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Community Action in a Contested Society

The Story of Northern Ireland

Avila Kilmurray

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.


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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 pre- dominantly 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 pub- lication 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...

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