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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 11: Peacebuilding in Shades of Grey


Chapter 11 Peacebuilding in Shades of Grey Times were a-changing when the British and Irish Governments breathed a sigh of relief in 2007 and celebrated ‘the chuckle brothers’, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness and DUP leader, Ian Paisley, representing the two dominant parties in the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly. The unexpected bon hommé was replaced by a more phlegmatic relation- ship between McGuinness and Paisley’s successor as First Minister, Peter Robinson. Tensions and hard words remained to bobby-trap the develop- ing relationship as serial agreements were negotiated to smooth the path. The St. Andrews Agreement (2006) was followed by the Hillsborough Agreement (2010); the Stormont House Agreement (2014) by the Fresh Start Agreement (2015), and there were still issues too hot to handle. Five political parties, with diametrically opposing policies, accepted ministe- rial positions in two subsequent power-sharing Executives. The fact that departmental Permanent Secretaries were answerable to their Minister introduced further complexity of governance. Outside the inner workings of the political class the rumblings of loyalist community discontent and unease were evident; while a plethora of ‘dissident’ republican groups con- tinued to denounce the ‘sell out’ of a United Ireland, threatening vengeance. Politics was still in prickly offence and counter-offence mode, although zero-sum game calculations sometimes grumbled down into the virtual ‘benign apartheid’ of back-to-back governance. A number of weasel words in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement con- tinued to haunt political stability. Rights, equality and ‘parity of esteem’ jos- tled for attention, represented as either a ‘republican demand’...

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