4 May 2021
By Michael Hughes
As we move towards some of the pivotal dates in the centenary of the formation of Northern Ireland (including 3rd May when one hundred years ago it was created as a separate legal entity under the Government of Ireland Act 1920) the discourse within and between our respective communities in many ways reflects the historical legacy of either the partition of Ireland or the important step in the formation of the United Kingdom.
Whatever the rights or wrongs of this historical fact, the unwillingness of many in our communities to look at this space in a way that is “ours to share” rather than ‘mine to hold on to’ or ‘yours to be thankful for’ continues to impact daily life in a way that presents barriers to sustainable development for the good of all.
But should this be a surprise given the impacts which cut across sectarian, religious and political boundaries? There are still many communities living in poverty, experiencing poor health, access to services, educational underattainment, paramilitary control/coercion and exploitation. Added into the mix is an ever present focus on needs and issues which promote a race to the bottom to access funds, services and support, much of which has had little input from those with the lived experience of walking in the shoes of those at the coalface.
Ironically in the midst of what appears to be an unbreakable circle, lies the solution which requires building on the huge sense of pride in space and place that many people in Northern Ireland have been and continue to be attached to. This paradigm shift to how we view our communities and spaces has a different starting point confirming what is good about an area, what could make it an even better place to live in, what are the skills and assets of our community that can help make this happen and then who else can support us in this journey of transformation and sustainability.
And therein lies the role of the Community Foundation in supporting communities to develop spaces that are inclusive, caring, welcoming and magnetic; where people want to stay, return to, move into and where none of our young people are ever again furnished with a suitcase and ticket for a plane or boat.
With many examples of where this support has resulted in positive outcomes for communities, the three year Space and Place programme with a focus on creating exactly such spaces, crystallised the most effective and inclusive approach which would maximise the impact of the end result. With the development of the North Fermanagh Valley Park, launched in December 2018 and situated between the villages of traditionally unionist Kesh and traditionally nationalist Ederney the process of the park’s consultation and design opened up dialogue and positive debate between residents and led to cooperation and even friendships, where both communities had previously operated in isolation. And the secret behind the cooperation? In creating a shared space, both communities were empowered, had equal say and fundamentally, no one felt they were being asked to give up their identity. In working together to create the shared space, neither community was required to give anything up.
Even so, it’s important to acknowledge the bravery of those involved in the process-it involved moving into the unknown, leaving comfort zones and engaging with the ‘other,’ often for the first time ever. The Community Foundation was the enabler and the communities where the owners, taking risks and living out the ethos that ‘if we all stay the same, nothing will change.’
And the learnings we took from the Space and Place programme and other programme evaluations allow us to keep supporting such unifying activity by:
None of the above threatens identity or from what side of the fence one views the historical events of 1921. What they do is present new and inspirational opportunities to develop our areas and communities as vibrant, sustainable and most importantly shared. And in our togetherness and ubuntu (I am because you are) the Foundation has a major role to play in how we give and share with each other.