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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 5: When the Minister Comes Calling …


Chapter 5 When the Minister Comes Calling … When Prime Minister Callaghan appointed Roy Mason to replace Merlyn Rees as Secretary of State in 1975, he informed him that the relatively unknown Peter Melchett would accompany him as Minister with respon- sibility for the Health & Social Services and Education portfolios: ‘I had never heard of the man, though of course I knew his late father when he was head of the British Steel Corporation. I felt the faintest twinge of doubt, which wasn’t helped when I discovered my new junior minister hadn’t even been contacted yet. Jim looked just a little embarrassed at this point. “He’s sailing with his girlfriend somewhere in the Aegean and can’t be reached”, he explained. “But his mother’s prepared to accept the job on his behalf ” … I was to discover that Lord Melchett was young, naïve and – in the envi- ronmental sense – very green, not the type I’d personally have chosen to face the terrorists’. For Maurice Hayes, on the other hand, Melchett was a welcome breath of fresh air. Without wasting time Hayes organised a series of dinners to introduce the Minister to community leaders not usu- ally numbered amongst the official guest lists. Melchett himself arranged frequent sorties into neighbourhoods to get a first-hand account of how things stood. His Private Secretary remem- bers the police escort being edgy: ‘Of course we had police escorts with us, and … at the start of the meeting the Chair of the meeting would start by asking...

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