Building a Bigger Belfast from an assemblage of villages…

About 10 years ago, I was helping to facilitate a week-long summer scheme project in the Lower Shankill area of West Belfast, mostly helping to coordinate the work of young volunteers who were part of a programme set up by the Church of Ireland.

The volunteers were being housed 2 miles away at the King’s Hall in South Belfast. I’d arrive at the community centre where we were working early each morning, while the volunteers would arrive after lunch.

From the moment I arrived each day, local kids would repeatedly- seemingly endlessly- ask when the volunteers would arrive. ‘When’re the Summer Madness ones comin?’ ‘When’re the Summer Madness ones comin?’

One day one asked, as usual, ‘When’re the Summer Madness ones comin?’

‘Same as yesterday’, I answered, ‘about half one.’

‘Where are they now?’

‘At the King’s Hall.’

‘Where’s that?’

‘South Belfast.’

‘Where’s that?’

‘Out the Lisburn Road.’

‘Where’s that?’

‘Ok, do you know City Hall?’

‘Where’s that?’

City Hall was a half mile from where were stood; you could almost see it from there. Yet apparently this 10 year-old hadn’t been there, or at least had no recollection of being there. Perhaps he’d been there and didn’t realise that’s where he was.

In any case, it was a key moment for me as a reconciliation worker and researcher. I remembered it as I began and progressed through my masters and doctoral work in the field. As I delved into the literature and research surrounding the conflict in Ireland and Northern Ireland, I discovered that one of the lesser-commented-upon effects of the conflict- and the peace process that followed it- was how it affected many people’s perceptions of place and locality, particularly that of children and teens.

It’s not a minor issue. Northern Ireland is a ‘young’ region; 40% of the population is under 25, and the conflict affected them in specific ways apart from how it affected adults.

To begin with, children and young adults have significantly less freedom of movement, little choice of where they live, where they go to school, where they can socialize, who they can socialize with, and even how they can dress, with their mandatory school uniforms very often immediately marking them as Catholic or Protestant.

For many, the first sustained contact with the ‘other’ community may only come with third-level education or first employment, and all data shows that both of those are significantly more difficult for young people from interface areas to obtain, with sectarian dynamics acting as a ‘double penalty’ on young people due to their tendency to only feel safe within the confines of ‘their’ own area and the hesitancy to leave it due to a more pronounced fear of physical attack.

Youth recreation also suffers if one’s perceived area has no such facilities but patterns of fear and territorialism discourage travel to or through what is perceived to be the ‘other’s’ area.

To try to remedy this almost-total lack of meaningful and sustained interaction between one community’s young people and their peers in the ‘other’ community, various cross-community inter-group contact schemes were devised over the years, the effectiveness of which was a matter of intense debate. Many experts argued that no amount of infrequent and carefully-orchestrated contact could overcome the daily formative role played by family and community in a context of near-total cultural segregation. More problematically, many young people, particularly young men, reported that such schemes increased the chances of sectarian violence by making them more easily recognisable to aggressive elements in the ‘other’ community.

Ironically, the end of the conflict didn’t necessarily improve any of this. The post- conflict years saw an increase in development and investment in Northern Ireland, with new shopping centres, tourism and vibrant night held up as clear evidence of a ‘new’ Belfast. But despite this, anyone who knows Belfast well will note that much of the ‘new’ Belfast is geographically small and very often economically far removed from the ‘old’. Moreover, visitors and tourists walking around the ‘new’ city are both physically and cognitively isolated from the ‘old’, corralled into those parts of the city that can be more easily managed and made to look acceptable. Finally, the post-conflict years have seen more separation barriers built than in all the years of the conflict combined.

Thus, depending on a mix of variables of location, identity background, class, and economic status, many young people’s physical geography- the area that they understand well enough to feel safe- was and is extremely limited.

Perhaps it’s not for nothing that Queens University academics Peter Shirlow and Brendan Murtagh commented that they felt it more accurate to think of Belfast, not as a city, but as ‘an assemblage of villages’…

The ceasefires, the Good Friday Agreement, and all the other political arrangements have brought peace- of a sort- and much more stability, and for that they are indispensable. What they’ve been unable to deliver, it appears, are viable socio-political mechanisms that can realistically help us- regardless of community, class, income, and location- to think of Belfast- all of it- as ‘ours’.

I’m thinking of the kind of vision that I saw once while working with a group of school-age boys in North Belfast who, when asked to write on a card what they thought Belfast would be like if all the barriers disappeared overnight.

One card simply read, ‘I think it would look bigger.’

The vision is out there. We just need to see it together.

 Jon Hatch is a theologian, teacher, and post-conflict reconciliation expert. He blogs at