Letter from Belfast

Time was, not too long ago, that sectarian violence ruled Belfast, but in recent years the bombs have largely fallen silent. The more rare outbursts of violence – such as the March killings of two British soldiers ambushed during a pizza delivery – have been greeted with strong condemnation by both Republicans and Unionists. These longtime enemies have for two years now been working together in a shared power arrangement. The legacy of “the troubles” continues to infuse life in Northern Ireland in the form of fortress-like police stations, largely-segregated schools and neighbourhoods divided by walls and razor-wire. Yet this place and these people are now inching steadily toward a more normal kind of politics.I have just returned from Belfast in Northern Ireland, where Atlantic has long supported those working for a safer and more just society. Over the years, the foundation has supported the religious integration of schools, youth programmes, creation of a robust policy platform for older adults, and the strengthening of human rights institutions and practices in Northern Ireland. This trip – my fifth visit to Belfast since I came to Atlantic two years ago – was a great opportunity to see firsthand how several groups – ethnic minorities, older adults and some of the most marginalised youth – are raising their voices to fight for justice and equality for themselves and others.


While the old divisions are healing, work must be done to ensure that new divides are bridged. Though sectarian violence has waned, attacks and hate crimes against the growing ethnic minority population have risen. Most troubling was a wave of violence against 100 Roma in South Belfast last month, which drove virtually all of the Roma out of the country.

To learn more about these new tensions, I met with the staff of the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities (NICEM), led by Patrick Yu. NICEM is committed to unifying and strengthening the disparate voices of immigrants and ethnic minorities. Operating on a small budget, the group has a lot of work to do. NICEM monitors racism, identifies the impact of inequality, documents attacks and lobbies for better services. In a country which did not even have an anti-discrimination statute until 1996, NICEM is lobbying for stronger anti-discrimination laws and also providing anti-harassment support and advocacy services for victims.


Like ethnic minorities, older adults are advocating on their own behalf. To better understand how older activists are building on some of their recent successes in Northern Ireland, I visited the offices of Age Sector Platform. With Atlantic’s support, this broad coalition of 26 older people’s organisations and networks across Northern Ireland is working to ensure that older adults have a strong voice on issues that matter most to them. Age Sector Platform has already had a significant impact in the establishment of an Independent Commissioner for Older People in Northern Ireland, and now the group is pushing the government to stop dragging its feet on implementation of the new position and lobbying to give the new commissioner real power.


Most importantly, Age Sector Platform’s priorities are determined by the older adults at the helm of this effort, and it is inserting the views and perspectives of older people into the debates and discussions of legislation and government policies. Age Sector Platform’s ambitious agenda also includes affordable water and sewage charges for older adult households, often plunged into poverty by rises in the cost of these necessities; legislation to end age discrimination in insurance practices, as well as other goods, facilities and services; improved podiatry services to help older people remain mobile and avoid being housebound, which can lead to depression; and removal of barriers to free public transport, particularly in rural areas where older people are most isolated.


To mobilise its members on a range of issues, Age Sector Platform organises large-scale rallies such as “Can’t Heat or Eat,” and national campaigns to support free care for older people.


Finally, on my last morning in Belfast, my colleagues and I paid a visit to the offices of Voice of Young People in Care (VOYPIC), an organisation that focuses on the too-often-neglected issue of young people placed in foster or institutional care due to abuse or severe family problems. How well these children fare is critical for society in Northern Ireland, or anywhere, since traumatic experiences in care during childhood are often a gateway to a myriad of other difficulties in life.


To restore the self-confidence of young people often battered by abuse and buffeted by neglectful treatment at the hands of social welfare agencies, VOYPIC bolsters the personal advocacy skills of youth and works with them to strengthen their confidence and capacity to advocate publicly for practice and policy changes related to foster and institutional care. For example, young VOYPIC participants made a presentation to the Health and Social Care Trust to highlight the damage done by the closure of children’s homes, and six young people involved in VOYPIC spoke to government ministers about the causes of underage drinking, drug use and anti-social behaviours.


Importantly, VOYPIC understands the power of having these young people speak for themselves about how the system has harmed them, and what it can and cannot do for them. VOYPIC believes that creating opportunities for young people to provide powerful testimony to policymakers is central to making progress. When we visited last week, Ashley, 16, reminded us that “kids in children’s homes have done nothing to get there,” and Nicky, also 16, added “I hate when some adults think that if one kid in care does something, all are responsible.”


VOYPIC’s Young Reps programme allows young people who have been in care to gain opportunities and accreditation, based on 35 hours of training, to work with other young people. When we met the sparkling Vanessa, 24, a veteran of care and now a Young Rep working with others, she had just returned from a visit with Vivien McConvey, VOYPIC’s director, to London, where she helped make the case for funding for the programme – and snapped a few pictures of Big Ben along the way.


Reflecting on my trip, it is clear to me that each of these three terrific agencies understands the power of having the communities most affected by the outcomes of policy debates conduct their own research and bring their knowledge to the attention of policymakers in their own voice. VOYPIC’s Participatory Action Research involves young people in designing tools and surveys. Age Sector Platform pulled together data documenting that organisations supporting older adults have been among those most hurt by government cutbacks. NICEM’s policy work is closely informed by the day-to-day experiences of ethnic minority communities in Northern Ireland.


Northern Ireland faces many barriers to an enduring peace, an economy that works for all and a society that is socially just. Atlantic’s role in supporting and bolstering the capacity of organisations and movements such as these is starting to bear fruit. After seeing the work of these effective and inspiring organisations – and the confidence, smarts and vigour with which the work is led by those with the biggest stake in change – I came away from my visit to Belfast last week more encouraged and optimistic than ever before.


Gara LaMarche