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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 8: Community Action: Relations in Practice?


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Community Action: Relations in Practice?

In the early 1990s it was not uncommon for ‘cross-community’ work to be implemented in ‘very cross communities’. The perceived dangers of venturing across entrenched community boundaries were formidable. In the opinion of a republican: ‘The only thing you heard about the Shankill was the Shankill Butchers (paramilitaries who carried out brutal sectarian murders), I mean that was it … You still had a view of Protestants and the Shankill as sort of being a colonial demon that terrorises our community in support of the British Army’. In response, the loyalists stereotyped a ‘Pan Nationalist Front’ of Catholicism/republicanism/terrorism: ‘I never went beyond the Falls Road and the Royal (Victoria) Hospital … but when I got older and actually went into what was known as West Belfast, I thought, My God this is it. You know I couldn’t believe it and I would have been in my twenties’. In rural areas the divide was less physically marked but still ran deep in the psyche with fields dubbed catholic or protestant and a mental mind map of the safest – most communally aligned – routes to drive or walk home even when it added miles to the journey. There was an unpredictability about ‘the other’ that invited fear, all too easily stirred to fever pitch during times of tension when ‘the word’ went out along community networks.

The daily diet of sectarian attacks fed simmering anxieties, while reports of talks...

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