NORTHERN IRELAND: Across the divide

Mathew Little

The devastation left by the Troubles in Northern Belfast led two men from far sides of the divide to unite to form a cross-community economic venture. Mathew Little reports.

Of the 3,500 deaths in Northern Ireland since the Troubles began in 1969, nearly one quarter have occurred in North Belfast, a working-class area of the city where Protestant and Catholic ghettos sit an uneasy stone's throw from each other. While in other parts of Northern Ireland the conflict consisted of a low-level war between the IRA and the British Army, in North Belfast it was a three-cornered battle involving Loyalist paramilitaries as well. Such was the physical proximity of the two communities that in many instances people knew who had killed their family members.

In the early 1990s, while the conflict still raged, two community workers, one Loyalist and one Republican, began tentative steps to approach and work with the other side. Liam Maskey, Sinn Fein supporter and brother of Sinn Fein activist Alex Maskey, who would later become the party's Mayor of Belfast, was a Catholic community worker in the Newington and Cavehill area of the city. Billy Mitchell, who served a life sentence for Ulster Volunteer Force activism and was an official of the Progressive Unionist Party, which represents the paramilitary UVF, worked with the loyalist community in the same part of Belfast.

Initially, the two men were conduits in passing messages between Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries. But they soon began to seek funding for joint programmes for young people and the long-term unemployed in the area.

They then had an idea for something altogether bolder, even heretical for the time - an inter-community organisation for both Catholics and Protestants.

"Billy and myself spent a full day together in County Antrim," explains Maskey. "We did two exercises. The first was what divided us. And it was a fair number of things - the Constitution of Ireland, the presence of the British Army, the Loyalist paramilitaries, the Republican paramilitaries, fear, anger, mistrust. The second exercise was what we had in common. The hairs on the backs of our necks stood up.

Despite our irreconcilable political positions, there was so much we shared - even our taste in music was similar, the type of house we grew up in, our employment as young men."

They returned to ask their respective boards to form 'an intercommunity baby' for the whole of North Belfast, Protestant and Catholic. Many board members were nervous, fearing recriminations if it became known they were working with the other side. Maskey and Mitchell also faced hostility from their communities: "People were saying we were traitors," says Maskey, a chain-smoking ex-boxer.

Intercomm was formed in 1995 and has since grown to employ nearly 100 people, funded by, among others, the New Zealand, Canadian and US governments.

Maskey now says that most people have come to see the need for inter-community work. "You have to work together while keeping your political aspirations - that's your God-given right," says Maskey. "But in areas such as unemployment, or working with senior citizens or disadvantaged youth, we all have the same issues. We realised that outside of the political problems, the pain knew no barriers. Whether you are Catholic or Protestant, your tears are the same."

Intercomm has now developed into a major economic enterprise in an area blighted by high unemployment and deprivation. A women's department aims to encourage local women to set up small businesses; a community development project helps get people into work in pre-school playgroups, economic development agencies or peace-building programmes. Intercomm's small business start-ups include a tourism enterprise, which shows visitors the area's colourful paramilitary murals.

But Intercomm's main economic initiative is a programme to renovate homes in what is known as the 'interface' - the areas where Protestant and Catholic areas meet. Many of the houses are derelict as a direct result of the conflict. Some 16 people are employed on each side, making the initiative the second-biggest employment venture in North Belfast for 17 years.

Intercomm has brought people together, but the area's political polarisation remains. Maskey still votes Sinn Fein and Mitchell for the PUP. "I have to learn to divorce my political thinking from my human activity and that is difficult, but extremely necessary," says Maskey.

"Ian Paisley said, 'bridges are dangerous because you have to cross over to the other side.' I say, crossing over to the other side is necessary in trying to reduce conflict," reflects Maskey. "Conflict demonises people.

But that demonisation is taken away if you can see the eyes, see the face, hear the words. It's about building relationships, seeing if you can work together. While doing that you'll see the human side of your supposed enemy."

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