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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 3: Community Relations and Community Development: The Cuckoo or the Nest?


Chapter 3 Community Relations and Community Development: The Cuckoo or the Nest? Community relations featured in the 1969 British reform package for Northern Ireland. A new Stormont ministry was nominated to house it and a Northern Ireland Community Relations Commission established as an arm’s length body to implement it. The Board of the Commission included members drawn from both Catholic and Protestant backgrounds. Local government official, Maurice Hayes, was appointed Chairperson, noting that his Board were reasonably safe appointees of a neutral political hue. Hayes himself expressed surprise when the new Minister, Robert Simpson, asked him whether he was ‘a good Catholic’, later explained as due to official fears that a lapsed Catholic, an agnostic, or even a communist, might be appointed by mistake. Hayes was concerned that the Commission might simply be a sop to British public opinion or a cloak of convenience for an administration that was beyond reform. In the event, much of the debate was over the nature of community relations work and its relationship to community development. Welshman, Hywel Griffiths, was appointed as Director and the Commission opened its doors in December 1969. It worked over a period of five years, falling victim to the Sunningdale power- sharing Executive in 1974. It existed during an intensely political period which saw a growth in community activism. Breathing life into the Commission The community development strategy championed by Hywel Griffiths was based on his experience in post-colonial Africa. He believed in build- ing community confidence and leadership...

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