Peace fund backs initiative for safer community celebrations in Northern Ireland

Building Opportunities aims to create family-friendly celebrations of culture which move beyond the Protestant, Unionist, Loyalist community.

14 March 2022

A major peace fund has announced an allocation to create safer community celebrations in Northern Ireland.

Some Loyalist bonfires, self expression and parades have become mired in controversy in the past, with the placing of flags and electoral posters on pyres, as well as safety concerns.

Stormont has, so far, been unable to agree a strategy to tackle the issues.

The Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition (FICT) was set up in 2016 in a bid to find consensus on a number of contentious issues, but devolution collapsed before it could deliver a report.

Its findings were submitted to the First and deputy First Ministers in July 2020, but there was no consensus on the recommendations, which included changing legislation around the flying of flags from lampposts.

International Fund for Ireland (IFI) chairman Paddy Harte (Liam McBurney/PA)

International Fund for Ireland (IFI) chief Paddy Harte said they want to reach out to the most marginalised communities where people feel left behind by the peace process.

“This is addressing a genuine need to have family friendly safe celebrations of culture which move beyond the Protestant, Unionist, Loyalist community, so it becomes a shared celebration which is part of the building blocks to have a shared future,” he told the PA news agency.

“We have been looking at it and working with partners around this and come to the conclusion, if not now, when? And if not the IFI, who?

“We’re very excited by it and could not be more comfortable with the people that are rolling this out.

“The way that project has been put together means that the cultural partnership brings together all the deep expertise in conflict transformation and challenging conversations.”

The IFI was set up by the British and Irish governments as an independent organisation in 1986.

It delivers a range of peace and reconciliation initiatives across Northern Ireland and the southern border counties.

He said the initiative will see the setting-up of a strategic advisory board which the statutory agencies, such as police and fire service, will sit on.

It will also include a research element to set up a framework to help other areas.

“We’re confident we’ll come up with a blueprint that can be shared across the island in terms of good practice and how best to express culture in a safe and family friendly way,” he said.

He said there will be ongoing evaluation of the work with feedback every six months for any potential learnings along the way.

“It’s very much a strategic intervention in our peace impact programme which does this sort work across a range of things, we’re picking this current need and dealing with it at a strategic level.

“People have been doing this work because it was the right thing to do for quite some time.”

Twelfth of July celebrations – Belfast
The Orange Order parade in the village of Hillsborough, Co Down (Niall Carson/PA)

The project partners with a number of groups including Belfast-based Intercomm.

Chairman Peter Loughins said work has been going on behind the scene since 2017 and earlier, and without funding.

“The project name, Building Opportunities, was deliberately chosen to frame the issue in a way that gave expression to what the ethos of the work is trying to do because it is about building that opportunity to provide people with the outlet of participating in positive community activity, particularly those communities who feel left behind, who feel that they haven’t had a stake in the peace process,” he said.

“It’s also about allowing communities to showcase the very best of their cultural heritage and identity, and not to be slipping into this mindset of their cultural identity as something that has to be seen as negative or something that is to be framed in a way that is unsavoury.”

Brian Dougherty, North-West Cultural Partnership, described a “switch in terms of psyche”.

“This is about trying to bring cultural change in communities to help communities themselves to be more confident, to be more positive about who they are but also to help challenge those perceptions outside, that quite often dominate the political discourse,” he said.

He also emphasised the skills development side of the projects.

“There is a real focus on equipping people with gold standard accredited training courses that will allow communities to access the skills and competencies around spectator safety, health and safety, risk management and a whole load of other forms of training which will allow communities and individuals to reap the benefit of those potential economic opportunities up and above being able to have the capacity to be able to manage events well,” he said.

“Those skills and those competencies are transferrable, they can be taken into the sporting context, they can be taken into the wider cultural and concerts and other civilian type scenarios as well.

“That’s a really important part of this programme, that we lift people out of some of the misery because of the poverty and disadvantage that exists in these communities and help them to create better examples of what is important to them in terms of their culture and heritage but also to help them then translate that into other positive work.

“If we’re able to assist people in building the capacity to better manage their relationships internally, that will have a potential spin off in terms of managing relationships more broadly in terms of other issues that are out there that communities are grappling with.”

It is part of a £4.4 million announcement on Monday by the IFI under its new Connecting Communities strategy.

Funding will also go to six projects under The Peace Barriers Programme to continue efforts in bringing interface communities to a point where they are ready to discuss barrier transformation or removals in their area.

The Personal Youth Development Programme which works to divert young people away from criminal behaviour and the Communities In Partnership Programme, which supports border communities, will also benefit.

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