THE peace process is often thought of in terms of a party-political deal, but the ability of ordinary people and communities to work together towards peace has undoubtedly been one of the process’s most important aspects.
In local interface communities, groups such as Twaddell Ardoyne Shankill Communities in Transition (TASCIT) are working to break down the barriers to peace on a daily basis.
Comprised of members from the North Belfast Interface Network, Lower Shankill Community Association, Twaddell and Woodvale Residents’ Association, and Concerned Residents of Upper Ardoyne, TASCIT are involved in a number of cross-community initiatives aimed at reshaping the social landscape of Belfast.
Rab McCallum, a TASCIT member and NBIN coordinator, has helped tackle inter-community violence since the beginning of the ceasefires.
Speaking to the North Belfast News, he told of the first precarious steps to creating cross-community partnerships.
“Around the time of the ceasefires we started residents’ groups to get people engaged in community issues and we had been doing that for quite a number of years,” he said.
“It got to the stage where one of the biggest issues was the upturn in inter-communal violence.
“That began to have a serious impact on areas like Alliance Avenue and some of the other interfaces. We got to supporting them and that’s how it all started off.
“We began at the very early stages of dealing with that inter-communal conflict. We created mobile phone networks where we could get in contact with people in adjacent communities. Up until then a lot of good relations work was about getting kids and other people from these areas to meet groups in other places like Bangor, but very little of it was actually dealing with the specific problems that were taking place.
“We wanted to communicate with people in other communities to tackle those issues. We went through a lengthy process of getting that right. You might have got a name or contact details, and things might not have been great at the start, but we started to hone that down into a situation where we began to meet each other on an ongoing basis and we began to develop a relationship with each other.
“I remember at that time there were people travelling to places like Jerusalem and South Africa and they hadn’t even walked that 30 yards across the interface to meet those closest to them. We wanted to focus on that, especially on the back of Holy Cross, where we were able to show what damage neighbours can do to each other.”
While inter-community violence has mostly become a thing of the past, the fear of that violence still remains.
“In interface communities, peace walls are just one of the physical manifestations of those fears. However, through the International Fund for Ireland-financed Peace Walls Programme, TASCIT have been working to create the environment for the removal of the barriers.
“We wanted to identify areas that could be transformed or changed, and then more recently about how we could build confidence and trust between the communities that would make peace walls themselves redundant,” Rab explained.
“The division was already there in communities before the peace walls went up, all the peace walls did was reinforce that division. As much as possible we try to call them segregation barriers. They segregated communities that were already divided in a way. They set that in stone, or rather, concrete.”
He continued: “There seemed to be this wrongful condemnation of the people living in these areas, that they were subhuman in a way or that they couldn’t live with each other. So we wanted find out why they wanted the peace walls, because while the reality was that some people seen them as a necessity for safety reasons, but there was also a huge negativity with it.
“People were telling us that they would love to see them away, if the circumstances were right. You can sit and wait for the time to be right, or you can try to deal with the problems that people need resolved to make that time right.”
In 2016, two years after the foundation TASCIT’s Peace Walls Project, residents of the Crumlin Road allowed the removal of the peace wall outside their homes – the first to be removed in 30 years. Rab said that demolition of the wall was achieved by improving confidence within the community.
“People had looked a big ugly brick wall for years, and we were able to show them how it would improve their situation
“We want to increase people’s confidence in communities, but a lot of the time people are doing it on their own.
“People don’t see the everyday occurrences like people from either community going to shops or leisure centres in each others’ areas – places they maybe wouldn’t have gone in the past. There are significant changes taking place and sometimes its up to us to highlight that.”
He continued: “We have a programme at the minute about challenging cultural identities and allegiances, and part of that is about having challenging conversations, or going into certain communities.
“When we talk about challenging cultural identities and allegiances that isn’t about trying to get people to change theirs, it’s about getting them to accept each others’. It’s no threat to anybody coming in with a strong identity. We’re not asking anybody to be any less than what they are and who they are.”
While improving community relations may be viewed from the outside as a piecemeal process, the significance of the steps being taken towards peace in our communities cannot be understated. Reflecting on how far we have come, Rab, as an Ardoyne man who witnessed the Troubles from their outbreak to their end, said: “People talk about how it was then and there were rose-tinted glasses about how things were prior to the Troubles, but there were always issues there, and a bit of fear.
“I remember people having steel plates behind their doors, cameras, and maybe come six o’clock at night they were locking their doors because that’s when assassinations would take place. All of those things stick in your mind. The fear impacted on everyone. In a way, that has all lifted.
“There are issues that have to be resolved, like legacy issues. But for the areas that I grew up, they are much better places now.
“There are people who are the age I was when the Troubles started and they have very little idea about segregation – they go where they want.
“I’m sure there are still lots of kids who never leave their own area, but there are lots of kids who are doing it.”
He added: “There are people who never get to speak to people from other communities, sometimes out of fear, sometimes out of lack of opportunity.
“I’m lucky that I get to have these conversations with people every day. There are other people and ideas out there that we need to reconcile with. We have to live with each other, and it’s good to see that gradually coming to fruition.”