IT would be fair to say Richard O’Rawe has made an impact in the local community – wherever he has been.
Born and bred in North Belfast on the Antrim Road, improving the lives of people in the community has always been at the forefront of his work, much of which has been voluntary.
Richard has worked at Belfast Metropolitan College, was a key figure behind the opening of Girdwood Community Hub and worked with Eastside Partnership – the body behind the impressive Connswater Greenway in East Belfast.
Richard is now the Chairperson of Ashton Community Trust and so his latest challenge is in the place he calls home.
Opened in 1991 as a locally-owned co-operative, the Ashton Centre has grown and developed to become a key player in the North Belfast social economy. Now spread across eight locations, it invests £8m per annum in the local economy, employing more than 220 staff and managing a directory of services.
In all that time the organisation has never deviated from its mission to ‘promote positive change and improve the quality of life of the North Belfast community’.
“I want to do something really tangible for communities,” explained Richard.
“The Ashton Centre does unbelievable work across a range of sectors including childcare, arts, social development and a huge amount of work in training, education and employment.
“Our work targets the most disadvantaged areas of North Belfast including parts of New Lodge and Antrim Road and beyond.
“In my role as chair, I want to develop a strategy to improve the quality of life for people across North Belfast.
“There is so much opportunity in North Belfast for people. I want Ashton to take what it has done and expand in order to benefit future generations and expand out to other parts of North Belfast.
“We are a charity and we need to help the public where there is a need for us.”
With major investment in the area, North Belfast is changing for the good. It’s set to welcome the brand new Ulster University campus, something which Richard is keen to take the positives from and build upon.
“Ashton has made great strides in tackling issues such as poor health and unemployment in North Belfast and yet, as Queen’s University academic Brendan Murtagh said last week, much of the physical regeneration in and around North Belfast has had an uneven effect on local neighbourhoods. There is so much more to be done.
Richard continued: “His report says that the new city centre developments sit ‘uncomfortably close to communities still affected by poverty, division and violence’.
“The statistics speak for themselves: enduring poor health, low educational achievement and well below average household incomes. And this is at a time when there is huge investment taking place in the nearby city centre.
“The development of the Ulster University Belfast campus is one obvious example of an opportunity to be realised.
“This is a time for all of us to renew our resolve to prepare for and take advantage of these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.
“I would like to see us all, and I mean all of us across traditional dividing lines, working together to build a better North Belfast for our community.
“The Ashton board has drawn up a new strategy and is actively campaigning to ensure that the communities we serve will benefit from the developments taking place around us.
“Our strategy, ‘Maintaining Momentum’, aims to build upon achievements to date by using our expertise in social enterprise to create jobs, provide training and employment, offer childcare support and contribute to improved health and wellbeing.
“Already we are seeing a positive response from the University and there are some exciting joint initiatives planned to ensure that local people can gain advantage from the presence of the University.”

Ashton Centre,
5 Churchill Street,
Belfast BT15 2BP.
Tel: 028 9074 2255