FALLS Community Council have been at the heart of West Belfast for almost 50 years having been founded in 1974 as a resource centre at a time when the conflict was at its height.
This week, I sat down with current Director at the Falls Community Council, Gerry McConville, to look back on the beginnings of the group, how far it has come and the issues that he sees arising in the future.
Discussing the origins of the Falls Community Council, Gerry began by explaining how the founders started out by distributing newsletters within the community.
“Aside from that, they also liaised with Belfast City Council which was quite innovative for that time,” he said.
“The City Council really operated on its own accord and the founders started making representations to the Council on issues of local importance such as housing. They were also behind the setting up of a number of tenant associations, which have progressed from there.”
The Falls Community Council has adapted in many ways since then and occupied many different premises before their current home close to Beechmount.
When looking at what projects they currently offer, Gerry adds that they take their lead from local residents.
“Whatever is important to residents on the ground, they are the issues that we want to deal with. Now we have a wide range of programmes from programmes of activity to programmes of advocacy.
“During the pandemic, myself and others from across West Belfast got together to advocate for things that we felt were needed on the ground.
“Myself and Jim Girvan, who manages Tullymore, represented the area on the Department for Communities Emergency Leadership Group. We were able to represent the views of residents on that and bring issues of key importance to that committee and for example, we highlighted the fact that poverty is abject.
“Tackling poverty is at the core of everything we do at the Falls Community Council. Through our role on the Leadership Group we were able to bring forward the Warm, Well, Connected Scheme which allowed people to avail of fuel top-ups and is similar to what Minister Hargey has announced recently.
“We were able to get that out to those negatively affected economically by Covid including the likes of hospitality workers and taxi drivers who had been furloughed. We were also able to inform the Department when it came to how to best provide assistance with food supplies so that we could let service users maintain their dignity through the process.
“A lot of our work involves trying to get government departments to listen to what is happening on the ground and make their policies relevant to the local people.”
In addition to the advocacy work, Falls Community Council also deliver a number of projects funded through the Department for Communities including the Amps project which allows the group to train up individuals in a high-tech music studio to develop their skills and allow them to enter into careers in the music and broadcast industries.
The Falls Community Council also have a number of rehearsal and recording studios to allow local musicians to develop their own music and launch their careers.
When it comes to community safety, the Falls Community Council run a drug and alcohol project which provides support to those negatively affected by drugs and provides training.
“We coordinate most of the community safety work that goes on in the west of the city and work with the local DPCSP. We also have a project with Communities in Transition which looks at community safety, policing and regeneration.
“Just this week, we have decided that we are going to run a campaign against drug dealing. The availability of drugs now is frightening.
“They are available right across the area and we are seeing criminal gangs exploiting the situation and we have had several high profile murders within the area as a result of that.”
The new project will provide interventions and make the community safer for all.
In addition to this, The Falls Community Council are involved in a wide variety of good relations projects, bringing together residents and young people from the Falls and Shankill to look at sectarianism alongside issues that divide both communities and how they can be overcome.
“We have also held a number of discussions on tackling paramilitarism and the disarmament of groups who still hold weapons. This involved bringing together people from a unionist and nationalist background to discuss how they see the way forward in getting these groups to disband.”
Gerry said that while these are very hard hitting subjects, they don't tackle anything that is easy.
“We also have our advice centre which is a front-line service assisting those most negatively affected by poverty,” he continued.
“Applying for benefits now isn’t easy and a lot of it is online. We would make sure that those availing of our services get the most professional help available which acts as an economic booster for the local community, bringing in close to £1m a year into local people’s pockets.
“We know that poverty exists but Covid has allowed us to see that very explicitly and the numbers out there are shocking. The pandemic has given us all a chance to refocus and dig deep down into our communities and tackle that.
“The main issues that we are seeing comes from the rise in fuel and energy prices. There is a stark need for intervention and we welcome any intervention from the Department for Communities on that.”
Gerry added that there is definitely a need for support when people are having to choose between heating and eating, particularly in these cold times.
“We also need to see more support for people in terms of the cost of living. We need to make sure that families have enough to meet their needs. It isn’t good enough to say that you get so much in support and that is adequate,” he said.
“We need to make sure that people can enjoy a standard of living and a lifestyle that is healthy. We cannot have people living off basics and trying to stretch to make ends meet because it has a really negative affect.
“Poverty affects everything. It affects educational attainment, it affects job prospects and it goes to the heart of every ill that there is in society. We need to be serious about tackling poverty and we will be lobbying to make sure that any strategies that are developed, meet the needs on the ground.”