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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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Chapter 1: Politics Rules, OK!

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Chapter 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 sar- donic 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 disadvan- taged communities. Yet it was these communities that developed an incred- ibly 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 inde- pendence 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 2 Chapter 1...

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