A prominent STARS mural for a restorative society
by Ben WHITE
14 July 2021
On 8 July 2021, a new mural was officially unveiled in the Lower Shankill region of Belfast. A collaborative event held by Greater Shankill Alternatives and Consensus, the day also marked the graduation of a restorative justice cohort from the STARS initiative, a pioneering series of restorative training courses. The aim is to equip local people in the Shankill area with tools to build a more restorative and safe community.
As Nev Gallagher (course mentor and Alternatives restorative practitioner at Northern Ireland Alternatives) explained:
“STARS stands for Striving Towards a Restorative Society, where we train around 30 people each year in order for them to work and think restoratively. The idea is to have a range of very different types of people: former combatants, police officers, born-again Christians, youth, and we have people who manage football teams. The point is to get them all thinking in a very different way because [to be frank], society can be and often is violent. But, going forward, we are looking at how to be non-violent and how the participants can use the skills that they learn to work with the youth, to work within the community, to do mediations, among other things.”
A STARS graduate, Suzanne Addis, described the training she received as both intriguing and rewarding: “It was different and it was exciting to be able to take part. The training was a great opportunity and I want to thank Consensus and Alternatives for letting me partake and complete Level 1 and 2.”
Alternatives has been established for over 20 years, and it aims to promote and develop non-violent community responses to the issues of low-level crime and antisocial behaviour in areas across Northern Ireland. Consensus is a newly founded project that works with a similar ethos, as described by Robert Harris (Consensus project manager):
“We’ve been doing conflict transformation projects for quite a while, going to higher levels and working with other departments, working around transition from paramilitary and ex-combatants. [We are] trying to bring them back into society and bring them back into the sort of normal times of the 21st century.”
The two organisations frequently communicate and work together, depending on the case and which project is most suitable.
With Consensus being a new initiative, the team aspires to gain accreditation from the Department of Justice. “We have a great working relationship with the police; they recognise we’re here and if that was done on an accreditation basis, then referrals would be coming thick and fast. We think that’s important, not only for ourselves but for the wider society,” said Harris.
For Alternatives, the STARS training initiative was introduced to take a more proactive approach.
“The idea was that we wanted to be doing more than what we have previously. We’re used to using restorative justice to solve problems through mediation and bring communities together. But we want to start with the wider community, thinking restoratively and behaving restoratively. If you can have training between police officers and former combatants, I think that says quite a lot,” said Gallagher.
In a similar vein, Harris described why the two organisations worked together to produce the STARS program and why it is so important for Consensus:
“The opportunity to do this training not only helps people within our community understand the restorative process, but gives Consensus an opportunity to hand pick those people who have successfully completed this training to come on board with us and take it further.”
The STARS training course is a relatively new program for the two restorative organisations, running for only one year thus far, and as Harris expressed:
“It’s all starting to come to fruition today with the likes of the STARS graduation and the Consensus mural. That helps us galvanise and advertise the promotion of restorative justice within this society.”
Such a sentiment resonates well with Ian McLaughlin‘s (Lower Shankill Community Association) introductory speech to unveil the mural:
“In order for us to leave a legacy, it’s important that a mural be placed in the area and in a very central position; it can’t get any better than here.”
The mural is situated where Hopewell Crescent and Malvern Place meet. This central location not only gives it great prominence within the Lower Shankill community, but also means it has a far reaching impact on those not local to the area.
“We have thousands of tourists a year coming in, and if in fact they’re being misled by some of the tour guides from other communities that bring people here, I want them to go away with a vision that the Lower Shankill is a restorative community and we’re striving towards being a safe community as well,” said McLaughlin.
Impressions clearly matter to these restorative justice practitioners and the Lower Shankill society they work with. The area has undoubtedly suffered as a consequence of the period known as the Troubles. However, the work of these organisations and the wider community clearly demonstrates that they want to leave these issues in the past. As Harris noted:
“We’ve always wanted to have a community that was lawful and law abiding. We’ve now had 20 years of conflict related issues within this community with numerous paramilitary group leaders who come in here and put their iron fisted stamp on residents. We no longer want that in this community”.
Placing this restorative mural so prominently in the location marks a momentous juncture in the history of the community. It is a message of healing, significant to the community and to the work of Consensus and Alternatives. As McLaughlin explained:
“This mural is very important for a number of reasons. For me, as one of the lead partners in the Shankill Safe Program, it was always important to embed community safety and practice in our community. That’s a very important message that we need to send to others — that the Lower Shankill isn’t the place it once was — we’re not so inward looking anymore, we are trying to look forward. We need to work with others to make a vision for this place happen. Thankfully, we can see regeneration activities happen when people engage with each other like this.”
Gallagher made a similarly positive remark about the project. Reflecting on the impact restorative practices have had on the community, he noted:
“I personally feel the effects of restorative justice training and can see it as having changed the outlook, if you like — the way that people look and the way that people act around the community. Hopefully that will continue.”
This resonates with the STARS graduates who have also seen a profound development of their community. “As a resident of the Shankill, I’ve seen a difference; I’ve definitely seen a complete difference to the Shankill estate in the last six years and I’m sure everyone else here feels the same,” remarked graduate Addis.
Tied to the Shankill community through this restorative mural and their own experiences, these organisations and STARS graduates will continue their work and training to build a safer, restorative society. With this comes great hope and better prospects for the Shankill area and beyond.
Images © Allan LEONARD