Saturday, 18 June 2011

Memories of Belfast - one

River Lagan and the Waterfront
I have loved Belfast since I first moved there in 1970. Two of my three sons were born there, and the youngest still lives in the City. My other son was born in Suffolk, just so that he doesn't feel left out. To this day I am still ashamed of the way that I left everything that I loved in 1989, but that story is not for public consumption.

I think though, that it has been that shame that has prevented me from talking about aspects of my work experiences in Belfast. It's as if I have no right to have memories about that place. So, why the change? I've just started to read a book by Joshua Levine called 'Beauty & Atrocity', which is exploring people, politics and Ireland's fight for peace. It made me remember that I have been part of this history, and though that part was very small, it was something significant to me.

As it seems with all great cities, Belfast has a river running through it's heart - the River Lagan. The city is flanked on the north and northwest by a series of hills, including Divis Mountain, Black Mountain and Cavehill. This latter hill is thought to be the inspiration for Jonathan Swift's, Gulliver's Travels. When Swift was living at Lilliput Cottage near the bottom of the Limestone Road in Belfast, he imagined that the Cavehill resembled the shape of a sleeping giant safeguarding the city. The shape of the giant's nose is known locally as 'Napoleon's Nose'. The Castlereagh Hills overlook the city on the southeast. One of my favourite descriptions about Belfast comes from the former poet and Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor, Dr William Philbin, who said, "Belfast is a city walled in by mountains, moated by seas, and undermined by deposits of history". Belfast today is very different from the Belfast of the 1970's and 1980's.

174 Antrim Road (not there now)
My purpose is not to talk about the city, as much as I would like to, but to focus on a smaller area where I worked, namely the New Lodge Area, Tiger's Bay and the Mount Vernon area of North Belfast.

I was appointed as Director of a fairly new Christian based charity to begin to address the real needs of those living in a materially and socially disadvantaged area. The mission was to effect change in North Belfast by social action and community development, so that North Belfast would become a place of co-operation, prosperity and hope. Having looked at the Trust's current website, I'm very pleased to see that it is still thriving, and carrying on with its original aims.

The base was the above cafe, with offices and other rooms on the upper floors. The cafe would now be called a social enterprise, and served as a real focal point for the work. In a room behind the main cafe was a space that I turned into a small gym, as I've always believed in the value of having somewhere where testosterone filled individuals can find a legitimate outlet for their aggression. The few years spent at this charity was undoubtedly the most taxing, demanding, challenging and rewarding of my life.

New Lodge Road looking from the Antrim Road
Looking from the cafe doorway you could see down the start of the New Lodge Road. The estate was named after this road. The 1880's was the period when the estate was developed; it was also the time when Belfast changed from being a town and became a city, gaining the charter in 1888.

Originally the New Lodge Road was even longer, but in time the upper section was changed to the Cliftonville Road. The north side of the estate was bordered by Duncairn Gardens, which on the opposite side of the road housed Tiger's Bay. The New Lodge was strongly republican (catholic) and Tiger's Bay was strongly loyalist (protestant). Duncairn Gardens was often the scene of trouble between the two communities. It is interesting that as New Lodge developed in the late 1800's and early 1900's, it was very much a protestant area. This remained the case leading up to, and after the partition of Ireland in 1922. Civil war erupted in Belfast in 1920, and over the following two years many tragic deaths were recorded. By the time I worked in the area, sectarianism was rife, with entrenched positions being taken by different communities. The corner of the New Lodge Road and Antrim Road, just opposite our base, was statistically the most dangerous spot to stand at in Northern Ireland - mainly due to 'drive-by shootings'.

Modern Day Mural
The whole area did not score well in Northern Ireland's Index of Multiple Deprivation, and it still doesn't. Take the New Lodge as an example; unemployment rate among men was 56%; 15% had no recognised educational qualifications; 84% had no transport of their own; 20% of all murders committed during the last thirty years of the troubles occurred within a one-mile radius of our base; 70% of the local school population was entitled to free school meals. It was the fifth most deprived of Northern Ireland's 582 wards.

Add political turmoil to social deprivation, and it's no wonder that areas such as these were like a powder keg waiting to blow. The presence of factions within the paramilitary groupings did not help when you were trying to get work done. In the New Lodge, Lepper Street separated the top from the bottom of the estate. One half was controlled by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), and the other half by the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA). Tiger's Bay, being a loyalist area had a reputation for being a notorious Ulster Defence Association     (UDA) stronghold. Given the social and political nature of this area, how would we effect change by social action and community development?

The cafe, elderly groups, youth work, groups to integrate disabled and able bodied people, family and toddler groups were all great at meeting, and building relationships with small groups of people - the value of which cannot be underestimated. However, I wanted more, something on a bigger scale that would take us out of our comfort zone, and present a challenge.

This soon began to happen. The Government, through the Northern Ireland Department for Economic Development (DED) had introduced an employment creation scheme called Action for Community Employment (A.C.E.). It was designed for anyone who had been unemployed for over six months. Over a short period, I managed to build an ACE workforce of over 70 people, to complement the permanent staff employed by the Trust. You could employ people for up to one year, and foremen for up to two years. You had to provide meaningful work, pay a set wage, provide training, and help them to secure employment at the end of the period. I wanted a challenge, and by god I got one. The work was mainly divided into gardening services and home decorating services, but also included office work.

As the Government were very sensitive to the political and religious make-up of Northern Ireland, our ACE workforce had to reflect that. At the time, Northern Ireland was largely 66% protestant and 34% catholic, so my workforce had to be the same, reflected in full and part time workers. It's a good job that I've always been quite good with figures, as I needed to be. The DED were very hot on monitoring, and checked quotas on a quarterly basis. Because we were a cross community organisation, trying to break down the barriers between 'waring' communities, my dream was to have people working in areas that were foreign to them. Many of the younger workers did confess that they had never spoken to, or mixed with someone from the 'other side'. Once we got going, there was never a shortage of work.

What I never told my bosses, or my staff, and in fact I don't think I've told anyone until now, was the amount of work that I had to do with the leaders of the various communities (ie paramiliatories) to ensure the safety of staff working in those areas. I had to put to one side their reputations for mayhem, and think of them as a residents association. I needed their support, because with it, no-one would dare go against it. I would explain that we would be doing good within their community, tidying up the gardens of the elderly and the disabled, as well as improving the homes of those who were struggling with life. I wanted them also to not action the £10 per week that they 'asked' every worker in the area to pay into the funds.

Believe me, if you think that some of my blogs are a bit OTT, you should have heard me then, but it worked. We could do our stuff in their areas. I should also point out that in addition to this, I made a point of trying to speak to as many wives, mothers and grandmothers as I could, as believe me, there is nothing more formidable than a group of Belfast women on the march, and I say that with great affection. In the following years, not one worker was hurt while working in an area that was foreign to them. While on the subject of seeking co-operation, I'm not ashamed to say that I sought the help of Sinn Fein whenever anything was stolen from the Trust. This didn't happen often, surprisingly, but I remember two occasions when a ladder and a calor gas heater were stolen. I went down to the local Sinn Fein office in the New Lodge, and something caught my eye which I decided to use. Being a Christian based organisation we would have posters about the centre. One of them said, "Jesus will set you free". A poster in the Sinn Fein office was one of ours, but Jesus had become Sinn Fein. My laughing off the 'theft' of our poster had the desired effect, and the stolen items (I let them keep the poster) were returned within 24 hours, with no harm done to the thieves as I had requested. Some may question the morality of this; shouldn't I have gone to the Police? The Police had more important things to contend with, like staying alive, rather than worry about a ladder and heater. In the end the community dealt with the problem.

In spite of no harm coming to workers, I eventually had to abandon the idea of workers working in 'other' areas, as the fear of violence had reared its ugly head. A number of workers on the ACE programme had been killed, but not while doing work for us. They were killed in their own homes by gunmen, or were victims of drive-by shootings. This fear was understandable, and I changed policy to deal with that fear. Their lives were more important than my ideals. There were periods when the whole city was very tense, and this made work quite difficult at times. Occasionally I would personally receive threats of a vague nature, usually through a third party, and I did take to varying my route from home to work each day, as well as looking under my car for bombs before going home each night. This may sound a bit dramatic now, but it was what many people had to do in those days. What didn't help to ease the fears of staff was the day when a Molotov cocktail was thrown through the office window. Actually I need to clarify that. Would be thugs were often not the sharpest knives in the box, and on this occasion the wick fell out before the bottle crashed through the window. Humour can deflect panic, and we did laugh at this. It's a bit like the story (myth) of a group hijacking a bus, covering it in petrol, and then realising that no one had brought any matches with them. See what I mean about the sharpest knives in the box?

The ACE workers were a mixed bunch, from the really nice ones, who just wanted to get on and make something of their lives, to the frightful ones, who were only there because of the threat of losing their benefits. A large proportion of the former ones, unsurprisingly, we were able to help find them jobs at the end of their time with us. The latter ones were generally inept, were dangerous, played pranks and generally messed about, though we managed to turn some of them around by the end of their year. Those who just messed about spent more time in my office being spoken to, or disciplined than on the job I think, and there was a period when I seemed to be sacking about two a week. Thankfully it was not all like that, and mostly the programme was a success, with people learning to do a good job, and moving on to other work. This was always very pleasing.

I've just noticed that this blog is getting a bit long, and there's so much more to say about working in that area of Belfast. Perhaps that will have to wait for another time. Though spending so much time in deprived and politically troubled areas, I never lost my love for the city or the surrounding areas. It was this mix of the beauty and the beast that was so exciting. Let me end with a picture of the Stormont building, built in 1932, which is the home of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Isn't it just beautiful?

Quiz question. How many international state Presidents have been born in Belfast?
  1. Mary McAleese - President of Ireland
  2. Chaim Herzog - 6th President of Israel from 1983 to 1993 was born at Clifton Avenue, the son of a Belfast Rabbi

1 comment:

  1. Dad - this is the best blog post you've written yet. You have every right to your memories of Belfast and you must say more. What you did was genuinely important and is exactly the sort of work, and working environment which must not be forgotten following the Good Friday Agreement. I hope 'Belfast Stories' becomes a regular blog thread.

    Oh, and to celebrate your work there it seems another good opportunity to say Happy Father's Day. I'm deeply proud of what you did in Northern Ireland.