Thursday, 25 January 2007

Belfast: mixed communities, racism, and optimism I've been in Belfast a couple days, first time back after several years, and everyone I spoke to is talking about the pace of change. One or two are still pessimistic, on the grounds that differences are so embedded that they could erupt again at any time. But the evidence of rising population and employment, and a huge amount of new housing going up, testifies to a buzzy confidence, symbolised here by the notorious Divis flats. Once famous for having a British army post on the top, it is now apparently being refurbished and gentrified because there is heavy demand for the flats given the convenience to the city centre. Well, this story may be slightly rumoured-up: I was reassured that local people always get first choice when new housing and apartments come up. I was lucky enough to have a chat with Patricia O'Neill in the Community Relations Resource Centre, who told me the emerging problem now is racism. "It's easy to go from one ism to another," she said. Others I spoke to confirmed that racism has 'reared its ugly head,' with asians and east Europeans being subjected to more frequently-reported abuse. Beggars have appeared apparently, a very unfamiliar site in the city. On the subject of territory, Patricia told me there is increasing demand for homes in mixed communities; immigrants are coming in who have no interest in the sectarianism, and many people who moved away are now returning. From over 90% segregated social housing, there is now expected to be a growing interest in mixed communities. This is not as clear-cut as one might hope of course, but there's cautious optimism. I gather that catholics will shop on the Shankill Road now and protestants will shop on the Falls, conversations take place over the occasions of trade, but it's still too dangerous to socialise in either case. I picked up some fascinating literature including a report on the mixed area of Ballynafeigh from the Farset Community Think Tanks Project. It includes this striking anecdote: There are a number of pubs on the road everybody goes into, and you don't see that in any other community. I would go to the Errigle every week and argue politics - with Catholics and Protestants - we feel we're in an environment where that is possible. The only time there has been trouble was a couple of months ago when one of my friends got a glass shoved in his face. It was not locals but outsiders that started the trouble, and it ended up the locals joined forces against them. There were people injured that night, but it was an amazing thing to see local Catholics and Protestants come together to kick outsiders, who were clearly there to cause trouble, out of the area. (Living in a mixed community: the experience of Ballynafeigh. Island Publications, 2001) Meanwhile, mixed housing on its own isn't going to solve everything and there seems little progress on educational desegregation: still only about 5%...
Belfast: Falls Road library One of the curiosities of my recent visit to Belfast was to find myself in the public library on the Falls Road, being shown round upstairs rooms mostly closed to the public. Here's where they run English language courses for Polish immigrants, the flipchart poignant enough for me. The flag flying from the airplane on the mural declares 'Falls Family Centre.' (Yes I know - round here you half-expect something more aggressively political). From the adjacent window, I took this unexpected view of the Sinn Féin offices next door. The librarian I was speaking to was reassuring about how the library seems to have been seen as a cross-community resource through the troubles. In spite of years of service, she would recount nothing more than a vague reference to an instance when someone had placed an Irish tricolour on the roof, visible from the protestant housing beyond, and it had to be taken down. A little research suggests that staff endured more demanding times, however. An article by Darren Topping and Geraint Evans published in Library management in 2005 describes 'a litany of damage' and offers this quotation: . . . the Falls Road branch has been damaged by explosives, petrol bombs, burning vehicles, stones, bricks and bottles. It has been occupied by protesting republican women and a platoon of troops. It has not, in short, been quite the haven of tranquil contemplation a library is supposed to be. As for the incident of the flag on the roof, Topping and Evans report: When Belfast Education and Library Board (BELB) were pushed on the issue, they claimed that a steeplejack would be required to remove the flag. Unsurprisingly, no one willing to do the job could be found. By this stage, one side was threatening to blow up the library if the flag was not removed, and the other side were claiming that anyone attempting to remove the flag would be shot off the roof. I have not the time or resources to explore and explain the contrast between these reports and what I was told, but it seems to me a touching example of the healing human attribute of selective forgetting. Libraries and other community venues can sometimes, somehow, live out in dull slow-motion monochrome the flashing real lives of their neighbourhoods. Now that (hopefully) it no longer has to play a part in its own local history, the library's role is surely to help people understand and come to terms with that past. [Darren Topping and Geraint Evans, Public libraries in Belfast and the troubles, 1969-1994, Library management, 26 (6/7), 2005.]

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