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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 2: Social Activism with a Twist of Politics


Chapter 2 Social Activism with a Twist of Politics A young teacher recalled his sense of exuberance after participating in Derry’s first civil rights march held in October 1968: ‘The great energy and joy after it … I don’t think anybody felt that we were going to overthrow the state but … the energy, the possibility of changing things here. And whatever about changing things, above all else suddenly introducing as it were colour to this place; that which had been an old grainy black and white film was now potentially technicolour’. If this was social activism with a political twist it had roots in protest community organising that had long sought out niches in the monolith of Unionist governance. Tenants’ organisations existed in the mid-1930s, when the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) supported the Tenants’ Defence League in a successful rent strike in West Belfast. By the 1960s, CPI and trade union activist, Sean Morrissey, was a leading light in the Belfast Amalgamated Corporation Tenants’ Association (BACTA), a deliberately cross-community coali- tion, whose chairman, Billy Ritchie, was from Knocknagoney in union- ist East Belfast. Derry, the second city in size if not in self-perception in the North, also experienced protest agitation that was decidedly more political in nature and intent than the parallel movements of self-help community initiatives and local residents’ associations. Spiced by the politicisation of events in the late sixties and early seventies, community action found itself in the eye of the storm that presented urgent needs as well...

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