The unsung heroines inspiring change at Northern Ireland's flashpoints
As Community Relations Week starts, Stephanie Bell meets four women working on our various frontlines
They are the unsung heroes of the peace process, the dedicated women who many of us won't know but each of us owes a great debt of gratitude to. From helping to broker ceasefires to calming tensions at contentious parades and mediating at interfaces, the work at grassroots of this small army of committed community workers is crucial to the very survival of peace in Northern Ireland.
As Community Relations Week kicks off today, the important role women are playing in helping to heal divisions and build bridges between communities will be a major focus of the 175 events taking place throughout the province.
With the theme Building a United Community, the special week aims to raise awareness of the important work that's being done behind the scenes to make Northern Ireland better.
Jacqueline Irwin, CRC's chief executive, says: "Building a united community is as urgent now as it was when the peace agreement was signed in 1998. We have plenty of examples of our capacity to slip back into animosity and old ways of thinking. There is no room for complacency."
Community Relations Week is always an opportunity to showcase the great work that goes on quietly all year round to build and sustain relationships. It is a time to celebrate the ethnic and cultural diversity of our community and the many imaginative ways in which we are building a shared cultural region.
We talk to four women whose work on the ground is helping to secure a better future for Northern Ireland.
Ivy Goddard knows what it is like to leave family and home to settle in a strange country, which is why she is now dedicated to helping ethnic minorities in her local community of Ballymena. Ivy is project director of the Ballymena Inter Ethnic Forum, which is dedicated to promoting cultural diversity and supporting the needs within the borough.
It is the only project of its kind in Ballymena and works with 18 different nationalities.
Under Ivy's able leadership the forum is recognised as a model of good practice regionally.
Last June she was awarded an MBE for her services to Ethnic Minority Communities in NI.
Married to Nigel, a civil servant and with two children Stephanie (17) and Ryan (11), Ivy recalls how it was for her when she left her home in India 18 years ago to settle in Northern Ireland after meeting her first husband in her home country.
She says: “I left behind the people I loved and a successful career working in advertising for India’s second biggest agency, so I know how difficult it is to come here and start a new life.
“We deal with a lot of people from Eastern Europe who don’t have a grasp of the language, so it is even more difficult for them.
“I found having no friends and the lack of social interaction was the hardest.
“A lot of the work we do is helping people to integrate and meet others in the local community to help them to build relationships as neighbours, friends and colleagues.”
Ivy first volunteered to work for the forum in 2003 and when the position of project co-ordinator came up in 2008, she successfully applied.
The forum runs a wide range of programmes to facilitate different cultures and to help create awareness.
Much of their work is in local schools, helping to make children culturally aware so that they can understand and accept diversity.
She has high praise for her local council in Ballymena, who she says are forward-thinking and very supportive of the efforts to encourage diversity and reduce racial tensions in the area.
She adds: “We’ve done a lot of work over the years and at the moment, things are good in Ballymena.
“It is a challenge to change that mindset, but so much work has gone on in the background that hate crime is at a low level and we are fortunate that all local leaders are working together to keep things that way.”
‘After my husband got out of jail, we wanted to build a peaceful future here’
As a young newlywed with an eight-month-old daughter, Marion Jamison faced the toughest of times when her husband, Ralph, was sent to prison for attempted murder.
A member of the UVF at the time, Ralph (60) paid the price for his crimes by missing the first 10 years of his daughter Karen’s childhood.
When he was released in 1992, he and Marion were both determined to help make a positive contribution towards peace by ensuring that their children’s generation would not have to come through what they had.
They volunteered with a group called EPIC in Armagh to work with loyalist prisoners and their families.
Over the years, the demands on the group broadened until in 2002, it changed to become REACT — Reconciliation, Education and Community Training — where Marion (56) now works as community relations officer and Ralph continues to volunteer.
“We were only in our early 20s when Ralph went to prison and it was very tough on both of us,” says Marion.
“Our daughter, Karen, was 11 years old when Ralph got out of prison in 1991 and he found it very hard missing out on being with her.
“We were only married two years when he went to prison and I had this vision of what married life should be and suddenly everything changed. I had to readjust and in some ways, I think it has made me the person I am today, as I had to become independent and stand up and look after us, and it definitely made me stronger.
“I honestly don’t think I would have coped without the support of family and a few close friends who stood by us.”
When their son, David, was born in 1994, Marion and Ralph felt compelled to get involved in peace-building to secure a better future for their children.
In recent years, Marion has made a huge contribution to easing tensions at parades in Northern Ireland.
She has managed to calm tensions and create peaceful parading not just in her own community of Armagh, but in towns right across Northern Ireland.
She believes that only through dialogue can differences be resolved — something which she has demonstrated time and again through her work with loyalist bands.
“People do not have to agree with or embrace each others’ opinions and beliefs, but tolerance and respect for the right to hold them is key to resolving our differences,” she says.
“I don’t agree with everyone, even in my own community, but I respect their views, and it would be a very dull world if we did all agree. We have to find a way to accommodate each other’s different views.”
And it’s an approach which is working in an area which continues to cause huge tensions and on occasion widespread disruption in Northern Ireland.
Marian helped develop the Armagh Bands Forum which, since 2006, has provided training courses for band members in conflict management and good relations. Its success soon became a blueprint for other areas and she has now helped establish a total of 12 band forums across Northern Ireland.
“There are hundreds of parades which pass off peacefully and only a very few which don’t,” she says. “Planning and talking and taking a rational approach have worked for all the areas through the band forums.”
‘Most people say they find it so friendly here’
Working as a nurse in the community, Denise Wright, from east Belfast, was shocked at how many lonely migrants were living in the city completely cut off from the people around them.
Through her local church, City Church in the Holyland area of south Belfast, where she has been involved in community work for over 24 years, she also came across many people seeking asylum here.
This great need led Denise (50) to set up Belfast Friendship Club which every week brings together people from a wide range of backgrounds to build relationships and offer support to people new to the city. She also helped found EMBRACENI — a group of Christians from across the denominations who seek to support churches to be more welcoming and supportive to newcomers.
Since 2006 Denise has also co-ordinated South Belfast Roundtable which brings together representatives from minority ethnic groups, local community, faith and political leaders, the PSNI, voluntary and community groups and representatives of statutory bodies to work in partnership to challenge racism and promote diversity.
Denise delivers a wide range of anti-racism and cultural diversity training and works closely with others to monitor tension around race-related issues and to work on practical localised solutions.
She believes that building strong interdependent relationships is key to breaking down barriers and building a cohesive community.
Denise is married to Robin (50) a software engineer and they have three grown-up children.
She says that while racism has raised its ugly head in the city recently, she knows from working on the ground that for most people coming to live here their experience is a positive one.
“Most people say it is one of the friendliest places they have been to and while one or two have experienced hostility, generally people say they are welcomed,” she says.
“There are challenges for the local community who are dealing with the legacy of the Troubles and people are coming to a place where there is already contested space and where people find it tricky to trust those who are different from themselves.
“It is a big challenge and it will take time but there is a lot of goodwill to make it happen.”
‘Fostering 40 kids and healing wounds is my way of helping’
There is no area of peace building that Mary Montague has not made a contribution to during 40 years of tireless work in the community.
As well as building bridges and helping to heal wounds for others, Mary has also raised an incredible 42 children — two of her own and 40 foster kids.
It’s her love of children which has driven her community work, together with a desire to help people in trouble.
Since 1975, the 62-year-old from Andersonstown in west Belfast has been involved in mediation at interfaces in Belfast and worked with ex-prisoners, victims groups and families from all sides of the community who have directly suffered due to the violence.
Mary has developed therapeutic programmes for children traumatised as a result of the conflict and in 2001 was co-founder of TIDES Training, a charitable non-profit training and consultancy company.
Throughout it all, this big hearted mum has also been busy on the home front as a full-time foster carer who, together with husband Patrick (65), has opened her home and heart to 40 kids over the years.
“There was a history of voluntary work in our family and my mum and dad did a lot of work with St Vincent de Paul, so it is something that I grew up with,” she says.
“I have always lived in Andersonstown. I was a teenager when the Troubles started. I studied nursing and when I qualified, I worked as a nurse in Belfast during the worst of the Troubles.
“I never had a plan. I think when you see people suffering you want to help and I always loved children, which is why I got into fostering, and I think for these two reasons, I was driven to do the work I have.
“I think different stages in my life brought me into opportunities and drew me more and more into peace-building work.”
Most of her work has been inter-community, going across the divide to work with Protestant families as well as families in her own area.
She has lectured and trained internationally on many occasions on the themes of conflict management, peace-building and reconciliation, helping community-building in countries such as Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sudan and Pakistan.
Her vast list of accomplishments within the area of peace and reconciliation goes on and on.
Mary feels strongly that reconnecting across the divide is the key to sustaining a lasting peace in our society.
“It is so important that this is nurtured at grassroots level. It has taken time and programmes and training to allow people to build the capacity to find different ways to build community spirit,” she says.
“All of that journey and transition away from our conflict needs support.”
There is no doubt in Mary’s mind that reconciliation is needed for a lasting peace in Northern Ireland.
“We need to build relationships and help people to meet and hear each other’s stories about the past and be able to listen to one another and understand and build trust,” she says.
“Political leadership is needed for this. The sad thing is that there are a lot of organisations like ourselves existing on wee scraps of money and there needs to be proper investment.”
Building communities ... bit by bit
- The theme of this year’s Community Relations Week is Building a United Community.
- The week is to celebrate the ethnic and cultural diversity of our community and the many imaginative ways in which we are building a shared cultural region.
- A wide variety of events will take place, organised by voluntary and community groups, district councils, schools, libraries and other public bodies.
- All of the events reflect the united community that is being built all around us.
- Most events are open to the public and by participating in them, everyone has a chance to show their support for this work and an opportunity to recognise and celebrate our shared humanity.
- A full listing of Community Relations Week events can be found at www.nicrc.org.uk