Ireland. For a variety of reasons, the region’s civic conversations become stuck in issues relating to the past. While coffee shops and rooftop bars have replaced bombs and bullets, some things change more slowly. Belfast’s politics are still shaped by religion and by the conflicts of 800-years. Abortion is still illegal, bars still close at 1am, gay people still cannot marry.

A former broadcast journalist, Davidson knows the importance of language and imagery. Speaking about the campaign for same-sex marriage, she talked about herself, her faith, her family, and her identity. She made the abstract personal. It was a masterclass in securing social change. In a place obsessed by labels and identity, Davidson spoke of being a “practicing Christian…a protestant…a Unionist…engaged to a Catholic Irishwoman”. She positively spoke about how equal marriage doesn’t divide communities but is simply “about the people of Northern Ireland being afforded the same rights as everybody else”.

Much of the opposition to equal marriage in Northern Ireland comes from protestant churches and Unionists, those who favour being part of the UK. Davidson deployed her own faith and identity as a protestant, Presbyterian and Unionist to say that “Unionists and Presbyterians should feel they have moral permission to back equal marriage. Not just because it’s no threat to traditional marriage or freedom of religion, but also because we know that it has backing from all parts of society”.

But underlying everything Davidson spoke about was a confidence that change happens when the time is right. The first challenge for those who want change is to make the time right. For those who want it, change doesn’t come quickly enough, while for those opposed it often happens all too fast. Demographic change around the world has made equal marriage seem like a foregone conclusion. In Northern Ireland 70% of people are in favour; amongst 16-34 year olds that figure is 85%, dropping to 47% in favour amongst over 65s. It is a pattern borne out across the West, but it does not mean simply waiting for the fait accompli.

That Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK or Ireland where gay people cannot marry is a quirk of local politics. It is a victim of legislative chicanery rather than sweeping public opposition: petitions of concern, whereby cross-community majorities are needed, have been deployed in the local assembly on five occasions. A simple majority of assembly members voted in favour of equal marriage in November 2015 but only four Unionists voted for the measure. The Bill failed.

Making the time right means engaging with people who think differently. Some people will always fear change, even if time is not on their side. For some in Northern Ireland, equal marriage is a change which their fundamental beliefs cannot accommodate. For others, their opposition is about fearing that their world will be changed irrevocably. Breaking down that fear is the responsibility of anyone who wants to secure social change of any kind. It is about a reality where both sides respect their right to disagree but accept their responsibilities to wider society.

Ruth Davidson highlighted the example of Trevor Lunn. An assembly member who previously voted against equal marriage, Lunn changed his vote last November after listening to constituents. Lunn happened to be in the audience for her lecture. When asked afterwards if he was happy to be there, he replied simply, “yes, I’m comfortable here”. That’s what change sounds like.  

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Culture Night Belfast: What is culture and what is regeneration?

His quiff curled skyward. The white snakeskin boots, matching his white suit and white collar, reinforced the supposedly oily nature of the Southern preacher man. We had gathered on a street corner to witness democracy’s funeral, listening to a tirade against fracking and vested interests. The preacher’s quiff bounced insistently as he admonished us through a loudspeaker that only half-heartedly worked.

Part of Belfast’s fifth Culture Night, Friends of the Earth staged a wandering New Orleans style jazz funeral in honour of democracy. Behind, a restaurant staged a flash-fiction writing event. A little further down the street, Pro Westling Ulster brought what the programme described as “its hard hitting American Style Wrestling” back to Belfast’s streets.

Culture Night Belfast proudly claims to be a big tent – “a big party where everyone’s invited.” And, despite a theoretical theme of Reconstruction for 2013’s event, the result is a muddle. It is a collection of stuff. It is unwittingly, but fittingly for Northern Ireland, a celebration of consumption and alcohol.

Our Southern preacher, who was supposedly from Brooklyn, declared “Maybe we buy the kind of economy we have, the kind of culture…” His words rattled through my head as I wandered the streets of Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter.

A common lament of the arts sector, heard from Belfast to Sydney, from Athens to Vancouver, is about the lack of investment in culture. It was heard earlier in the day, at a discussion that asked if economic regeneration can be driven by the creative and cultural industries.

Dr Kate Oakley, an academic at the University of Leeds, was, in turn, pessimistic and optimistic about the possibilities for culturally driven regeneration. Her analysis was that such economic growth did not deliver good jobs, didn’t deliver enough of them, and delivered them in the wrong places. In a criticism of Richard Florida’s work on the creative class, Oakley noted that even when cultural regeneration works it disproportionately benefits the highly educated and middle class.

Sean Kelly from the Cathedral Quarter Trust, which presents Culture Night, proudly declared it was a “demonstration of how the creative industries can deliver regeneration.” That’s fine if you believe that regeneration is about providing bars, restaurants and nightclubs with patrons for a night.

But nothing about Culture Night provides commercial or financial support for the arts. The event is free. We can assume that most organisations involved survive on public sector funding. Such funding is crucial in a mature society, but perhaps not the best example of economic growth in an area that depends on the public sector.

Supporters of Culture Night point to the wonderful atmosphere on the streets. People got to experience Belfast in a different way. Yet, for many who attend Culture Night, the culture is irrelevant; consumption (of alcohol) is the only reason for their attendance. It is an excuse to wander the streets with a drink in each hand.

There is something unusual in Culture Night claiming partial credit for a regeneration that feeds consumption, rather than asking people to personally invest in the arts. We pay to enjoy an experience. And that many who attend Culture Night think nothing of spending £50 in Belfast’s bars rather than investing in the city’s artistic life says much about our skewed priorities.

It does not help that Culture Night lacks a thread to connect the various dots. Some say that you cannot organise people’s enjoyment of culture. But it can be curated. It can be presented in a way that brings meaning beyond the enjoyment of culture for culture’s sake. Appropriate signposting and thematic clustering would help. Enhancing the experience of the art and culture should take precedence over facilitating those who want background colour and noise to their bar crawl. Describing the night as a big party belittles the cultural experience.

“The event may only last for six hours but what we can build can last for so much longer,” declares this year’s programme. That is not good enough. After five years, Culture Night Belfast needs to up its game. The arts sector needs to be genuine about realising the opportunity of culturally-led regeneration. It needs leadership and ambition, and it needs to be strategic about what it does. Critically, it needs to differentiate its offering from consumption-led regeneration.

It also needs to broaden the appeal of arts and culture. The audience wandering around at Culture Night was a visibly middle-class one. Young people in deprived areas of Belfast say that nothing in the city centre is of benefit to them. An aimless alcohol fuelled party, centred on the fashionable bars of the city rather than the opportunity of cultural regeneration, is unlikely to change that impression.

As our preacher friend reminds us, “Maybe we buy the kind of culture we have.”

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Filed under Belfast, Northern Ireland, Regeneration

Reflections, not resolutions

It was news to me that my writing is too descriptive and, in the phrase of a good friend, “solid”, until I was 29. It may have been a deeply buried yet fleeting realisation on earlier occasions, but such thoughts were dismissed as the fault of others for not appreciating my writing.

This causes a problem because I want to be a writer. More specifically, I want to be a foreign correspondent. Writing skill and style is of rather critical importance to foreign correspondents. Journalists who lack the ability to write well are rarely successful.

Some writers have undeniable natural talents. Others have learnt their craft by writing, rewriting and rewriting lots more. People who want to be writers are told to read. But it is not enough to read the words on the page. The author’s chosen words and phrases must be dissected, critiqued, understood and, ultimately, absorbed by the reader.

This is all by way of saying that I do not do resolutions. Seventeen days into a New Year is not the time to be making New Year’s Resolutions, nor do I have faith in them. Maybe I have no faith in me. In any case, I do not do resolutions. But, two months into my 30s, I am ready to look ahead to when I will be 40.

Reflection  is natural at endings and beginnings. Entering my 30s in late 2012 meant that both November and December were especially reflective. With the melancholy of knowing that I no longer have some choices that I had at 20, but the excitement of better knowing who I am and what I am good at, I am ready to make some decisions. They are not a reaction to short-term impulse, like so many New Year’s Resolutions. Rather, they are rooted in reflection, and an ambition that was always there, but that was allowed to drift.

People who are confident in their decisions often say they have no regrets. They are happy with where they are in life. While I am not filled with regrets, there are undoubtedly opportunities not pursued, places not visited, and choices I wish I had made differently. Not wishing to be someone other than who I am, I do wonder about who that other me would be, and where I would be.

So, to writing. Instead of pursuing journalism after school, I decided that the temperament required to be a journalist was different from the one that I possess. I even justified my decision when a taxi driver regaled me with tales of drunken journos and broken marriages.

Kate Adie and Allan Little have a lot to answer for. From Our Own Correspondent has prompted me to pursue, at age 30, a career as a foreign correspondent. Listening to the programme on BBC Radio 4 has renewed my ambition. It has sparked a specific goal. Call it a resolution if you must. By 40 I will have featured, from some far-flung corner of the globe, on From Our Own Correspondent with a dispatch detailing life as the BBC’s Correspondent in said far-flung corner.

As the programme name suggests, only BBC Correspondents appear on the programme. So I shall need a journalism qualification, for which I will need several thousand pounds, and I shall need someone at the BBC to give me a job. For that to happen I will need to write well.

As I currently read Henry James’ “Portrait of a Lady,” I am constantly struck by how none of my teachers took me aside and said to me, “Short sentences. No waffling.”

But reflection brings clarity, and clarity prompts action. So to develop as a writer I will write at least 500 words a day, with at least one published article on my blog every seven days.

Having thought of the what, the where looms large. Amid the self-destructive seizures to which Belfast is submitting itself once again, I question the fact that I still live there. Richard Florida wrote “I want to make sure that every day I see someone that looks and acts different than me.”  Belfast is too limiting, too insular, too toxic to be that kind of place.

Yet it remains home. For reasons both illogical and logical, I stayed. The chances to leave passed by while my eyes looked elsewhere. Other opportunities presented themselves, most notably in having an incomparable mentor and friend as my boss. But remaining in Belfast feels like being strangled in slow-motion. The grip of despair tightens month after month.

So the goal is Istanbul or Buenos Aires or Tokyo, maybe with a stop-off in London on the a way. The real goal is to live in a place that inspires, that contains real diversity and that has a cosmopolitan vigour. It is reflected in wanting to be a foreign correspondent and the chance that no assignment will last for longer than a few years.

It is reflected in my ambition to return to languages. There is an embarrassment at having failed to master a foreign language. Some might say I have yet to master English, but that does not negate my dream of learning a language or two, or three.

Spanish and Arabic are most appealing for the former’s sensuality and the latter’s mysticism. Both would be helpful for a career as a foreign correspondent. Both would be useful for personal adventures to South America and the Levant.

Combined, they amount to my dream that, long before I am forty, I will fondly remember my decade and a half in Belfast, but will do so from the banks of the Golden Horn or the galleries of San Telmo. And I will do so as a fluent speaker of Spanish and a competent speaker of Arabic, maybe even on the way to mastering Turkish.

Istanbul holds special fondness. It is where I became engaged, and it is the place where Kevin, my partner, and I hope to return for an extended period of time. It will not happen in 2013, nor in 2014, but we will live in Istanbul.

There remains, behind all of this ambition, the question of how? Only about 20% of people who set resolutions will succeed. Goals are one thing, taking steps towards them is another. Plenty of people, including teenaged me, are fans of motivational quotes. We all know the ones that urge us to “Dream Big”; something that encourages naïve teenage optimism, but that fails to connect inspiration with action.

I am ashamed to admit that I only recently realised that inspirational quotes on their own are as empty as a student’s fridge. Believing that big dreams and big ambitions would equal big success, I was convinced that success would be natural. It was a low and only a passing consideration that success requires focused, specific  and dedicated work.

Four things fed my natural procrastination: the lack of specific and personal goals; not knowing what exactly I was really good at; a fear of failure that was fed by my need for perfection and my need to analyse; and the fact that distractions are plentiful, whether invented by Steve Jobs or Johannes Gutenburg.

But my future happiness rests upon me making some changes. It will take more than words. My ambitions are now clear and specific. They now require a plan. They require me to reflect on what I have done at the end of every day, every week and every month to help make them a reality.

The path has been set. I cannot allow myself to be derailed. I need to finish what I start, no matter how big or small. I need to take individual and specific steps to make me happier and more successful. That means individual and specific steps to learn Spanish and Arabic. It means a specific and planned timetable to move somewhere more invigorating. It means a specific plan to save the money for a qualification in journalism, and it means developing my skills as a writer.

Fulfilling my ambitions will require me to be selfish with my time. I must be more disciplined and decisive, and develop routines to help. I must accept that I need to do more and analyse less. I will need to hold up a mirror to my excuse-making and time-wasting. I need to finish what I start, and these 1400 words are the start of something new.

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Filed under Ambition, Belfast, Future, Northern Ireland, Personal

The shame of flags and the haunting of the future

Shame is personal. We are usually, as individuals, embarrassed by our shame. It is a way for us to define what we find morally acceptable or unacceptable. Indeed, so personal an emotion is shame, that we rarely publicly admit to feeling ashamed.

Societal shame is an even stranger phenomenon. A new film, “Aftermath”, by Wladyslaw Pasikowski, seeks to tell a version of the tale of how, during the Second World War, a group of Polish villagers in Jedwabne rounded up 300 of the village’s Jewish residents and burnt them alive in a barn. It is, for many Poles, an emerging trend of examining their collective past. Some people naturally find it uncomfortable. One present-day Jedwabne resident is quoted in a Financial Times article as saying “The whole thing is really unfair. A lot of other towns also killed their Jews… Now the whole world thinks that the people of Jedwabne are devils.”

Few people think that everyone in Jedwabne is, or was, a devil. The actions of evil and nefarious people often cast a shadow on an entire community.

Few people, despite the history of violence that has been all too publicly identified with Northern Ireland, believe that everyone who lives there is a devil. But they must question the sanity of its residents.

The background to yet more violence is now well known. In short, under the guise of parity of esteem, Nationalist parties sought to remove the Union Flag from Belfast City Council properties. Unionists reacted angrily, and the centrist Alliance Party countered with a motion to fly the flag on the 17 nationally designated days, thereby matching the position at the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Approval of the new policy was met with violence. MPs received death threats, the homes and offices of elected representatives were attacked and ransacked, and dozens of police officers were injured in clashes with Loyalist protesters. One attack, when a petrol bomb was thrown into a police car, from which its occupants managed to escape, is being treated as attempted murder. An ongoing campaign of rolling protests continues to disrupt traffic across Northern Ireland. One would imagine that the societal shame in Northern Ireland should be significant. It is not.

Instead, the protests continue. One protestor’s shriek has been parodied to the point where she is now known simply as the ‘Belfast Bigot.’ The equivications of politicians, some of whom have attended protests, means that the protestors have continued to set the agenda. Families attending a Christmas pantomime have been intimidated.

To feel shame requires acknowledging responsibility. It is difficult to find anyone who will accept responsibility for recent events. Instead, the region’s largest party, the Democratic Unionist Party, called for more flying of the flag at Stormont. It took a week of violence to prompt Mike Nesbitt, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, to call for the protests to stop.

Unionist parties refuse to acknowledge their role in heightening tensions. They argue that a leaflet published by them, in Alliance’s trade mark yellow colouring, which stated that the party wanted to “tear down the Union Flag”, also called for any protests to be peaceful.

Meanwhile, Nationalists and Republicans are coy in their triumphalism. Having reproached Unionists for generations on their attitudes towards Catholics and Nationalists, the tables have turned. Sinn Fein, the largest Nationalist party in Northern Ireland, has been supported on the flags issue in Belfast by the smaller and more moderate SDLP, and, more pointedly, in the naming of a childrens’ play area elsewhere after an IRA hunger striker. Unionists claim that the developments are part of a campaign to “chip away” at their Britishness. Replacing one triumphalism with another does not make it a positive.

There has been talk of compromise. In Northern Ireland this means repeating the same position louder than the other lot repeat theirs, waiting for them to give in because they’re wrong. Rather, compromise means accepting and understanding other view points, reflecting on your own position, and agreeing to meet on the path between the two. It should, ideally, mean no side being happy.

Northern Ireland’s residents are fond of the absolute. Its politicians encourage an understanding of politics as a zero sum game. Political leadership consists of leading only one’s own tribe, with no recognition of a changing world. Arguments are reduced to Unionist or Nationalist points of view. ‘Normal’ politics is not possible. Those politicians who do recognise a changing world and a need for compromise get disciplined by their party leadership.

The past dominates Northern Ireland’s future. Tribal politics is institutionalised. With a tiny population, an over-reliance on the public sector, and a lack of talent based immigration, there is nothing to break the dynamic. Recent economic difficulties, and the fact that many people feel no tangible benefit from the ‘peace dividend’, have helped fuel the current situation. And for all that, the political system is stuck in a Unionist vs Nationalist time warp.

Plenty of people want to “move on”. Many of them are genuine. Many more say they want to move on, “but…”

Moving on means not living in the past. It means accepting elements of a democracy you wouldn’t choose for a utopian world. It means allowing every part of our culture to express itself legitimately and appropriately. It means accepting that the truth is whatever individuals believe it to be, not what an inquiry says it to be. It means everyone, irrespective of political persuasion, uniting to condemn violence. Northern Ireland should collectively hang its head in shame for permitting the last two weeks of violence.

A bomb scare at one of Belfast’s major shopping centres, ten days before Christmas, turned the past into the present. But there was no shame at how an argument over a flag had brought the past back. It begs the question of why any young, educated person would choose to stay in Northern Ireland? For the reality is that our past haunts our future.

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Filed under Belfast, Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Politics

Jean, tear down that wall – a shared society in Northern Ireland is not enough…

It has been a while since I put fingers to keyboard. My inspiration returned after the NI Community Relations Council’s annual conference.

Let me start by saying that one of my dreams is for a prosperous, stable, confident, creative, mature, diverse and successful society in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland must be a place where peoples’ backgrounds have no bearing on how others perceive them, on what job they fulfil, or on where they live, go to school, or spend their leisure time. This can be achieved when people in Northern Ireland not only wish but work for this to happen.

I’m tired of hearing about a shared society in Northern Ireland. I want more than a shared society. I want us to be more ambitious. I want a visionary, creative and successful society. So I’m not going to settle for a shared society. Nowhere else in the Western world would settle for a shared society. Equally, I understand where the desire for a shared society comes from. I just don’t want to settle for it or for mediocrity.

As part of the conference we were asked a series of questions, and the audiences’ responses were partially analysed afterwards. Soft questions, predictable answers and woolly analysis assured my frustration.

One question asked about the role and voice of young people in the peace process. A more critical question in my mind would be to ask young people what they think of the peace process. Cue blank stares wondering why this ‘old’ guy with greying hair is asking them about dinosaurs. Young people do not have a place in the peace process because the peace process is over. It was over years ago and no matter how many circular conversations are had amongst people of a certain age, it now needs to be put to rest. We need to move beyond thinking about the peace process to thinking about how we make Northern Ireland a successful, creative society based on our visions of the future. It must not be about cementing the divisions of the past. Someone once said to me that anyone over 35 feels like they missed out on ‘normality’ because of the Troubles and they need their turn to try and fix ‘it’ for younger generations. You can’t fix something by clinging to a flawed vision though.

Another question asked whether or not a deadline should be set for taking down the peace walls – 20-odd foot walls dotted around Belfast to keep Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods separated and built at the request of communities. Initially surprised that the majority of people said no, I quickly realised that self-interest did not have to be declared through anonymous answers. Then to Jean, who offered her analysis of why she had voted no. Jean was adamant that no deadline should be set because her community of 700 Protestant people in Suffolk was surrounded by tens of thousands of Catholics in west Belfast and needed the peace wall to ensure they felt safe in their homes. In one line Jean blew apart the shared society.

Jean assured us that most of us had never lived in an interface area (the term used for the dividing lines between Catholic and Protestant areas) and that we could not know what it was like for people who do. Jean assured us that there was a lot of positive community dialogue between the Suffolk and Lenadoon communities. Jean assured us that one day she wanted to see the peace wall come down but not until the Suffolk community was ready. I predict that if a shared society remains the height of our ambition in Northern Ireland, that peace wall between Suffolk and Lenadoon will never come down.

Later, I was asked on Twitter if, on the basis of having no time for the shared society concept, I wanted “a divided, sectarian, racist society” instead. Having tweeted that the Millenial generation in Northern Ireland wants an “ambitious, prosperous, creative society” more, my response was something along the lines of “Oh please.” Of course I want a shared society, just not as it has been defined as the ultimate goal for Northern Ireland.

My earlier frustrations from the day were reinforced at the second Kennedy Memorial Lecture in Belfast, delivered by Professor Robert Dallek. Within seconds of hearing some of JFK’s famous quotes, it struck me that Jack Kennedy would never have settled for a shared society. It would have been much too small for him. He asked Americans what they were going to do for their country. He challenged them to see that the path they were on was not going to deliver what they wanted.

A “shared society”, as the peak of our ambition, feeds the status quo. It fails to challenge the notion that there are only two communities in Northern Ireland. It fails to acknowledge that a shared society is held together by a plaster and that the spoils have to be shared around in equal measure. It fails to acknowledge that outside of this tiny region, no one cares about our divisions and if we want to attract investment and talent to Northern Ireland then we have to grow up and become a shared society in the way that ‘normal’ societies have.

In his opening remarks, Tony Kennedy of the Community Relations Council referenced Richard Florida and his work on successful places being those places that respect diversity. To my mind, Tony should have gone the step further in Florida’s thesis that the hallmarks of a successful city are tolerance of strangers and intolerance of mediocrity. A successful society is premised on the idea that to move beyond our divisions, we need a bigger vision for the future. It argues that a different Northern Ireland will only come when we combine our talents, ideas and creativity and recognise that a shared society just is not enough. And Jean, tear down that wall.


Filed under Ambition, Belfast, Future, Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Politics, Society

Deprivation begets violence. But what is the solution?

Northern Ireland has suffered another bout of summer violence. Low level and localised but depressingly familiar and shocking all at the same time. Cars burnt out, petrol bombs thrown at the police, 80 police officers wounded – one seriously when a piece of masonry hit her on the head – all in the space of four nights of rioting. Most people had thought that this was a thing of the past and that Northern Ireland had moved away from such scenes.

There is no question that there has been sometimes unimaginable change in the region over the past decade, and Northern Ireland is a better place today for this, and for the many other positive benefits of the peace process.Yet, for all this change, some things have stayed the same, and the ‘peace dividend’ has yet to be felt in many neighbourhoods – particularly some of the most troubled. In a recent article in the Guardian, Mary O’Hara writes about the background to the violence, and, more particularly, about the background of the rioters. She highlights that all too often, the factor that leads to violence – and is more often ignored – is the chronic deprivation of the areas and the people who live there.

The thing is, that for all the progress – and boy, has there been much to celebrate in recent years – districts such as the Ardoyne and parts of west Belfast remain areas of incredible, entrenched deprivation. For all the admirable work by individuals, local groups and communities at large to turn things around, sectarianism remains and poverty and social exclusion are its willing partners in crime.”

In a previous post, I wrote about Carlisle Memorial Methodist Church in North Belfast, under the auspices of engaging young people in heritage led regeneration. During a community consultation on the possibility of restoring this architectural landmark, I spent a lot of time reading the Dunlop Report. Back in 2002, it was recognised that North Belfast suffered from some major social ills. Three men, led by Rev. John Dunlop, spent a period of time examining what these social and economic problems were before suggesting some ways of dealing with them. The report did not make for happy reading, nor does it do so today, despite almost a decade passing since it was written. My guess is that if the report were being written again today, it would say exactly the same thing again. In the foreword to the report, the three men wrote,

“We cannot overstate the significance of this problem [the division of communities and violence between them] or its potential to destabilise other parts of Belfast and Northern Ireland. We have been told that the situation in some areas is getting worse. While assistance is necessary from outside the area, such assistance must help local people, at all levels, to have the confidence and generosity of spirit to constructively tackle their local problems which are often the result of the breakdown of relationships and therefore of trust.”

The rest of the report continues in much the same vein, and rather than repeat it here, I would urge you to read at least the Executive Summary.

The work I mentioned on Carlisle Memorial Methodist Church includes statistics from the NI Statistics and Research Agency, the government’s statistics gathering and analysis arm. These did not make for happy reading either and two specific points from this data are regularly quoted by me – 6 of the 10 electoral wards immediately surrounding the building are in the top 10 most deprived wards in Northern Ireland, and in 2005, only 2.7% of the population in the Shankill ward had a university degree; the NI rate is 15.8%. There are others: just 23% of schools leavers had 5 or more GCSEs at Grade C or above in the Shankill ward (63% in NI); in the New Lodge ward, 44% of people between 18 and 59 claimed Income Support in 2004 (11% in NI as a whole); and almost 16% of all recorded crimes in Northern Ireland were committed in either North or West Belfast. As a whole, it means that West Belfast is the most deprived parliamentary constituency in Northern Ireland, closely followed by North Belfast as the number two on that list.

University education is not the pinnacle of achievement, and the requirement for income support is not in itself a bad thing. Put them together, along with the presence of high rates of crime, major health problems – particularly mental health problems – and the continuation of double digit rates of long term unemployment (people out of work for 12 months or more), and the picture becomes bleak. Mary O’Hara’s point that poverty is the backdrop to the recent riots is the headline. The root cause is the lack of aspiration, and the sense of desperation that comes with that.

It is easy to see how young people in these heavily deprived areas feel trapped, as though the world is passing them by. Segregated in their local areas, with fierce loyalty to their own small patch of territory, and with neither incentive nor desire to mix with the population from the ‘other side’, there is an inevitablity to these young people seeking a way to draw attention to their situations. When dissident republicans are bent on causing trouble, and young people in these areas sense a way of bringing attention to their sense of loss and abandonment, little is going to stop this combination ending in violent outbursts.

The cause of the violence in recent days can well be traced to the marching of the Orange Order, but what in particular caused this year’s marching season to be more violent than last year’s or the year before? Something has to be seen in the chronic, long-term deprivation of the areas where the rioting occurred. Yes, there are people in these areas who are unhappy with the political settlement in Northern Ireland. Their support, such as it is, will continue to grow whilst society at large continues to ignore the real costs of segregation, of failing to tackle the lack of aspiration amongst young people, and of the sheer sense of loss and abandonment in these communities.

Part of what I believe has to happen involves an entire generational and attitudinal shift, both in our thinking about how to deal with deprivation, and in how we engage with these communities.

The answer has to lie in working with people, particularly young people, and allowing them to discover that there is something more than what has gone before. It is about showing them that they can remain loyal to their communities and their territories whilst looking outwards. It is about using their talents and skills to make their communities more successful. It is about finding a way of allowing these communities to see that the talents for delivering change lie within, rather than them hoping for a government department to deliver change for them. Back in the Dunlop Report, a telling paragraph reads,

 “A dichotomy…exists whereby young people in North Belfast feel depressed by their environment and engage in activity which intensifies their problems yet nevertheless they have a strong attachment to their community. They fear leaving it even when they know there are many opportunities and resources available elsewhere. They need encouragement to take a step outside their daily routines, to discover their talents and to serve their community.”

Furthermore, there is a wariness of outsiders and a wariness of people offering help. More often than not, promises have been made and shattered. Government strategies have been written and quickly forgotten. Masterplans have been drawn up only to be redrawn, and redrawn and never actually implemented.

Delivery is therefore key; but it must be delivery of something practical, beneficial, long-term and something that is based on solutions that come from within the communities. Young people, and the development of skills, will be vital, as will finding a sustainable project that taps into their talents. That wariness of outsiders and of broken promises will take years to eradicate. The division between communities might well take generations to eradicate. The depressingly chronic social and economic problems of these areas might also take generations to change, but that’s no reason not to try and the best way to do that is to foster a culture of aspiration amongst young people. O’Hara herself writes,

“If we are serious about dealing with social exclusion, with poverty, with youth criminality, with knife crime – whatever manifestation of a troubled society we are talking about in Northern Ireland, or anywhere else for that matter – we need to start with asking “why”, and we need to finish with an answer that doesn’t simply reinforce the miserable status quo.”

Nothing would break the status quo more than by, firstly, working with the local communities to help them find solutions from within and, secondly, creating a culture of aspiration that gradually, but radically, breaks down the cycles of dependence, despair and disappointment.

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