Community Action in a Contested Society

The Story of Northern Ireland

by Avila Kilmurray (Author)
Monographs XVIII, 324 Pages


Much has been written about the history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, but one story remains untold: that of the grassroots activism that maintained local communities in the face of violence. This book speaks through the voices of the activists themselves, drawn from both sides of a divided society. It records their memories of community organising and work on social issues, as well as their insights into surviving the politics of the period and contributing to peacebuilding. Providing a vivid account of how politics touched people’s lives, the book celebrates the energy, imagination and determination of community activism. It also examines the challenges faced by policymakers struggling to make sense of conflicting community narratives and official government positions.
There are vital lessons here for organisers, activists and policymakers working in any contested society, particularly those operating at the interface between social need and peacebuilding. Informed by an oral history approach, this book argues that conflict transformation is possible and that community activism has a major contribution to make in creating alternatives to violence.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Timeline: Northern Ireland, 1969–2015
  • Chapter 1: Politics Rules, OK!
  • Setting ‘the Troubles’ in context
  • The reaction to Civil Rights
  • From Direct Rule to power-sharing and beyond
  • The politics of the prisons
  • The growth of Anglo-Irish relations
  • ‘God save Ireland’: Headline in the Economist magazine, March 1988
  • The rollercoaster of political settlement
  • Chapter 2: Social Activism with a Twist of Politics
  • When grievance becomes injustice
  • Politics at centre-stage
  • Mobilising a community response
  • Doing it for themselves: Community resilience
  • The rise of the People’s Assemblies
  • Chapter 3: Community Relations and Community Development: The Cuckoo or the Nest?
  • Breathing life into the Commission
  • ‘Armoured cars and tanks and guns …’
  • Negotiating space for community development
  • The ‘Cosmetic’ campaign
  • The denouement
  • Life beyond officialdom
  • Chapter 4: Politics and Community Action: A Delicate Balance
  • Just because you’re paranoid …
  • Analysing the UWC Strike
  • The 1975 ceasefires and the ‘rebel hotlines’
  • Creating space for dialogue
  • Structuring community action
  • Preserving the heartland of the Empire
  • Living the nightmare: Flats, homes and housing
  • Meeting yourself coming back …
  • Politics and community: A complicated tango
  • Chapter 5: When the Minister Comes Calling …
  • The Minister unleashed
  • District Councils: Getting to grips with ‘community’
  • Making sense of it all: Reflections on community education
  • A woman’s work is never done!
  • Organising women within, and between, communities
  • The first of the Women’s Centres
  • Testing alternatives to violence
  • Chapter 6: Handbags at the Ready: The Politics of ‘Safe Hands’
  • Dealing with the fall-out of the hunger strikes
  • The Centre for Neighbourhood Development (CfND): A model of neighbourhood development
  • Juggling the armalite, politics and the community
  • The politics of preference: Playing the ACE
  • The out-workings of Anglo-Irishism
  • Chapter 7: Civil Servants Unleashed: BATs, RATs and MBW
  • Bringing down Divis
  • Life beyond the motorways
  • Making Belfast Work: The politics of perception
  • ‘Up the hoods’
  • Councils in a continuing ‘state of chassis’
  • Chapter 8: Community Action: Relations in Practice?
  • The politics of community relations
  • Who’s the poorest of us all? The politics of poverty
  • Framing community development
  • Partnership working: Getting with the buzz
  • Creating space for cross-community confidence
  • Chapter 9: Peace, Imperfect Peace …
  • All off to Washington DC
  • Community infrastructure: A fundable concept?
  • Supporting peace and reconciliation
  • ‘Shove your doves’: Graffiti on the Shankill
  • Say goodbye to dinosaurs!
  • Small ‘p’ politics in action
  • Community development post-ceasefires
  • Chapter 10: The Rollercoaster of Change
  • Onion slicing the peace dividend
  • The times they were a changing …
  • Participative democracy and ‘capacity-building’
  • The politics of the streets … again
  • The conceptual framing of inter-community development
  • The fist of history
  • Chapter 11: Peacebuilding in Shades of Grey
  • Supporting police reform
  • Building bridges at the grassroots
  • Moving the peace process forward
  • Working within shades of grey
  • A plethora of policies
  • The new ‘normal’
  • Chapter 12: Drawing the Lessons: Community Action in Troubled Times
  • Community action and development in practice
  • Community development in a contested society
  • The community development survival kit
  • Pushing the cross-community boundaries
  • And words matter
  • Policies are rarely neutral
  • And then there was the politics …
  • Further References
  • Index

| vii →


ACE Action for Community Employment

BAT Belfast Action Teams

BCA Bogside Community Association

CFNI Community Foundation for Northern Ireland (previously Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust – NIVT).

CNR Catholic/Nationalist/Republican single identity community designation

CPI Communist Party of Ireland

DHAG Derry Housing Action Group

DSD Department of Social Development (latterly Department of Communities)

DUP Democratic Unionist Party

HTR Healing through Remembering

IFB Intermediary Funding Body for the EU PEACE Programme funds

INLA Irish National Liberation Army

IRA Irish Republican Army (otherwise the Republican Movement)

IRA Official traditional IRA (ideologically left-wing)

IRSP Irish Republican Socialist Party

LVF Loyalist Volunteer Force (critical of the 1998 Peace Agreement)

MBW Making Belfast Work

NICRA Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association

NICRC Northern Ireland Community Relations Commission (1969–1974)

NICRC Northern Ireland Community Relations Council (1990–)

NICVA Northern Ireland Council of Voluntary Action (previously Northern Ireland Council of Social Services – NICSS)

NIWRM Northern Ireland Women’s Rights Movement ← vii | viii →

OFMDFM Office of First Minister, Deputy First Minister, Northern Ireland Executive

PSNI Police Service of Northern Ireland

PUL Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist single identity community designation

PUP Progressive Unionist Party

RAP (NI) Rural Action Project (1984–1989)

RCN Rural Community Network

RTE Radio Telefis Eireann

RUC Royal Ulster Constabulary

SEUPB Special EU Programmes Body to administer EU PEACE funds

SDLP Social Democratic Labour Party

SICDG Springfield Inter Community Development Group (later Interaction Belfast)

SLIG Suffolk Lenadoon Interface Group

SPADs Special Political Advisers

TSN Targeting Social Need

UDA Ulster Defence Association

UDP Ulster Democratic Party

UFF Ulster Freedom Fighters (aligned to UDA)

UKUP United Kingdom Unionist Party

UPNI Unionist Party of Northern Ireland

UVF Ulster Volunteer Force

UWC Ulster Workers’ Council (1994)

VAU Voluntary Activity Unit (Dept. of Health & Social Services, latterly Dept. of Social Development).

WEA Workers’ Educational Association

| ix →


Much has been written about Northern Ireland but the contribution of community action over the period of the Troubles is largely unrecorded. This book attempts to fill at least some of the gap by charting aspects of the kaleidoscope of that story. It primarily draws on interviews conducted with ninety-eight local activists and community development workers, in addition to eighteen statutory officials, scanning experience over the period 1969–2016. Interviewees from the community catchment are drawn in roughly equal numbers from Catholic/Nationalist/Republican (CNR) and Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist (PUL) identities. The officials are predominantly from the latter. Where quotes are used from those interviewed, they are not attributed to named individuals unless the person in question is a known public figure. This is not a concern over misrepresentation of the views expressed, but in recognition of authorial responsibility for the selection of quotes used.

The book is by necessity impressionistic given the discipline of publication word limit. Chapter 1 provides a light touch introduction to the political context of the period for readers engaging with it for the first time. As such, it can only reference and frame events and developments that warrant considerably greater study and explanation. Subsequent chapters are arranged in approximate chronological order to facilitate insight into the challenges and opportunities offered for community action and the inventiveness shown by activists that balanced on the interface between political and social developments. The final chapter, Chapter 12, highlights learning that is considered relevant for workers looking to create space in violently divided societies.

While focused on the story of Northern Ireland, there are aspects that are applicable to any contested society – the problem of closing space for either complexity or critique; the power of perception and rumour; conflicting community and/or official narratives; and the prevalence of physical threat. Community action has to develop thinking and skills to ← ix | x → remain feasible and relevant. Similarly, while every conflict is unique, the clustering of perceived grievances and seeking a sense of security with one’s ‘own’ will be generally recognisable. There is reference throughout this book to ‘single identity’ communities, which are either overwhelmingly Catholic/Nationalist/Republican or Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist; this is a short-hand signifier of a relationship to the State based on national and cultural identity, kinship and political affiliation, rather than primarily a theological identification. The bracketing of Catholic/Nationalism/Republicanism and Protestant/Unionism/Loyalism also acknowledges the heterogeneous views within these two dominant categories. However given the clumsiness of the designation, a shortened version of the description of these single-identity communities will be used throughout the remainder of the text.

The motivation for this work was observation over many years of the commitment, dedication and courage shown by many individuals that contributed to community resilience in abnormal circumstances. Some of those interviewed are no longer with us. Ann McGeeney, William (Plumb) Smith, Jeremy Harbison, David Stevens, Tom Lovett, Theresa Kelly, Fr. Matt Wallace, Hughie Smyth and Joe Wright are all remembered. My thanks to them and to all the other interviewees who generously contributed to a study that became a PhD thesis and latterly this book. Thanks also to Mary Black, Chairperson of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland, who encouraged the venture, and to the patience of my family who lived it. The publication of this book has been supported by the generosity of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust that made its own very important contribution to peacebuilding in Northern Ireland over many years. I would also like to acknowledge Elaine Farrell for her kind permission for use of the front cover photograph. Finally, thanks to John Morison, my Queens University Belfast supervisor, who at times despaired of the PhD but always said he would buy the book – John, here is the book.

Avila Kilmurray

| xi →

Timeline: Northern Ireland, 1969–2015


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← xii | xiii →

← xiii | xiv →

← xiv | xv →

← xv | xvi →

← xvi | xvii →

← xvii | xviii →

| 1 →


Politics Rules, OK!

Four decades is a long time in anybody’s reckoning. Where society is riven by violent conflict it can seem an eternity. There are periods of desperation; even more times of frustration; but despite all, communities are resilient. In Northern Ireland survival was underpinned by a blended tonic of sardonic humour, self-justificatory community narratives and sheer bloody-mindedness. Over 3,500 people lost their lives; some 50,000 were bereaved or injured and an estimated 35,000 were imprisoned and/or interned for politically motivated activities. Many thousands were intimidated out of their homes and fled to ‘safe’ areas, invariably single-identity in nature (overwhelmingly either Catholic/Nationalist/Republican or Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist). The human cost in a society of 1.6 million etched deep scars. The abnormal became the norm, particularly in the most disadvantaged communities. Yet it was these communities that developed an incredibly vibrant civil society characterised by social activism and community action with a twist of politics.

Setting ‘the Troubles’ in context

Northern Ireland was established as a self-governing region in 1921 after the partition of Ireland. The southern twenty-six counties negotiated independence from Britain after a hard fought War of Independence, leaving the unionist dominated six north-eastern counties part of the United Kingdom (UK). Division was in-built from the start, given the Protestant majority of some 65 per cent, and a Catholic minority of 35 per cent. The latter were seen as potentially disloyal and subversive in a chronically insecure ← 1 | 2 → northern state that struggled to even agree on a name. Officially termed Northern Ireland, it was also known as Ulster, the North, or even ‘the occupied six counties’, depending on political perspective. While overall sovereignty remained with the Westminster Parliament in London, to all intents and purposes the Stormont Parliament in Belfast ruled through single party Ulster Unionist government over the period 1921–1972. Its core remit was to protect the union with Britain by resisting the perceived threat of a united Ireland.


XVIII, 324
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (September)
Peacebuilding Activism Northern Ireland Community action Community development
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2017. XVIII, 324 pp.

Biographical notes

Avila Kilmurray (Author)

Avila Kilmurray is Visiting Professor in the Transitional Justice Institute at Ulster University and works as a consultant with the Social Change Initiative (Northern Ireland). She has worked extensively in the community and voluntary sectors and was Director of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland for twenty years. She was also a founder member of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition and a member of its negotiating team during the 1996–1998 peace talks.


Title: Community Action in a Contested Society
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344 pages