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From riot zone to trading zone... how locals transformed a flashpoint area

One of the most explosive interfaces in Northern Ireland has been transformed by a community initiative that was kickstarted by the threat to business in the area.

The Cityside Initiative in north Belfast has been hailed by politicians, business and community leaders as a blueprint for tackling sectarian hotspots.

Rioting, vandalism and theft were a daily occurrence at the Cityside retail park, which affected the number of customers visiting the shops and threatened businesses. The shopping mall is beside the once notorious interface at Duncairn Gardens, which divides loyalist Tiger’s Bay from the nationalist New Lodge area.

During the summer, sectarian violence flared up leaving residents in the area afraid to leave their homes.

At its height in 2007 there were 66 nights of sustained violence over a three-month period.

However, the Cityside Initiative, begun in the spring of 2008, involved both sides of the community and has since transformed the area.

So what was the successful blueprint for interface peace? These were the key findings of the report:

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  • Communication between police and interface workers was one of the most important measures in reducing violence.
  • Face-to-face meetings replaced dialogue by phone.
  • There were intensive meetings during the peak of rioting, held up to two or three times a week. During calmer periods these were held on a monthly basis.
  • Interface workers were present during riots and kept a record of incidents to minimise “the blame game”.
  • Community representatives accepted much of the violence was simply anti-social behaviour and worked to dispel the myth that rioters were “defending” their area.
  • Local residents worked with police to patrol streets and prevent violence erupting.
  • A more neutral environment was created by reimaging murals and relocating bonfires.
  • Longer-term initiatives of creating diversionary activities for young people, such as fun days and football tournaments.
  • Community workers talked to young people in schools and youth groups.

Not only have community relations improved and sectarian violence significantly reduced, but business is booming at the retail park.

Seven new retail outlets opened last year and footfall has increased dramatically.

Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland, who launched a report by the Institute for Conflict Research into the initiative, welcomed it as a “rare good news story about an interface”.

The report is published just weeks after an interface across the city in east Belfast erupted with two nights of serious rioting.

Three people were shot and thousands of pounds of damage were caused by sectarian violence on the Newtownards Road at the nationalist enclave of Short Strand.

Cityside operations manager Michael Langston praised community workers and the PSNI.

“We are very much the blueprint of what can be achieved if people come together and there is trust, dialogue and common sense,” he said.

“But sectarianism and anti-social behaviour is always bubbling below the surface, so we need to keep working on this.”

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