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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 7: Civil Servants Unleashed: BATs, RATs and MBW


Chapter 7 Civil Servants Unleashed: BATs, RATs and MBW The alphabet soup of government initiatives was both shaken and stirred in the post Anglo-Irish Agreement period, with Dublin civil servants in situ in Belfast expressing opinions on ‘northern issues’. One local civil servant was unimpressed: ‘We took it very badly that they would be questioning us on what we were doing for the people of Belfast. Away and look after Ballymun (a deprived area of Dublin) … Fix your own backyard without trying to tell us what to do’. He was involved in a new initiative, BAT (Belfast Action Teams), established in 1987, and inspired by the dual pres- sures of addressing inner city deprivation alongside offering career develop- ment for middle ranking civil servants. The well-honed mandarin belief in the seamless transferability of bureaucratic skill and knowledge was to be applied to the development of local areas: ‘It was really about getting civil servants and public servants directly interfacing with and trying to use their talent and ability and drive to make a difference’. Nine areas of Belfast benefitted directly from the Action Teams, each controlling a small pot of funding to be allocated in a flexible and responsive manner. Seconded public servants brought individual personal background and experience to the task, with some prioritising physical regeneration and others favouring investment in local capacity and support for community initiatives. A proponent of the latter explained: ‘What I really loved about that particular thing (BAT) was having an opportunity to really...

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