Peace and social justice are central to everything, said Avila Kilmurray of Community Foundation Northern Ireland in her opening remarks at the beginning of the European Foundation Centre’s 23rd conference, which opened today in Belfast. ‘Without social justice,’ she said, ‘peace may not hold.’
The title of this year’s conference is ‘Peace through social justice: a role for foundations?’ Fittingly the opening plenary featured not local dignitaries struggling to say something sensible about foundations but two community activists: Geraldine McAteer, CEO of West Belfast Partnership, from the Lower Falls, from a working class Catholic family; and Jackie Redpath, CEO of Greater Shankill Partnership. Born in Shankill, a Protestant area, he described himself as a loyalist and very British.
Both McAteer and Redpath spoke of poverty, unemployment, poor health – of social and economic exclusion, and political exclusion too after the Stormont Parliament was closed down in 1972. From 1969 to the mid 1980s, said Redpath, industry was destroyed in Shankill. Fifty thousand people were forced out of the area by redevelopment, leaving a massive proportion of elderly and disabled people. The Troubles lasted from 1969 to 1994, and during that time 65 per cent of the violence in Northern Ireland happened in West and North Belfast and Shankill.
But even in the middle of conflict, said McAteer, there were things communities could do to help themselves. As the powers that be turned their backs, communities had to step in. They identified key issues and worked out what they needed to do to address them. The West Belfast Partnership also began to work jointly with the Greater Shankill Partnership to hammer out a common social and economic agenda. With the ceasefire in 1994, they were in a prime position to lobby for change. Arguing that those who had suffered from the conflict should benefit from the peace dividend, they lobbied British and Irish governments.
Support from foundations as Northern Ireland emerged from conflict was pivotal, McAteer emphasized. Change has been ‘massively assisted’ by support from some foundations, Redpath agreed. ‘Getting past no was a big challenge for Unionists. Now we need to embed peace after 40 years of conflict. There is an end in sight but it will take a generation.’
We’re talking here about support for the long term – for decades rather than years. This is something foundations can offer – the ‘role for foundations’ of the conference title.
Congratulations to this year’s EFC conference host committee for an opening plenary that so vividly set the scene for a conference in Belfast about foundations’ role in working for peace and social justice.
Insight of the opening plenary…
Avila Kilmurray of the Community Foundation of Northern Ireland said to Jeff Raikes of the Gates Foundation – “remember that The Ark was built by amateurs and the Titanic was built by professionals.”