Dr Adrian Johnston: ’Some still feel marginalised by the whole peace process’
The Big Interview
Rebecca Black talks to Dr Adrian Johnston, chairman of the International Fund for Ireland about his battle to bring down walls – both physical and mental.
Q: Is it harder, in a post Troubles era, to get donations?
A: When there is a very visible sign of division — unrest on the streets and media reports of paramilitary style shootings, bombs and rioting — that message resonates around the world and it is very easy for our donors to see and understand the divisions.
But today a lot of our divisions are under the surface which does not manifest itself in as visible a way.
However we have extremely strong support from our international donors, particularly the United States who have supported us since the inception of the fund in 1986. We also get strong support from New Zealand, Australia and Canada. There is still an understanding of the issues that exist within Northern Ireland and strong support from the work we do.
Q: The fund was being wound down before you got involved?
A: In 2009 the previous board of the fund decided they would no longer seek international donations. That was taken at a time when there was political stability and an air of positivity.
But in 2012 the board made a decision that there were still very distinct areas which had not been addressed by the fund, stakeholders and the Assembly itself. Not every aspect of society had been engaged in the peace process and there were still communities who were very marginalised from the peace process and haven’t seen the benefits. Certainly from our perspective we had the belief for a sustainable peace all section of society had to be engaged, so we ramped our work back up in 2012 which was our peace impact programme, and a big element of that was our peace walls programme.
Q: Did you agree with this winding down approach?
A: I was not involved at that time, but I can give you my perspective as chair from 2012. I certainly would not be chairing an organisation that I felt wasn’t making an impact and was not of value to the people of Northern Ireland and the border county regions. The British and Irish governments have both highlighted their support for the fund and the continuation of the fund. As joint custodians of the fund so this work will continue until such times when it is no longer really necessary. At this moment of time it is crucial the fund continues its work.
Certainly one of the things we have identified over the last couple of years around Executive programmes such as Together Building a United Community (TBUC) and the Peace 4 programme, thankfully the fund has been around to do some of the work we have been doing, in the absence of the fund there would be no other programme there doing it and we feel for a sustainable peace it is crucially important to do.
Q: Tell me about your background?
A: I born and bred in Derry/Londonderry, I work for a large USA multi national here in the city too so I have my day job and my alternative day job with the fund. It is voluntary full time work. I have been with the fund for six years, I was a board member for three years and then chair since 2012. I have been involved with community relations for 20 years or more with the local YMCA movement in the city. Through that I got involved with the IFI as a board member. We oversaw the first strategy in 2012, and now the second strategy being launched next week.
My background would be from the Catholic nationalist community, that is not widely known and it is something I have always been proud of that it is not widely known because people have always tried to guess. I look at things very objectively and take things on merit.
From my background I got involved with the YMCA which would have been seen as a middle class Protestant organisation, but I had got involved because of its ability to work with young people from different backgrounds and make a difference in their backgrounds.
Q: How was growing up in Londonderry in the 1980s?
A: I grew up in the Waterside area of the city which would have been predominantly seen as a Protestant area of the city. The majority of my friends would have been from a Protestant unionist background whereas I went to a Catholic school. On a daily basis I was very aware of the divisions between the communities but certainly I was well accepted among my friends and I was able to use that later on in life.
My parents somehow enabled us to be brought up without prejudice of any kind, which was a fairly unique thing in where we were brought up. We were encouraged to reach out to diversity and try to understand difference, I think that is something that stood me in good stead.
We grew up very close to the army barracks which is now Ebrington, to see the difference now, I remember walking to school and only seeing a green corrugated fence, not knowing what was behind it. To see what has become of Ebrington is hugely important for me as a resident of the city. I remember all too well the helicopters going over the house, waking us up in the middle of the night or the sound of a bomb resonating across the city and shaking the house. We were all very much aware of the divisions that exists in the city but certainly we were raised to understand those differences and that has moulded me as a person and in the work I do for the fund.
Q: Are young people being targeted by paramilitaries for recruitment?
A: There is always that cyclical aspect of young people becoming involved with paramilitary activity, and I suppose its a lesson we haven’t learned in Northern Ireland over the years, that ability of young people to get involved with paramilitaries and anti-social behaviour due to the apathy and lack of opportunities that exist. It’s something that as a fund we are trying to address and hopefully can break that cycle.
We are aware from programmes we run of that there are young people as young as 15 being approach by paramilitary organisations and being engaged in anti-social behaviour within their communities. We have to be aware of that and try to eradicate that. These are young people who were born in peacetime, they shouldn’t know anything about divisions in Northern Ireland, but through older generations that sectarian attitude has migrated into these young people’s minds as well.
Q: Which paramilitaries are trying to recruit young people?
A:It is something we see on a day and daily basis with projects. We quite recently took a group away. And we know from talking to them, one told us within the last few months they had been approached to join a paramilitary organisation. We are aware that happens. In the vacuum that exists there is an opportunity for paramilitaries to engage young people. These young people want to make sure their heritage is protected, both from a loyalist and a republican background.
Q: Is this republican groups or loyalists?
A: It is on both sides. There can be engagement by paramilitaries in rural areas as well, for different reasons. You hear a lot about Derry and dissident republicans in terms of anti-social behaviour, drug trafficking and community policing. But there are aspects of paramilitarism where a fear of culture and heritage potentially being attacked is an avenue for paramilitaries to engage with young people. We would see that in loyalist communities, and again there is work going on with young loyalist men, trying to present positive choices rather then allowing them to be engaged in a very apathetic mindset that politics doesn’t work.
Q: How does the situation at Stormont impact on this?
A: It is important to get a positive outcome from the Stormont talks, especially for the young people of Northern Ireland so that they see politics does work.
Around the time of the Good Friday Agreement politicians were leading communities to a positive change, but now the communities want to progress further. If you look at our peace wall programme, without the political parties agreeing to the Peace 4 programme or Together Building a United Community (TBUC) and putting financial packages in place for the regeneration of these interface areas, these communities are being stagnated in the progress they are trying to make, so in a sense communities look for progress quicker than it can be facilitated by the Executive. It would certainly be a frustration and disappointment that we have not seen greater progress around TBUC and peace walls.
Q: So in 1998 politicians were leading communities, but now communities are ahead of the politicians?
A: I think politicians in 1998 had made excellent strides in leading communities to the point where they could accept change, but now communities want to see very specific changes at community level, they want to see regeneration, new social housing, better educational outcomes. They can’t change that, that has to be changed at Executive level. Those communities need to be supported through the Executive. The Executive need to take their lead from communities and move forward positively.
Q: You sound frustrated?
A: I would be disappointed with TBUC, disappointed that for example, one of the key points I want to make with peace walls was that we shouldn’t take communities to the point where they want to change positively, but can’t change positively. That’s where the frustration comes for me.
We have put a new development model in place for peace walls, engaging with all stakeholders. The methods that we use in our peace walls programme have been engaged by the Executive as a model of best practise. The peace walls are ultimately the responsibility of the Department of Justice. Belfast City Council and the Housing Executive both have a role to play, as do the communities and the funders.
So what we wanted to do was start from the grass roots and build confidence in those communities. We support the communities to the point where they are ready to go to the next step which might be a long term strategy for the regeneration of their area, but to do that they need support from Stormont.
So my frustration is that back in 2012 when TBUC was announced, an element of that was the removal of peace walls by 2023. I had said at that time I thought it was a very ambitious target, and three years later we don’t have a strategy in place nor a financial strategy about how that will occur. We have already lost three years of that time scale and we are ultimately taking those communities to a place where they cannot progress any further.
Q: How many peace walls are left?
A: Around 110 peace walls are left in Belfast, Londonderry and Portadown. We have had 21 barrier alterations through the peace walls programme. A notable change we saw was in Newington Street, the gate that was there for 30 years was removed through the Duncairn Community Partnership which we funded.
Also on the Springmartin Road has been a very successful project through the Black Mountain Shared Space project which we also funded. They removed security gates along the wall on the Springmartin Road. We are seeing some notable changes in Belfast but they remain extremely difficult areas to get progress.
Q: It can also be a delicate conversation to highlight successes in case the publicity sparks trouble?
A: Yes, that was something we saw in Derry/Londonderry in the Fountain estate. It backs on to the city walls. Over the last number of years the gates had been removed and that struck an element of fear into some in the communities, they felt that because it had been publicised the changes were very visible and could be targeted.
A lot of the communities we work with prefer not to publicise a lot of the successes so they merge and become part of every day life. We support them in that. When we started out on peace walls programme, we did not see physical changes as the end game, we set out to support communities to built confidence so they could start to have conversations about alterations or wall removal. The speed at which the groups moved was set by the groups themselves.
Q: Have any actual walls been removed?
A: No, and in fact we have supported communities to reinforce walls — if you think of it as one step back to take two steps forward. It was to allay fears at a community level of a potential attack through a wall and allow a conversation to begin between the two communities.
Q: Can you tell us how many conversations are going on between communities at other peace wall locations?
A: We currently support six projects — five within Belfast and one outside Belfast. Those conversations are continuing and, there is a very challenging set of alterations that each project has defined for themselves. There is quite a number of physical alterations which can be made and that is what the projects are working with, to make them happen.
Q: Are there some walls that you cannot see coming down at all in the fore-
A: Yes. One of the tools we use with communities is a visioning tool, that allows communities to digitialy remove a wall from an image to see what their view would be like if the wall didn’t exist.
That has been very successful but ultimately that is the only wall removal that we have been able to achieve, and all the groups want to achieve at this particular time.
At the moment and for the foreseeable future, the large structures will exist and will exist until the communities feel it is appropriate.
They haven’t approached us to start discussing it.
Q: Do you think we will still be looking at peace walls in 2050?
A: That’s extremely hard to call. As far as I am concerned if a wall exists in a different form, that might be ok.
If a part of a wall is removed and replaced with a community facility where it becomes a shared space. That has to be part of the consultation process between communities. We have seen where a wall has become part of a tourist attraction.
In some projects they use the wall in a very positive way, to become part of a tourist attraction, not dissimilar to what we see in the Bogside with the murals. It then becomes something to attract.
Some groups are looking at bringing a tourism strategy to their area based on utilising the wall, so it may just turn the wall from a negative to a positive. The wall may exist, but it is my hope it does not exist due to security fears or to protect. If a wall exists it shouldn’t exist for those reasons.