In the Skegoneill, the casual city wanderer (of which there are very few in this city, perhaps for fear of mistumbling somewhere improper) could not distinguish the fact this tiny roundabout is home to an Interface community. Not all Interfaces, where two communities come together, are separated by walls looming above, between, around. This community in North Belfast is home to Protestant Unionists east of the roundabout on Skegoneill, and Catholic Republicans west on Glandore.
The community center in this area is unique and encouraging. A brief documentary, Life as an Interface, explains how people from both sides of the Interface have needed to cross the invisible border between the communities. These people have had to come to grips and find solutions for what it means to share common ground. Sean Montgomery was hired a few years ago to be a community organizer. Through the International Fund for Ireland, the community center mustered the funds to hire full time community workers to help their neighborhood. It seems like more areas in Belfast operate on a hair trigger. In West Belfast this very week, violent flare ups have been associated with Interfaces and sectarian youth due to the Queen’s visit. This area is no different.
Going back as recently as 2006-7, there was a community call in the Skegoneill to cut down the constant conflict at the Interface. One community member opened a shop at the roundabout to reclaim the defunct open lot between the two communities. Both sides of the street utilize the shop and buy their free range eggs from the owner’s hens wandering around the Interface. A beautiful suture to reconnect the area.
Sean was entering the predominantly Protestant area as a Republican. People knew this. On his first day tensions were high. But he has an uncanny ability to speak the truth clearly. A man of his word, Sean has been able to take the emotional levels of conflict down a level. But he quickly found the pulse of the conflict and found the tensions in this area to be stemming from a familial conflict over the past few years. Once he knew and the community understood the conflict wasn’t political tensions dialed back.
One initiative Sean led was to take back the bonfire area next to the store on the roundabout. During marching season, enormous bonfires are assembled and lit in vacant lots across Unionist areas. But for the time of the year when no bonfires are lit, this lot was full of broken glass, broken bricks and trash. Sean pushed the community to help clean it and turn it into a space where small music festivals could be held. Success!
They developed a charter for the Skegoneill with a mission statement to facilitate programs in the neighborhoods, but “not to dilute someone’s culture.” There are shared parades for Christmas and Halloween. There has been a push from Sean to make sure there are no overt uses of sectarian or political symbolism for either side in Skegoneill-Glandore. Though last week he was away from the neighborhood and an older lady from the Unionist side hired young boys to put Union Jacks and bunting up around the neighborhood. Goes without saying, she’s not a big Sean fan.
Sean has incorporated a Let Youth Lead program to empower youth in the area addressing non-judgmental approaches to drugs and violence to change anti-social behavior. I love how drug use and violence is termed anti-social. It seems drug abuse and violent behavior are two ways the youth demonstrate their handle on our societies, both here and in Taos. Also, from youth feedback, Sean sees that the best age to work with youth is the 13-14 year olds. The older teenagers are telling Sean these ages are simply looking up to people and aping what they see. If change is to come, it would start with addressing this age group. I can attest. Sometimes our social justice curriculum falls flat with the high school crowd, as it is social suicide to be intelligent.
Sean is a certified youth worker, so most of the Skegoneill’s programs focus on the youth, as stated. He is now helping the North Belfast Youth Practitioners Forum to solidify youth work in across the north of the city. Progress is being made in this tiny area of North Belfast.