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'My mum moved to Northern Ireland after she lost six of her family in a Nazi concentration camp ... and having grown up here I see mental health as being a major issue for our young people'

Born into a Jewish family and with a mum who fled war-torn Europe, Dr Katy Radford has earned an MBE for her cross-community relations work

Dr Katy Radford, project manager, Institute for Conflict Research
Dr Katy Radford, project manager, Institute for Conflict Research
Katy's mother Inge Radford was a holocaust refugee who came to the UK on kinder transport as a child
Inge Radford as a child

Awarded the MBE in 2011 for her contribution to community relations in Northern Ireland, Dr Katy Radford has spent a lifetime working to build relationships across the divide and to champion the marginalised.

She's project manager at the Institute for Conflict Research and works with a raft of other organisations including the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the Commission for Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition.

Brilliant, eloquent and passionate about the arts which she uses in her work, she pays tribute here to the parents who encouraged her love of music and performance. But behind what she describes as a "privileged middle-class upbringing" is another more harrowing story - the experience of her Jewish mother who fled the Nazis as a child, and lost half of her family in Hitler's concentration camps. Katy talks about her pride in her Jewish heritage and in her Northern Ireland identity.

And she decries what she sees as the "biggest tragedy" facing so many of the young people with whom she works: "I think that our mental health provision is appalling. Absolutely appalling."

Q. Where did you grow up?

A. In south Belfast and I was very, very south Belfast orientated. I went to school in south Belfast and that was the centre of my world. I was one of those people who thought there'd be dragons when you went past Carlisle Circus; that you'd drop off the edge of the world. Now that I live in the shadow of Cave Hill, in the comfort of the shadow of Cave Hill, I see Belfast in a very different light than I did back then.

I grew up in the 1960s and the 1970s in a Belfast that was a very different Belfast to what it is now. My mother, Inge, was a social worker, a probation officer. She worked in the Royal Victoria Hospital. My father Colin was a French academic. He was the dean of the Arts Faculty at Queen's University. So I had a very privileged, middle-class upbringing.

They gave to me a love of dance and music and theatre at a very young age. My parents encouraged me, pointed me to engage with the arts whether that was in performance or attending things. My father used to walk me down every Friday to the School of Music in Donegall Pass. We used to go to choir in there before we joined the Youth Orchestra. I remember the week after Bloody Friday going in for music. We talked together and all of us just wanted to sing together. So many people talked about the experiences of that day.

We all came from very different backgrounds, from very different communities but for all of us it was about music making. For me, music making is connecting with one another through the arts. We came away, I suppose, healing.

Years later, now I'm in my 50s, seeing how those systems like the School of Music maintained relationships and built relationships across community divides really fires me up.

From what's seen as the traditional Irish canon and within what's perceived to be the unionist style of music making, they're both amazing. Amazing discipline, amazing cross-community music making. And that was a really big part of my childhood growing up. Getting a fish and chip - there was a chippie just over from the School of Music, walking back home up Botanic Avenue ... was one of the most fundamental memories of my childhood of a troubled Northern Ireland. And I think that those initiatives still today provide an amazing space for young people to be in harmony with one another.

Q. Where did your mother Inge come from originally?

A. My mother was a child refugee who came on kinder-transport. She came first to the Isle of Man which is equidistant between Ireland and Britain. Then she lived half her life in England and the second half of her life here in Northern Ireland. She ended up living in a property which overlooked the same property where all the children who'd been brought on kinder-transport to Northern Ireland had ended up living, in Millisle.

It was only after she'd been living there quite a few years that she became aware of that story and realised that some of the children that she'd travelled with would have lived in that same place, experienced that same landscape.

She came from Vienna. She lost five brothers and her mother in a concentration camp. She was reunited many, many years later with two sisters who went to the United States and two brothers in Israel. And my generation now, we would now be very close. We have made a commitment to each other that we will stay in touch with one another in the extended family, attend family celebrations and so on.

I get a great kick out of my kids travelling and being with their cousins and learning from each other.

Q. Your mother was a brilliant role model, wasn't she?

A. Yes. One of the things that I'm proudest of about my mother was that when the Syrian refugees started to come here and there was a massive rally that Amnesty organised in Belfast, she came in to town - the sky was opening, it was lashing down that day - she came in on one of those Zimmer frame walkers on the bus in order to be able to get there. And she was saying: "I'm a very lucky refugee. And we need to do this for other people." And you know that typifies the childhood that she gave me.

There's an expression in Judaism - a mitzvah. A mitzvah is a duty, an obligation. But it's also a privilege. A mitzvah is something you have to do but it's your privilege to do it. If, say, I visit someone who is unwell, it's not that I have to do it, it's a benefit to me that I do that thing.

Q. Growing up in Belfast, did you have a strong sense of your Jewish identity?

A. I didn't attend synagogue as a child. There's an Orthodox community in Northern Ireland and I didn't grow up in an Orthodox community. I got a sense of my Jewish identity from travelling - from about the age of 15 I started to visit my family very regularly in Israel. So I learnt about religion and ritual from them in a much more liberal way.

I grew up in a Reform community - the first rabbi I had was a woman. I went away from Northern Ireland when I was in my teens and when I returned in my 30s, I had a very different understanding of what a Jewish community was about. But my mother had always encouraged me to connect to the Jewish culture. The Jewish culture and heritage was around the home but the ritual wasn't.

I grew up with a very pronounced sense of Jewish identity but not of the religious observance. We were always aware of heritage. We were always aware of the family narrative. My father's stepmother was also Jewish so it was something that was not alien to me in any way.

Being Jewish is not something that stops me from enjoying or participating in other people's religious observance whereas for people who are Orthodox that may be more awkward or challenging. I'm very proud of the heritage that my children have.

Q. How many children do you have?

A. I have two daughters and two sons. My youngest is 17 and my oldest is 26. My partner and I have been together a long time, in sickness and in health - that's the way I put it. But I've never married. I have enough Tupperware.

Q. You left Northern Ireland in your late teens?

A. I went to London when I was about 17 and came back when I was 31. I had a range of different careers. I worked in the motion picture industry for many years starting off with the British Film Institute.

I had a real love for the range of experiences that London brought during the Seventies and Eighties. It was a very different culture. I still have a home there that my children enjoy.

I came back to Belfast to go to university. I stopped working in the Institute when I started having a family and I returned to Northern Ireland to continue that family and to do a PhD. I did a French degree at Queen's and then a PhD in Ethnomusicology/Social Anthropology straight after. It was at the time of Drumcree and I spent some time working with women who were connected to that in various shapes and forms. Because women and because loyalist culture at that time was not something that was particularly high on the policy agenda, it was something that I really wanted to look at. And it kind of took me into the role that I now have on the Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition.

After the PhD and a brief stint with Save the Children, I came to work in the Institute for Conflict Research which is the independent organisation that specialises in training, mediation and research and is based in north Belfast in the interface between Tiger's Bay and the New Lodge. We're involved in a number of programmes where we use the methodology of the arts to support people wanting to transition communities. We also work in partnership with a range of other organisations.

Q. Much of your work is with young people. Do you think enough is being done in terms of the crisis in mental illness among the young?

A. For me the biggest tragedy of the experiences of young people in Northern Ireland is around their mental health and well-being. I think young people have a hard enough struggle just being young. But when you're in a community that is steeped in a legacy of conflict, of mistrust, of division and where criminal activity has enabled the thriving of those who, very often bearing arms, manipulate the young through drug misuse or whatever from a very early age... I think we've got a very, very big problem on our hands.

If you go round some of the clubs in Belfast now you'll find very many underage young people in risky situations. I think it's great that young people are able to go out now and party in a way that I couldn't do in the Sixties and Seventies. But I also think we need to be really, really careful about who is enabling that and for what purposes. There are so many links in a small community between young people and the coercive control of those who want to do harm and want to benefit for their own ends.

When I look at young people in north, south, east and west of the region that we live in and think about the amount of self-harm and suicide and think of the myriad form it takes... I think that our mental health provision is appalling. Absolutely appalling.

Is that only because of underfunding? I don't think it is. I think there are other issues we need to look at in terms of much broader holistic services to young people. And yes, very much, also our attitude towards mental health.

Q. Do you think social media is an aggravating factor?

A. I don't use social media myself to the extent that I should do as a professional person. I don't want to bump into my children - or put it like this, my children don't want me to bump into them in that environment.

I accept it's an absolutely crucial part of how society is developing. It's just not my priority at the moment. But I think that there is a problem where young people are sharing challenging situations online. If you see that somebody who has taken their own life is suddenly being talked about as a hero on social media and you're feeling vulnerable or isolated or not connected... can you imagine how that could impact? We need to look at how all that could be managed better.

Q. Is Brexit going to contribute more to division here?

A. I think that disease in any sense and uncertainty in any sense is not ever helpful. And when that's led top-down, sometimes it can mean that people respond in a way that they feel things are being done to them and don't respond as positively as perhaps they might do.

I can't call what will happen about Brexit or people's response to it. I hope it doesn't do benefit to those who are around the fringes of criminality because that's what worries me. People make money in voids. People make money at the fringes of society, at the borders and the edges of society. One thing I do think is it's certainly going to change the demographic again. And Northern Ireland has had, and is continuing to have, a very visible change in demographic. It's wonderful when you look at all the changes that have come with that change. But there is a lot of uncertainty around as well - for growing communities, for new communities.

If you look at the change in numbers in the census in 2011 to what it's going to be in 2021, that is just going to be such an interesting wake-up call I think for all service providers, whether statuary services or people providing things within the private sector.

Q. Do you feel local people are more welcoming of that new diversity than their politicians?

A. I think it depends on the area that you're in. I think there are some people who have got a way to go in terms of thinking about the thing that we like to see ourselves famous for, which is our welcome. I think there are challenges when people conflate ethnic identity with ethnic-political identity, when they look at people's religion and make that a marker. And I'm not just thinking about Northern Ireland here and religion and how that can equate with different sectarian stuff. It's really important that we think about that and that we have open conversations.

Q. The Jewish community, once thriving here, is much smaller and still suffers anti-Semitism ...

A. It's a tiny, tiny community now. It has retained its uniqueness because of its commitment to Orthodoxy but that has meant that it hasn't been easy for those who have a less rigorous upbringing or a less rigorous understanding of what it means to be Jewish.

And consequently many people have chosen to either move from the area to a place where it's easier to access services or have chosen to marry out and then, because they're not part of the Orthodox system don't find it easy to come under the rubric.

It's a small community. It's a beautiful resource in north Belfast. And yes, there has been some degree of challenge that we've faced with people not understanding the importance of welcome. But we have had a lot of support from PSNI and from neighbours in terms of looking broadly at the concerns we have as a community.

Q. In Northern Ireland do you feel that people's views on the Middle East have fuelled anti-Semitism?

A. I think global politics impact on our own generosity of spirit and our own commitment to others. And that can impact locally in a way that people may not anticipate having negative consequences.

Q. Are you hopeful for the future of the Jewish community here?

A. I set up a small arts organisation called Jews Schmooze in 2008. We continue to put on productions, performances, exhibitions which raise awareness of Jewish culture, heritage and the arts. I'm hopeful, because of the number of people we take through the synagogue who are interested in the history and culture.

We're really pleased that we've got somewhere in the region of four or five thousand visitors each year to come to explore and understand those things. So that's great and when local festivals say, "Can we use you as a venue for something?" and they're thoughtful and considerate in terms of the programming that they wish to do, and understanding some of the parameters around it, we're really heartened by that.

What's challenging is when we reach out to other communities which are less ready and less able to connect with us. So we have swings and roundabouts and still a way to go. We're not funded by any government department unlike many minority communities here so that everything we do is on a voluntary basis. And the Jewish community here is getting older.

It's also a little bit disheartening if you think that, well, that's the nature of the situation if others leave. I had a fabulous rabbi here for my daughter's bat mitzvah. He left because his growing family could not live the sort of Jewish life that they would have wished to lead because it was such a small community. And that to me was a great sadness because he brought, within an Orthodox context, a real freshness and an understanding of what those who came from a Reform or liberal background needed. And that generosity of give and take is something which is very hard to find sometimes.

Q. You got your MBE in 2011. That must have been a proud moment?

A. I was so proud of it. But because of the politicalisation of the honours system, just as we have the politicalisation of the poppy, it became one of those things that I didn't talk about when I first heard it. I just needed to take it in and think about what the implications for that would be.

There are all those appalling assumptions that are made about people. I am very proud of the MBE. You know, you give into the community what you can. I wasn't born in Northern Ireland, we moved here when I was very small so I'm not ever going to be eligible for Irish citizenship despite what it says in the Good Friday Agreement. I consider myself to be from Northern Ireland. The Irish and UK governments consider me to be from the place where I was born which means I can never be Northern Irish. Yet I've spent my life, my entire personal and professional life describing myself as someone who's from Northern Ireland.

My children who were born in Northern Ireland can call their own identity as Irish or British. But for other children who were born in England but like me were educated here and spent time from the age of three here, they will always be ineligible for Northern Ireland status. And that for me is one of the missing links for people who've committed their lives, their professional lives, their integrity and their taxes to this part of the world.

Whether or not I have a Northern Ireland stamp on my passport, because you can't have one, I will always be Northern Irish.

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