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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 10: The Rollercoaster of Change


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The Rollercoaster of Change

The butler in Hillsborough Castle (official residence of Her Majesty the Queen and pied a terre of her Secretary of State), bowing ever so slightly, murmured: ‘So nice to see a familiar face’, when welcoming a community activist to a function. The developing peace process heralded a change in the political guard by privileging British Government access to elected politicians rather than local activists. In earlier years, community workers had to simply lift the phone when they needed to make contact. If attendance at social soireés offered access this came with a health warning acknowledged by a Northern Ireland Office official: ‘What they (NIO officials) did, they were quite cute, quite clever, they actually used proxies … inviting (individual community activists) to the famous dinners, and you know, they’d milk them basically. They’d set up discussions with them, they’d meet with them, they’d use all sorts of ways to get the information that they needed to be able to take a view to advise Ministers … And, of course, the other thing about the NIO … is that they didn’t let anyone else near the Ministers’. This approach offered fertile ground for the misinterpretation of a chance remark. As the peace process progressed the game of political messaging became the norm, although not always welcome: ‘There was the whole hype around the ceasefires and these Americans were all involved and there was a lot of Americans coming over and...

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