Building a safe, united community through consent

Building a safe, united community through consent
by Ronan KIRBY
18 May 2021

Together: Building a United Community (T:BUC) is a good relations strategy published in 2013. It highlights the Northern Ireland Executive’s commitment to improving community relations and continuing the journey towards a more united, shared society. 

The overall goal for T:BUC, as laid out in laid out in an executive summary, is,“to build a united community, based on equality of opportunity, the desirability of good relations and reconciliation — one which is strengthened by its diversity, where cultural expression is celebrated and embraced where everyone can live, work and socialise together, free from prejudice, hate and intolerance”.

The projects implemented by T:BUC revolve around strategic themes that are seen as vital for the sustained creation of a united community. These include education; young people not in education, employment, or training; regeneration and deprivation; housing; and learning from the past.

On 18 May 2021, the Community Relations Council facilitated a meeting of the T:BUC engagement forum, which Shared Future News attended along with an impressive 150 other delegates. It marked the 15th meeting of the forum.

Each of these meetings follow a particular theme. For example, in January the theme was ‘Shared Space’, which focused on the creation and development of shared civic space to be used by all sections of the community. May’s theme was ‘Our Safe Community’, a theme with particular importance after the events and violence of the last few weeks.

Chris Stewart, a representative for The Executive Office (TEO), commenced proceedings by providing an update on recent achievements of the strategy, such as, the Department of Communities progressing with the shared housing programmes; the Department of Education, together with the shared education project, have ran 75 successful camps in 2021 alone, and in the face of the challenges presented by COVID-19; and finally, but not at all least, the TEO’s racial equality unit is working with the Department of Education and the Department of Justice on tackling racism in schools as well as hate crimes.

Next were three presentations, all revolving around work being done in the various interface areas across Northern Ireland. Michael McAvoy gave the first presentation, which focused on the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Interface Programme. Following that, Paul Smith and Professor Peter Bloom enlightened the crowd on the innovative Shared Futures Community Planning Toolkit that they are developing as part of the Belfast Interface Project. The final presentation, given by Becca Bor, of St. Columb’s Park House, looked at inspiring grassroots initiatives that are being carried out in Tullyally and Currynerin, County Derry/Londonderry.

The DOJ’s Interface Programme looks at reducing and removing the existing ‘peace walls’, where there is an appetite to do so within the community. “Local solutions to local problems”, is how McAvoy described the work, before quoting JFK, “Every accomplishment starts with the decision to try.”

It has been eight years since the Interface Programme began in 2013, which leaves them two more years to reach their proposed vision to reduce and remove all barriers by 2023. This may prove difficult as McAvoy stated, “Sixteen of 59 have been removed since 2010”, leaving 43 still to be dealt with. This is, however, a testament to the DOJ sticking to the T:BUC strategy mission statement: “Plans are influenced by the pace at which the community is willing to work.” This was the beginning of an underlying theme that ran through all the presentations — community consent is the key to successful implementation.

McAvoy underlined how working with other programmes in the communities — such as economic and social regeneration programmes — is vital, as they can only be stronger together. One of the recent successes of the programme is the interface reduction and removal in Duncairn South. This area underwent many physical and demographic changes over the years.

Source: Belfast Live

McAvoy explained how, in many instances, community members feel that the physical partitions are essential for community safety. The Interface Programme works on replacing some of the existing, unsightly walls that tower over many residents’ properties, with more community friendly barriers that don’t deprive some community members of natural light. Another example of success that McAvoy alluded to was Serpentine Road, where they used freed up land at an interface area to create a park.

Paul Smith and Professor Peter Bloom introduced their Shared Futures Community Planning Toolkit. Professor Bloom stated that the idea came about in 2019 as a way to remove mental barriers in the short term, and in the long term, eventually remove social and physical barriers. The Shared Futures Toolkit is a community-led and people-driven mobile app, the first of its kind.

Simply put, the app has three tools that allow you to come up with ideas, share these ideas with your friends, and subsequently, see your ideas come to life. The first tool, Explore, is a local closed WIFI network that can be accessed throughout the interface community. Community members can gain access to content on the server, which includes library discussion forums and shared future activities. It also contains interactive maps of the community, where people can discuss the ‘peace walls’.

The second tool is Online Consultation, where community members can post their proposed ideas for bettering their area, which leads to the final aspect of the toolkit, Visualise. This is an innovative app that uses state of the art augmented reality technology so that members of the community can visualise the ideas they put forward via the Online Consultation tool.

So far, 80% of people that have used the toolkit have had a strongly positive experience. This project, similar to the Interface programme, puts the community at the centre of the decision-making process for future building and adds virtual and digital shared spaces. Professor Bloom remarked, “It enables people to envision a different future for their area.”

The final presentation was given by Becca Bor, of St Columb’s Park House, which is a peace and reconciliation centre that operates in Derry City. Bor stated their motto, “peace within, peace with others and peace with nature”.

Common Ground was an initiative run out of St Columb’s Park House, as part of the SEUPB-funded Peace IV programme. The initiative was implemented in the Tullyally and Currynierin communities. Bor provided a background to the communities, asserting that there is a lack of both investment and community connections, as well high deprivation whilst areas lack support from the government. “There is a real sense of neglect,” commented Bor. The Common Ground programme aimed to change all of this.

The programme implemented a number of cross-community, grassroots initiatives, such as homework clubs and outdoor adventure programmes, as well as well-being and arts and crafts programmes for adults. It instigated trips that brought young people from both communities together, which enabled people to be slightly more comfortable travelling between the two areas.

Bor told the forum that, surprisingly, COVID actually helped the programme, as it provided a virtual shared space as opposed to physical meetings that many people may not have been comfortable with. The initiative created a community spirit, and “allowed community members to realise that working together is key to moving forward”, said Bor.

Unfortunately, the Common Ground project came to an end in March 2021. That being said, Bor spoke positively about the future, as she made it clear they will work tirelessly to continue the good work that has been done through a subsequent project, Dare to Dream, supported by Community Foundation NI, which focuses on what the community wants to see developed in their area. This new initiative is funded by the Esmee Fairbairn and Paul Hamlyn Foundations. This was another example of an underlying theme of today’s forum session — community autonomy.

The T:BUC engagement forum provided a well-rounded view of the work being done on Safe Spaces. The DOJ looked at work being done at the governmental level, whilst Common Ground dealt with the grassroots development. Fittingly, the middle presentation on the Shared Futures toolkit offers a platform to connect both and give the grassroots a say on what, where and how the government develops these communities.

Right at the end of the meeting, we were joined by First Minister Arlene Foster and Junior Minister Declan Kearney.

First Minister Foster gave her closing remarks, stating, “We are always committed to helping communities that want to move forward”, and that even though people are saddened and frustrated over the recent violence, the First Minister added, “There is a great deal to celebrate in working towards a united community so that people can live, learn, work, and socialise together.”

First Minister Foster paid tribute to these and all other projects that continue to lead to good relations. She concluded, “The future of Northern Ireland is not found in division but sharing this place, and this programme is key to this.”

Junior Minister Kearney stated how “it is a privilege to be involved in this work” and said, “No matter the adversity or challenges, there is a commitment to improve the lives of those in your own neighbourhood.”

The Junior Minister added, “We are one community, albeit a community with distinct differences. Feeling safe is a fundamental right to everyone”.

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