Peace by piece: Launch of interface exhibition @DoJ_Interfaces
by Allan LEONARD
20 November 2017
Ulster University’s York Street campus, home to the schools of art and architecture, served as a fitting venue for the launch of an interface exhibition sponsored by the Department of Justice and featured ongoing community-based projects as well as artefacts from home and abroad.
As explained by the Provost Raffi Folli, the exhibition arose as part of an ongoing research partnership between the university and the Department.
Working with community groups, architects, the Housing Executive, the International Fund for Ireland, and organisations such as Community Relations in Schools (CRIS), the Department assembled a range of exhibits that highlight positive change in interface communities, presented in a range of media, including infographics, photographs, information panels, story boards, maps, architecture models, short videos, and physical displays.
“We are extremely proud of this exhibition for the university,” said Folli.
Anthony Harbinson (Deputy Secretary, Department of Justice) began his opening remarks by quoting John F. Kennedy — “Every accomplishment starts with a decision to try” — as an appropriate summation of the Northern Ireland Executive’s decision in 2013 to seek to remove all interface barriers by 2023, as part of the Government’s “strong commitment to improving community relations and continuing the journey towards a more united and shared society”.
His Department’s role is one of “talking to everyone, and anyone, who may be involved in any decision to reduce or remove an interface”.
Harbinson said that here was an exhibition all about interfaces, but “you’ll discover that it’s actually an exhibition about people’s lives”.
“It’s about life in an interface community and about the possibilities for change. It’s about young people growing up in areas that are separated by physical barriers. It’s about acknowledging that those barriers were put there to protect life and limb, but asking a question about the purpose they serve now.
“This exhibition [is] to provide a platform to showcase and highlight the hard work that many of you are doing within interface communities. Much of your work goes unreported, but it is not undervalued,” Harbinson told the audience.
On behalf of the Department, Harbinson stated that it will work with groups to overcome obstacles, find necessary resources, and help deliver desired change, “for your community, for the next generation, for our ‘Shared Future’”.
Emcee Michael McAvoy (Department of Justice) presented a short video by MMAS Architects, which showed work undertaken with schoolchildren from the Lower Oldpark area, imagining how their nearest interface might look if opened up.
Then two young men, Peter and Mark, spoke about the positive aspects of their involvement with the cross-community Limestone United Football Club in Belfast.
Peter began his story with being arrested for attempted murder. Leading up to that was a lifestyle of “feeling the rush” of fighting and rioting, as a response to boredom. While waiting for his court case, he got involved with Limestone United. “Football worked like fighting,” said Peter, who has kept involvement with the club and is now peer mentoring new members.
Cathy Gormley-Heenan shared an insight of the life of being a pro vice chancellor: attending and speaking at events about a variety of academic subjects, “sounding like I know something” about nanotechnology or the like, but in the case of tonight, “I’m personally passionate about this subject.”
Gormley-Heenan explained the academic-policy-practitioner dimension of her university’s research of interfaces, going back ten years:
“In 2008, many people felt that peace walls were an accepted norm. Johnny Byrne, who did his PhD research on this, discovered that people found this topic hard to discuss, that they would be cut out of the conversation of change.”
She said that it was somewhat ironic that Northern Ireland is ahead in the international arena of interfaces and barriers, “because we are discussing transformation while others are saying ‘build higher walls’”.
Gormley-Heenan continued by stating three policy briefs that the university completed, which focused attention on challenges around implementing the public strategy of all interface removal.
She went into detail with one brief, as an example, about “who are the people”, explaining that the term “local community” can get treated as representing a single, unitary group, whereas their research — using the 2011 census — revealed that those living closest to interfaces have different characteristics: Protestant residents are older and fewer, while Catholic residents are younger and more; the implication is that different, appropriate policy interventions are required.
Gormley-Heenan concluded by reminding all “how far we’ve come in ten years”, with success driven and owned by the community, and how appropriate it was to have this exhibition located in a university:
“We’re here to make sense of our past, we’re here to try to remember and acknowledge why things were they way they were, and we’re there to think about how the stories of the walls might be told in the future.”
The final word was from Antje Otto, who was responsible for the curation of the exhibition:
“I am of German roots, more precisely, East German roots. I was 20 when the Berlin Wall came down — I remember it vividly — so I know that change can happen.”
The “Peace Walls” exhibition is open to the public at Ulster University, York Street, Belfast, from 20–24 November 2017. Exhibition guide available to download.