The Minority Experiences
of Two Communities in West Belfast.
Central Library, June 1, 1995
by Jackie Redpath
Greater Shankill Development Agency
The experience of the Protestant /unionist community in West Belfast
is a minority experience and there may be an experience of commonality
between it and the Protestant community in Derry.
History of the Shankill.
The settlement of the present-day Shankill is historically linked
to two movements of people into the area, one movement of people
from Antrim who settled in the Shankill area and the other movement
from West Ulster who settled in the Falls area.
The Shankill area was once a wooded forest area, inhabited by
bears and wolves. An ancient track ran through the area linking
travellers from Antrim to Down. Until 1833 when the Antrim road
was built the Shankill Road was known as the road to Antrim.
The first settlers in the area were Druids. There remains a stone
outside Saint Matthew's church which pre-dates Christianity.
Legend has it that St Patrick travelled the ancient track and
founded the first Christian church, the Gaelic meaning of the
Shankill being "the old church".
In 1840's and 50's, the situation in the Shankill changed due
to a number of factors; the famine, the new regulations about
land and the changing face of industry. Conditions at this time
were poor, accommodation and the two up, two down housing were
poor excuses for homes. Between 1850- and 1890, multiple occupancy
was the norm. One in three children died before the age of three.
The older generation today, who were children then, were part-time
workers and part-time school attenders. These experiences of awful
poverty were endured by the so called Protestant "ascendancy"
in the Shankill area.
In the time around 1916, the Battle of the Somme had a major
impact on the Shankill community. Almost every family was affected,
because so many from the Shankill who fought in the 36th Ulster
Division were killed. This has greatly impacted the psyche of
Protestant on the Shankill and has reverberations today. For those
returning after the war, the phrase "homes fit for heroes"
did not apply to the Shankill. The experience of the work houses
was a gross indignity and was one which gave rise to the Shankill
and the Falls joining together in protest and riot against poor
relief in 1932.
The second world war also affected the Shankill community, as
it did other communities in Belfast and in Western Europe. An
air raid shelter in the area was directly hit in the 1941 blitz.
The 1950s - 1960s these were the best ten years, with Harold McMillan's
phase 'never had it so good' applying also to the Shankill area.
There was work to be found, and these ten years were much less
marked by tragedy or poverty.
In the 1960's decline set in again, the textile industry was on
the way out. The shipyards reduced its number of employees to
2000, Mackie's firm laid off at least 7,000 people, most of whom
were from the local Shankill area. In the late 1960's structural
employment became a reality.
When the political violence erupted onto the streets, the Shankill
was centrally involved and affected by this.
The process of redevelopment has also greatly affected life on
the Shankill, physically. A unionist government presided over
the bulldozing of the Shankill. They got rid of what were slums,
but replaced them with flats, maisonettes, and concrete car parks.
No facilities were provided, the shopping atmosphere of the Shankill
was destroyed and the future was taken away for the people there.
Redevelopment has also affected the area socially. The working
class community there was scattered, its ethos and nature such
as extended family networks, were taken apart. The Shankill population
was greatly dispersed. In the past 20 years, 50,000 of the Shankill
population have left - largely due to redevelopment, - leaving
a population of 26,000. Half of the schools were closed, shops
went bankrupt and a smaller aging population now resides in the
area. There was a time in the 1980's when there was a serious
question as to whether the Shankill would continue to survive.
If loyalism made the Shankill's name, it is hardship which has
made its people. It is this hardship which has created resilient
and spirited people, who have the ability to come back and to
come back with a sense of humour.
In more contemporary times - the Shankill is in some ways on
its way back again, against the odds and contrary to evidence
which suggests otherwise. For example, 85% of 16 year olds and
over have no qualifications. Only a few years ago, 12 children
in the area passed the 11 plus, the following year 13 children
did; people in the Shankill area are two and a half times more
likely to suffer from lung cancer than the general population
in Northern Ireland. As far as the Shankill and the Falls compare,
poverty knows no religion. The deprivation is shared, it expresses
itself in different forms and the debate should not be about which
is more awful. For the first time in twenty years, the average
age of people on the Shankill is reducing and the younger generation
is growing. If this generation stays in the Shankill, there may
be enough dynamic there for a future.
The other characteristic of the Shankill community is that it
is a community under stress. It is a suffering community, which
feels itself under siege, - it is a minority community. Understanding
some of these experiences and factors are crucial to an understanding
of some of the loyalist violence which has come from the Shankill.
The Protestant community is a community which is in retreat. There
are argument as to whether this is real retreat or imaginary.
Regardless, it is the perception of that community that there
is a retreat in a number of ways:
- a territorial retreat. The physical retreat in Derry may be
similar to that of Belfast.
There are many ways in which there are two communities in Northern
Ireland, and of these it is the Catholic community which is in
the ascendant. It is the community with dynamic, with the fastest
growing middle class. In West Belfast, the Catholic/Nationalist
community is undergoing a cultural renaissance. This is in stark
contrast to the retreat of the Protestant community. Difficulties
arise because of the impacts of the needs in each community on
the 'other' community. I think ultimately the solution lies with
the Protestant community. We need to discover a dynamic which
will enable us not only to reach into the past but to embrace
the future. There have been a whole number of factors which have
stopped the unionist community from doing this. So the question
is how do we turn a community around to face and to shape the
future? The first, and only the first step has been the cease-fires.
Lenadoon Community Forum
Economic development in nationalist West Belfast has been structured
in a way which has largely marginalised the community. There is
a perception that there has been massive investment in West Belfast.
The strategy for economic development pursued by successive Northern
Ireland Office ministers since 1985 has been to channel resources
and investment through projects and schemes which have been regarded
as safe, usually controlled by successful middle class professional
and business people, who are often associated with the Catholic
church. A lot of this investment has been in the form of Y.T.P.
(Youth Training Programmes),A.C.E. ( Action for Community Employment)
schemes and enterprise schemes. The economic intervention which
this investment has represented has been in no way commensurate
to the levels of unemployment, disadvantage and poverty which
exist in West Belfast, which are a residue of the discrimination
which the area has suffered over the past 75 years. The impact
of these schemes can be guaged by the fact that the Obair report
found that the area needed an influx of 18,000 jobs just to bring
unemployment levels down to the average levels experienced in
the rest of the North of Ireland. An optimistic estimate of new
jobs created by the Five enterprise agencies set up in West Belfast
over the past ten years is 300.
Such schemes are managed through structures which are largely
unrepresentative and unaccountable to the local community. This
has been a deliberate policy followed by the British government
in order to alienate and marginalise the Republican Movement and
those who have been defined as unsafe. Approximately seven out
of ten votes cast in local elections in nationalist west Belfast
are for Sinn Fein, so it has been a large section of this community
that has been marginalised. Economic policy has been implemented
in a way that has not been open to critical analysis or debate,
and critical voices have tended to have been labelled as subversive.
Economic policy has been used as a part of security policy and
this has had the effect of fragmenting the community, creating
and exacerbating divisions within it, and excluding a significant
proportion of the population from contact with or influence on
the economic life of the state. In particular, the experience
of working class communities in nationalist West Belfast is one
of social and economic marginalisation and exclusion.
The history of Lenadoon
Over the past years the focus of my work with the Lenadoon Community
Forum has been to co-ordinate the work of local community groups,
to alleviate fragmentation, to develop a clear community consensus
about the problems that need to be addressed and to devise community
led strategies for local regeneration.
In the mid 1960's Lenadoon was a thriving estate, with a mixed
population. In 1969, all of this was shattered by the outbreak
of the conflict. Its subsequent history has led to the community
developing almost like three separate communities. in the early
'70's Protestants left the Lower Lenadoon area. These houses
in the lower part of the estate were filled by people who had
been forced to leave their homes in other parts of Belfast because
of sectarian violence, and by people from the Lower Falls who
had been on the waiting list for houses for years. These new inhabitants
faced particular problems which stemmed in large part from the
upheaval which led to their arrival in the estate.
In many ways they were a small community within a community, though
with strong collective ties forged by a common experience of adversity.
At about the same time a new building development of approximately
300 houses took place in the top part of the Lenadoon estate to
house people who had been made homeless as a result of sectarian
violence and population shifts throughout Belfast. These people
too experienced a common adversity and this part of Lenadoon was
also, to all intents and purposes, a small community within a
Whilst there was a lot of collective action in the estate, it
tended to take place on a very localised basis. Thus while there
was a lot of voluntary community activity it was very fragmented
and haphazard with no common agreement about the community's overall
needs or about the ways in which these could be met. A good example
of this was the lower estate. Many of the houses had been damaged
in the upheaval and this was exacerbated by the fact that the
Northern Ireland Housing Executive refused to give those who moved
in legalised tenancies. This meant that the Housing Executive,
initially at least, would not repair the houses for squatters.
People had to live in poor housing conditions. However this common
adversity bred a strong sense of community spirit. A housing co-operative
was formed and remedial work to many of the houses was done by
local people themselves, on a voluntary basis. Over time most
of the people were given legal tenancies, though the housing stock
had deteriorated and the condition of their houses became a major
concern amongst local people. this concern acted as the catalyst
for the creation of a number of new community groups which campaigned
for the improvement of the quality of life for local residents.
these included the Lower lenadoon Housing Action Committee, and
Horn Drive Drop In, which had clear geographic areas in which
they worked. Other parts of the estate also had community groups
working within narrowly defined geographic guide-lines.
Thus although it is an area suffering high levels of social and
economic disadvantage, Lenadoon has always had a strong community
infrastructure, with local people prepared to give their time
on a voluntary basis to improve the quality of their own and their
neighbours lives. This commitment and energy has helped to sustain
the community. It was also the spur for local community initiatives
that have taken place since the introduction of the making Belfast
Under the Making Belfast Work Initiative, a massive investment
has been made in flagship regeneration projects such as Castle
Court in the centre of Belfast. There has also been extensive
investment in projects which have been developed by main stream
government departments, most notably health and social services.
In addition to this, Belfast Action Teams were set up, to act
as a resource for community initiative. The money that these teams
had at their disposal was quite small, in comparison to the large
amounts spent in the city centre by mainstream departments. However,
there have been a number of small changes, with a welcome emphasis
on the plight of inner cities, with the need for regeneration
accepted, and resources being made available on a small scale
basis acting as a spur to community initiatives. The experience
of the Belfast Action Teams in Lenadoon has been mixed. They did
provide small amounts of accessible finance. However the local
Team followed the lead of the broader economic policy in West
Belfast, by allocating money primarily to groups aligned to the
Catholic Church. Also, there was no local accountability over
funding decisions and it appeared to local activists that there
was no objective criteria to govern how these decisions were made.
One of the key weaknesses which undermined the credibility of
the Teams was that they did not have access to adequate levels
of resources needed to deal with the levels of social and economic
disadvantage experienced in Lenadoon. It was a combination of
these factors that led to the development of Lenadoon Community
Lenadoon Community Forum
Lenadoon Community Forum was set up three years ago, partly in
reaction to the Belfast Action Team agenda, which many local groups
felt was inadequate, and which was seen to operate quite often
in a way which marginalised a large part of the population. The
Forum is an umbrella organisation representing all of the twenty
community groups that operate in Lenadoon. Local activists decided
to develop the community's own agenda for regeneration and to
use this to influence the policies of government which impact
on the life of the community. For the past three years the Forum
has engaged with various government agencies in an attempt to
improve the quality of life of the people who live in Lenadoon.
However, notwithstanding the work of the Forum, the area continues
to suffer from some of the highest levels of disadvantage experiences
in the North of Ireland. The area suffers from a high housing
density, with many blocks of flats, poor housing design and levels
of unemployment. The housing problems are exacerbated by the large
waiting lists for housing in West Belfast.
The community badly needed jobs as unemployment in the area is
60%. A high percentage of that is long term, with youth unemployment
as high as 80%. Youth unemployment in particular, is a major problem.
Too many young people are involved in anti- social activities
including petty crime and joy riding. There is a lack of hope
among many young people and an apathy - and sometimes an antipathy
towards the rest of the community which has a destructive impact
on communal life. While local residents have witnessed the hype
surrounding the impact of making Belfast Work initiative, they
have seen little direct benefit in terms of improvements to their
every day lives. They are still involved on a constant struggle
to have basic services like street cleaning delivered on their
streets on a regular basis. Many have no opportunity for work
and personal advancement. In every sense of the word, their lives
are marginalised - economically, socially and politically. However,
the Forum has had some limited success, in co-ordinating local
activity, in providing educational and training opportunities,
in liaising with statutory agencies and improving the levels of
service that they deliver to the estate. Local activists have
learned the lesson that they need to work to eradicate fragmentation
in the area, that they need to work to develop credible strategies
for local regeneration and lobby to gain the resources from government
to implement these. It has been this experience which led the
Forum to work with the other main community umbrella organisations
in nationalist West Belfast to develop Clar Nua as a community
response to the IRA cease-fire.
With the IRA cessation on 31st August 1994, West Belfast became
a focus of interest. There were tentative moves by civil servants
and there was talk of peace dividend and reconstruction. In September
1994, the Falls Community Council called a meeting of community
representatives from throughout nationalist West Belfast to discuss
the possibility of producing a policy and framework for reconstruction.
There was agreement that the cessation had created an opportunity,
but that any framework or programme for reconstruction must also
address the legacy of inequality, the power relationships, political
discrimination and cultural marginalisation which existed in the
area. There was agreement that the opportunity to change previous
power relationships existed and that if the community did not
set its own agenda for reconstruction then someone else would.
As a result Clar Nua, an umbrella committee came together and
after an extensive six-week consultation period with all NGO's,
all political representatives, prisoners and the general public,
involving letters and questionnaires, seminars etc, the Clar Nua
policy framework was formulated and agreed at a conference in
The Clar Nua policy framework contains 10 policy statements addressing
a number of areas including children, young people, the environment,
housing, economic regeneration. A number of themes run throughout,
including parity of esteem, equity, equality of treatment and
The themes underlying policy for reconstruction are:
- A genuine reconstruction must be about building a new society
which recognises and rectifies the inequalities and injustices
of the past.
- It must give as a right, equal status to those communities which
have endured generations of institutionalised inequality and injustice.
- It must target those communities and resource them on a scale
commensurate to the scale of their problems, necessary to shape
their own future.
- It needs to be about investing in people and promoting a culture
of independence and self- reliance.
- There should also be a recognition of social and economic participation
as a basic human right.
- Priorities must be based on social and economic justice.
- The reconstruction process must be property resourced.
- Reconstruction and resources must be delivered through accountable
structures; i.e. there needs to be an end to the processes where
others decide what is best for us and an end to the mediation
between policy makers, resource handlers and the West Belfast
community. The key demand is that the community demands a process
which listens to us, which involves us, a process in which decisions
are made by us and not for us.
In this community there have been a serious of investment disasters.
Many organisations have been hand-picked to act as the administrators
of this investment, while at the same
time other community-based organisations have been deprived of
adequate resources because of political vetting. Even since the
cessation of violence this is still going on, for example, Conway
Since the cease-fire there have been few positive signs of change.
There has been a marked reluctance by government agencies to address
the new circumstances and to respond to community groups in West
Belfast on an open basis. Response to Clar Nua has been lukewarm
to say the least. Even though it is the most detailed community
consultation process that has taken place in West Belfast, feedback
from agencies like Making Belfast Work has focused on the representativeness
of the exercise. This focus is in marked contrast to the many
bodies which are unrepresentative of the community, which have
been appointed to administer resources, which are given large
amounts of money for economic development and whose accountability
and representativeness is never called into question. Thus, the
process of marginalisation which has existed in nationalist West
Belfast is still unfortunately all too prevalent, and continues
to permeate and constrain the lives of the people who live there.
* Since these presentation was delivered, Conway Mill has had
the ban on funding lifted although this has not meant that any
funds have been immediately forthcoming.
The following points were made during the public discussion.
Community Development in Nationalist Areas.
* Change is happening for the nationalist community, but this
change is slow.
* Although the nationalist community is seen by the Protestant
community, to be on the move, within the nationalist community
the perception is different. It is not one of pessimism but one
of frustration. The frustration is about the unwillingness of
government at all levels to deal with the community in an open
manner and on an open basis. When it comes to community development
in nationalist areas, there is always the question about what
the community is, and who is involved in it, rather than an engagement
with the communities policies.
* Fragmentation is lessening, and is not the same as it used to
be. The real problem was the reluctance to resource our agenda.
We want to contribute to economic development, we want to talk
with LEDU, with the Training and Employment Agency about strategies
which will address the legacy and assist new inward investment.
* Funding to Church leaders was an open secret, the Bishops through
religious contacts pull together business groups, but this was
* How does the nationalist community move past its "greenness"?
* The nationalist community is a nationalist community and should
not make an apology for that. We are Irish and we want to give
expression to this culture and do it in a way which does not carry
any threat or is under threat in any way. When that can be done
and when we can talk openly about what that threat is, then we
can move on.
* There are differences between the nationalist community in Belfast
and Derry. Firstly, Belfast has experienced about 60% of the troubles,
of sectarian assassinations, and overall Derry has been a safer
place to live.
* There is a need to acknowledge the grievances and what caused
them, and we also need to move forward. We need an appreciative
understanding and when there is evidence of this, it will take
off. The very least we need to be is prepared to listen and understand
other realities. The situation can be changed because ultimately
it is all about people.
* We have to take a chance and support each other, and the proof
in the pudding will be how we support each other.
* The key to supporting this community is understanding people's
relationship to the state.
* People in nationalist West Belfast want normal policing and
they do not believe they will get this from the RUC. It is an
alien force, the way it arrives in the area is alien. Policing
is a sore in our community. The alternatives, i.e. IRA policing,
are acceptable in the community to the extent that there are those
who believe it could not exist without it
Community Development in Protestant Areas.
* Michael Hall clarifies that there are 29 sects on the Shankill.
This religious fragmentation makes communication a problem, and
* Given similar working class backgrounds, that which separates
a Protestant and a Catholic from West Belfast is how we move on.
How do we shape the future? What is absolutely certain is that
someone will shape it for us. West Belfast is seen as a nationalist
area. The Protestant and the unionist community in West Belfast
have a deep sense of hurt. People in West Belfast carry on their
shoulder a sense that the marginalisation has been a nationalist
marginalisation, but it has been a working class one. It is a
working class parity of esteem that we need.
* Three years ago at an interface conference in the Europa Hotel,
where one quarter of the people were Protestant from West Belfast,
there was a great tide of resentment as we felt like we were being
put in the dock for things that certainly were not of the working
class Protestant doing. There was a huge gap between these communities.
* There are a lot of people in communities who don't want to forget
and need not to forget because its going to guide them into the
* The real job of community development can only begin now. The
ending of violence has made it possible, even though I did not
think this at the time.
* The cease-fire have brought the issues to the surface. But until
months ago there were issues such as drugs which were under the
carpet. What happened a few nights ago (there were disturbances
on the Shankill Road) was a big shock. It would have been a small
fry years ago and in some way this sense of shock is good. This
is a new experience. The roots of it have been in lower Shankill
for 3 years and the roots are having a destructive effect on the
* People on the Shankill understood why police walked about with
arms. But apart from this, Northern Ireland has never had normal
policing. The policing situation has been accepted and rejected
depending on what is happening at the time.
* I am not going to talk about "we had it worse than you".
There is a sense of grievance, it is there, and as long as it
dominates we will not go anywhere. For the Protestant community,
we have scrapped it, we are lucky that we are still here at all.
If we look back to pull that sense with us, it is too big a load
to go forward. I think we have, in Belfast, an opportunity to
do it. I do think we do need to move forward together or we won't
move at all. It is not a cheap remark to say that Protestant alienation
is very strong and very real and is anti-development.
The practice of Social Inclusion and Exclusion
* Speaking as a middle class person involved in some way with
a community as a worker, there is a concern about inclusiveness
and open consultation. This does not happen anywhere. People are
out not there looking for the views of working class people.
* There is a common theme, that of counter insurgency; the role
of the state operating social and economic policies in its own
interest and defining the enemy as coming out of the Falls, or
enemies or allies as coming from the Shankill. By ghettoizing
whole areas you make it easier to manage in terms of the British
* It is not fair of Protestants and the Protestant community to
say 'get this chip off your shoulder because we too have similarly
been marginalised', because that minimises the nationalist experience.
They have a right to beef about those experiences.
* Growing up as a Protestant, there were Catholics around me who
drove big cars. It is insulting when that experience is denied
and also offensive and untruthful. The working class Presbyterians
here never had any perks at any time.
* There is no point in denying that deprivation has been experienced
by sections of the Protestant community and there is a working
class deprivation, but there is also a sectarian dynamic at work.
* We are not listening and aren't going to until we get to the
point where we are no longer a 'divided community' doing cross
community work, but a 'community'.