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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 6: Handbags at the Ready: The Politics of ‘Safe Hands’

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Chapter 6 Handbags at the Ready: The Politics of ‘Safe Hands’ The 1979 British General Election swept Conservative Party leader, Margaret Thatcher, into power in a surge of blue. The new Direct Rule team had hardly settled in before the Northern Ireland Housing Executive was instructed to sell off 190,000 houses in line with Tory privatisation poli- cies. Community statements condemned the policy as ‘giant asset-stripping’, while Shankill Road campaigners questioned whether there was that many houses to sell. Marking the decade-long anniversary of British soldiers on the streets of Northern Ireland, Army GOC, General Sir Timothy Creasey, paid an unannounced visit to a Sinn Féin office in Belfast that August. Such civility was blown into context by IRA bombs that killed eighteen soldiers in the North and Lord Mountbatten and his boating party in the South. In a re-energised drive against paramilitarism, Maurice Oldfield (allegedly M16 ‘Top spy-catcher’ and prototype for ‘M’ of James Bond fame) arrived in Northern Ireland as Security Coordinator. In the parallel universe of republicanism, a number of community organisations condemned the use of informers, reports of brutal interrogation of people detained for questioning and the conviction of people in Special Courts based solely on ‘voluntary confessions’. A combative Minister of the Environment, Philip Goodhart, was forthright on how government saw militant republicanism: ‘As far as quite a lot of the governmental machine was concerned Sinn Féin was looked upon with the same enthusiasm as one might have looked upon a group...

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