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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 4: Politics and Community Action: A Delicate Balance

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Chapter 4 Politics and Community Action: A Delicate Balance Maurice Hayes was surprised to see the stocked crates of Guinness when he visited the civil service college at Sunningdale in December 1974. The light dawned when the Sunningdale Agreement was announced some weeks later. The New Year edition of the Irish News trumpeted: ‘The historic first meeting of the Northern Ireland new Executive at Government Buildings, Stormont’. The Ulster Workers’ Council (UWC) Strike brought down this exercise in power-sharing five months later, in a coup that avoided the name. The Ulster Workers’ Council was a pot pourri of loyalism and unionism that included trade unionists from key industrial sectors dominated by Protestant workforces (electricity, gas and fuel distribution), together with paramilitary organisations and a dolly mixture of unionist politicians. They gelled around fears over a proposed Council of Ireland which introduced an Irish dimension, but also objected to power-sharing. The UWC Strike was launched on 15 May 1974, with the declared objective of consigning the Agreement to the dust bin of history. Glenn Barr, by then an elected Assembly member, UDA confidante and Chairman of the Strike Committee, explained how paramilitary activ- ists organised pickets alongside collecting and distributing food supplies in their areas. Barr spoke about how: ‘People talk about this “brilliant plan- ning”. The “brilliant planning” went on from hour to hour, and we were responding on many occasions to what other people were doing. We just went along day to day and that’s how the whole thing...

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