Local businesses as a way to a shared future?

Found this interesting piece in today’s Newsletter by the Chairman of the Antrim Road Traders Association, Paul Carlin who has been writing about his experiences as a businessman in Northern Ireland. Carlin makes some interesting points about how local businesses can play a direct role in improving within communities through creating jobs and getting people from both sides to interact with one another.

He ends with an optimistic vision for the future which I find a bit refreshing as sometimes (I include me in this) people can be a bit too negative about where we live.

Could this be a possible way to end our economic and societal woes? Local community acitvisim led by smaller businesses. Here is the piece which I thought was worth quoting in full.

In today’s political climate I hear a lot of David Cameron’s ‘big society’, where individuals are supposed to pull together and improve their own communities. In north Belfast there is something like this happening among local traders. Tired of not yielding the benefits from tourism and being on a major route into the city centre we decided to take action and improve the lot of our own community.

In 2012 we founded the Antrim Road Trading Association, whose sole purpose is the promotion and improvement of our local area. Currently we represent over 30 local businesses and have hosted events that have boosted local landmarks like Belfast Castle.

The enhanced cooperation that comes from organisations like this has seen some remarkable benefits for businesses in north Belfast. We have been able to set up training courses that have helped with development and marketing issues. This has helped businesses re-think and re-evaluate some of their approaches.

In addition to this, there has also been a concerted effort towards getting more from our local politicians. Through establishing key relationships with figures across political parties on Belfast City Council we have been able to gain support for some of our key plans and initiatives. This is a clear signal to everyone that political action and dialogue can achieve results for a place like north Belfast.

However, the real benefit of this type of community activism is that, like most small businesses, we are the people who create opportunity for all across our society. In my own business, I am employing local people and giving them the skills to further their own careers. I am not exceptional in this regard, as many of my colleagues are doing exactly the same thing. While Stormont places a greater emphasis on larger corporations, we should always keep in mind that many opportunities for our young people are being created by small businesses across the Province.

All of this we have done ourselves. Why, you might ask? Because we believe that there is a better future out there waiting to be seized and leaving this to politicians alone is not enough. Business can be a key part of breaking down barriers in our society. We can use the drive for employment as a tool to get people from both communities to interact with one another. With more support and creative thinking, we can get more associations like this set up across Northern Ireland.

The experience that I have had with this project has been inspirational. Often in this place, we tend to look at the negatives and forget the positives in our society. This experience over the last year has taught me that there is a bright future on the horizon and it is up to this same type of community activism to help us get there.

David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs