In an inspirational story of friendship across the divide, how Jean and Renee worked tirelessly to unite their two communities
After decades of working with a Catholic friend to bring together the Suffolk and Lenadoon areas, Protestant Jean Brown is retiring today, writes Una Brankin.
A flirtation on the dodgems in Portrush marked the start of a lifelong mission of enlightenment for Jean McKinley, although - being only 17 - she didn't realise it at the time.
The pretty teenager, from the tiny loyalist enclave of Suffolk in west Belfast, went on to marry Tommy Brown - who happened to be a Catholic - and raise three children throughout the years of conflict on the streets around her. And when her child-rearing days were over, she crossed those streets into the neighbouring nationalist Lenadoon to see how she could help unite the two sides.
Lenadoon resident Renee Crawford joined Jean, and the pair spent the next 32 years working very hard to show their communities that they had far more in common than the fluke of religious identity which supposedly divided them. For June, that work started at home.
"It took a while for both our families to get their heads around Tommy and me marrying," she recalls. "We got married in the Church of Ireland on the Falls, on September 26, 1970, and the minister told me I was making the biggest mistake of my life, and had no future in a mixed marriage.
"And it was a big thing for Tommy to get married outside the Catholic Church back then. But we got through it and soon we've a big anniversary coming up to celebrate."
Now 65, Jean is retiring from her post as treasurer of the Suffolk Lenadoon Interface Group (SLIG), which she co-founded with Renee in 1997, following many years of pro-active cross-community volunteer work. Her husband Tommy, a retired portrait photographer from the formerly mixed Rathcoole estate, is extremely proud of her.
"She's going to get under my feet now and muck things up but, yes, she has done brilliant work over the last 40 plus years and brought Suffolk out of the doldrums," he says. "As Jean said, Suffolk was an ideal place to live way back then, although I didn't land here until after we got married in 1970. There was a lot of opposition to us at the start, but we were accepted eventually."
The couple had a three-year courtship, following their meeting on the dodgems at Barry's Amusements in 1967, the year before the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association took to the streets to protest against institutional discrimination.
"I was on holidays with a couple of mates in Portrush - I don't know if it was love at first sight; it was more teenage hormones," Tommy laughs. "I always knew Jean had it in her to make a difference to this place. She got a block of shops built and got Sparkles Daycare up and running. She was always hands-on. The cross-community work is her whole heart."
The Peace People leaders Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan were a source of inspiration for Jean, who began her volunteer work with the Methodist Church in the 70s. After a spell with the Citizens' Advice Bureau, she set up the Action for Community Employment (ACE) scheme in Suffolk, but her best efforts for reconciliation, beyond the four interfaces of her vulnerable area, didn't always meet with approval.
"There were some very difficult dark times," she admits. "One of the worst was when posters with my face on them went up, calling me a traitor to loyalism. It was at the height of the Troubles and we were working against the paramilitaries who hadn't yet been brought into the peace process.
"I got threatening calls and raps on the door, and my kids were stopped on the street. I was called a token Prod who had sold out to republicanism, and a tout who had sold out Suffolk, but the majority of the community stood behind me and eventually some of those most opposed to me came round in the end and have been very positive about our work."
A grandmother of three, Jean is convinced that a shared education is the best way forward for future generations. All her grandchildren, aged from four to 21, have attended integrated schools.
"We fought hard to save our local primary school and make it integrated, but it was demolished," she says.
"That was so very disappointing, children should be mixing with those from outside their community from a very young age. But there have been some lovely experiences along the way, too. I got to see the Queen at a garden party and had dinner with Mary McAleese in Dublin, and, above all, I've made a very good friend in Renee."
Although they'll no longer be working together, Jean and Renee will be keeping in close contact. Renee, who admits to being of "a similar vintage" to Jean, has no plans to retire from her position at the new Glenn Community Complex, an affiliate of SLIG.
"I've no intention of leaving the building, despite Jean's retirement," she laughs. "We've been on such a journey together, we're like Jedward - the Jean and Renee show. The two of us have shared so many milestones outside of work, too, with our families.
"We'll all really miss her. Jean's so passionate about her community. She's the voice of Suffolk, she is second to none."
SLIG has been working to build strong, positive relationships between the Suffolk and Lenadoon communities since 1996/97, at the height of the Drumcree marching crisis, taking practical action to address shared social issues and promote dialogue.
"I had really no contact with the Suffolk community until I met Jean, and we hit it off right away," recalls Renee.
"We've been on a bumpy road at times, but we both wanted to make Lenadoon and Suffolk better places to live.
"Both have the same issues around poverty, employment, education and young people, and Jean and I connected on so many personal levels down through the years, with our kids and our grandchildren and so on.
"Every cross-community meeting we had was a step forward and the Peace Wall handshake, a fortnight ago, was a fitting end to Jean's career.
"She'll be a hard act to follow, but as she says herself, it's time for a younger person to come in with new ideas."
Jean's replacement, Roisin Mohan, from Crossgar, has extensive cross-community work experience and will take over her new post shortly. But it's not quite the end of Jean's involvement with the dynamic SLIG team. With her youngest daughter, Laura (35), working as the organisation's financial officer, mum's expert knowledge of the funding application process will be called upon from time to time.
"When I started out, I'd no idea if I could get facilities built or if the work to bring us together would succeed," Jean says. "But I'll never forget those three children of Mairead Corrigan's sister being killed, back in 1976, and being full of admiration for the work she and Betty Williams did.
"We were the first little Protestant community to put our heads up above the parapet after that. I had to take risks and I had to ask the community to trust me, and I'm so proud of them, and how far we have come."
- For further information on the Suffolk Lenadoon Interface Group, visit www.slig.co.uk. SLIG is based on 124 Stewartstown Road, Belfast BT11 9JQ. Tel: 028 9030 8198
Jean's journey in cross-community work
Jean has lived all of her life in the Suffolk estate and describes it as "almost an idyllic place to live in" before the Troubles started. She has been involved in community development work in Suffolk for over 30 years and was one of the founder members of Action for Community Employment, a community employment programme in the early 1980s, which she eventually managed for 16 years.
A founder member and former chairperson of the original Suffolk Strategy Group, now the forum, Jean played a key role in helping to develop both the Suffolk Lenadoon Interface Group (SLIG) and the Stewartstown Road Regeneration Project.
Heavily involved in the development of Sparkles Daycare, she has also worked as the community development worker in Suffolk over the last decade.
As founding members of SLIG, Jean and her Lenadoon colleague, Renee Crawford, were presented with the Community Relations Council's Practitioner of the Year Award in 2009, in recognition of their work on the interface.
SLIG mentor Chris O'Halloran (58), co-ordinator of the Belfast Interface Project, described Jean as an extremely brave community leader.
"She faced some very difficult times and stress, but she was always very clear she could only work with the support of her community and stuck to that," he says.
"I think a dogged determination is what she was say is the secret of her success. She can look back now and know that she has helped to make a real difference."