An essay that combines story and some thoughts on hope and violence in a loyalist community that has gotten under my skin…
So we’re standing there, this friend and I, it’s mid afternoon because I remember traffic. It’s bright and it’s not raining. I am on my way to open up the dark, smelly and unhappy youth centre that used to be a loyalist bar, it got bought by a church and then converted and my friend stops to ask me how I am. I go between emotions and projects and people in my answer, I am a youth development worker, I have been for three years, on the Lower Newtownards Road. My friend is gentle, he listens, he knows my journey, he says:
“Harriet if prevention of death is becoming more important than preservation of life – then it’s time to walk away…”
So I walked away…
I walked away and recovered (it took me a while). I felt a weight lifting at the same time as an ache that took the form of commitment – because this beautiful and troubled, exasperating, dark, rich and hilarious community gets under your skin and has got under the skin of so many. We leave, we quit, we are hurt and yet we keep showing up, sometimes I don’t know why and other times I try to take a guess… So far I am still there, walking the pavements when I can to drink in the look, smell, sound and smiles of the streets, loitering around the edges of community events, anniversaries, parades and riots, friends with those who live, who attend church, work and run programmes in the community and sharing joy and pride in progress and pain, frustration and downright anger sometimes when it all gets set back or echoes and/or feels like the pain of trying develop youth work between 2003-2006 in this patch.
When I arrived in Belfast in 2003, I had no reconcilation, conflict or peacebuilding interest or expertise (and many do arrive with these issues and areas in their sights). I cared about the inner city and poverty, fresh from a derelict inner city estate in Manchester, England I was looking to take my experience, skills and compassion to a similar place and culture in Belfast. Riding the 3a & 4a past Iceland on the Newtownards Road and Cluan Place on the Albertbridge I identified similar landmarks of shutters, malnourished bodies, fast food outlets and pawn shops that signified poverty as well as the potential and likely ground level community development and transformation. Imagine my surprise as well as delight to identify a faith community (in church saturated Northern Ireland) bang smack in the middle of some of the busiest and most constructive community outreach that had no conversion or ‘saved & added’ agenda, simply a desire to meet the needs of its community and took some hits on the chin for doing so.
It was so hard and sad…
My thinking about poverty got turned on it’s head, I think I hadn’t really understood poverty until I witnessed families with third generation unemployment and poor literacy buying the shiniest gadgets and shoes with the help of catalogue accounts, bingo winnings and cash in hand ‘odd jobs’. I hadn’t understood the marginalised until I sat beside children who were on so much medication they couldn’t sit still, let alone listen or look you in the eye. Who had witnessed so much cursing and negative criticism in their relationships that they couldn’t take a compliment or praise without insulting one of their peers at the same time, who couldn’t watch a football game without punching a door or a table, who never knew what time it was and just kept knocking at the door because no-one was dropping them off or picking them up, let alone knew where they were. Generally speaking, these children and young people, this ‘community’ weren’t very popular, in school, in youth group, in cross community activities, at outdoor pursuits days or in church. They were noisy, rude, aggressive, frightening, hyper and sometimes dirty and smelly. We tried to go to the cinema once, all expenses paid and the manager asked us to leave. When we tried to engage with parents and/or other family members they rarely were home, answered the door or turned up. I came to understand poverty as not such a money based issue, but perhaps a poverty of conversation, positivity, compliments, esteem, routine, stability and time. Precious, precious time…
I used to walk to work most days from the Beersbridge Road down the Newtownards Road, and as I passed the golden arches of McDonalds I could feel the hopelessness and weight coming upon me. A community entrenched in the language of pride and honour and images the evoked strength, power and dominance seemed to have a hollow echo and served as a flimsy canvas highlighting the tiredness, escapism and consumerism of a community that invested in TV, annual festivals, historical ritual, appearance and the promise and hope of violence and riot.
I remember the ringleader in our youth club leading the charging past me one afternoon, he and his friends carrying big sticks shouting ‘we’re going to short strand, there’s going to be a riot’ I will not forget the sense of purpose, focus and excitment. One of the beautiful 12 year old girls in our girls group confided in me one evening that she always loved the 12th every year because you got new clothes and there was always a riot. These events whether hoped for or actually happening seemed to awaken the language and imagery that lay dormant the rest of the time and motivated and inspired these young people in a way that other narrative didn’t.
where were the role models?
The narrative of community (and youth development) workers about education, self esteem, relationships, families, personal development and travel was never led or inspired by local politicians or community leaders, let alone imitated or echoed. It was never shared or endorsed by parents, wider family, friends or neighbours – they didn’t know that language -they didn’t have the confidence or the encouragement to speak and use it – it was viewed as brought in/alien/other.
My conclusion in those final tired months was ‘where were the role models?’ ‘where were the positive depictions of strength and pride?’ I felt I was wading through treacle, at the mercy of men who made decisions behind doors closed to everyone, I could see the pattern and cycle of sadness, isolation and violence shadowed on the faces of ten year olds.
I believe change starts at both the top and the bottom and meets somewhere in the middle. Influence, inspiration and example is so important and for those reasons I am not sure how much this is about money, place or even tradition/cultural markers. This loyalist community has a legacy politically, culturally, economically and creatively just as any loyalist community does in Northern Ireland. It is rich in diversity, has a lot more than violence, dominance, destruction and brokenness to show the world. It’s power is deep and strong in potential and I would suggest lies untouched, unwoken, unstirred like a dragon lying under a lot of enchanted gold. The politicans and leaders are lazy, falling back on old narrative and discourse rather than inspiring their people to discover and recover new and old stories. They tread old paths rather than making new ones and for the sake of everyone – the loyalist community needs some leadership, some ideas and something that makes the hairs tingle on the back of our neck. The battles of the past are not the battles we have to fight today, it’s something different but something that could be so much more powerful than the past.
There is so much I could (and probably will) write here – about poverty, violence, riots, welfare reform, family and community breakdown and cultural comment and criticism. But I guess after two nights of listening to helicopters fly overhead, fires, burnt out cars, destoyed tarmac and injuries I had to start with some story.
By no means do I mean to patronise or dole out advice, I’ve not been working in the community for a few years now, I never really felt I was in it with my ‘blow-in’ status, I know there are layers and complexities. I don’t share the same politics, loyalism or patriotism and I certainly am appalled and disgusted by the violence. But lying in my safe bed, in a quiet street now I feel the same feelings I felt between 2003-2006 every day – frustration – despair – fear- anger – sadness – hopelessness.
To be honest I think we’ve had enough, I understand that peace is slow and I understand that this violence is only coming from a small number, but I think this is massively about a lack of hope, there’s an apathy, numbness and routine about hope in this particular loyalist community and it’s time that got turned on its head.
I’ve asked a couple of people with different roles in this community to guest post over the next couple of days – keep reading and get involved with comments, on twitter and facebook – it’s all much better thinking this out in community.