Hopes that Shankill's 'action zone' status will transform life chances of its youngsters
Working-class loyalist boys in west Belfast are set to become the focus of a new 20-year plan to help them realise their potential.
The Greater Shankill area has been declared Northern Ireland's first action zone for children and young people.
Five Stormont ministers yesterday endorsed the zone which was formulated by the Greater Shankill Community Convention.
It emerged earlier this year that Protestant boys from poorer families were the worst achieving group in Northern Ireland in terms of GCSE results.
A community relations council report found that just 19% of Protestant boys entitled to free school meals achieved five or more GCSEs, compared with 43% of Catholic girls.
Teenagers in the Greater Shankill are 2.5 times more likely to leave school with no qualifications than the Northern Ireland average. Some 62% of youngsters in the Shankill receive free school meals.
Director of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers Mark Langhammer said in April that the only role models for young boys in loyalist areas were thugs and gangsters.
In contrast, the new action zone's patrons include Senator George Mitchell, Queen's University Vice-Chancellor Professor Patrick Johnston, Baroness May Blood and former head of the civil service Nigel Hamilton.
Jackie Redpath of the Shankill's Agreed Agenda Group said the initiative was aimed at almost 6,000 young people from birth to 20 years old.
He summed it up as "much more than simply schools, but trying to improve the life chances of young people".
"This zone is about a generational approach, we want to change this," he said.
"This isn't about initiatives, because that is what we have had for 20 years, the place is littered with initiatives, they were short term and uncoordinated.
"We have opened the door on a generation of opportunity for this generation of our children and grandchildren.
"We have declared Shankill unlimited open for business." He said the Shankill area had suffered from the end of traditional industries such as shipbuilding.
Endorsing the zone after meeting Mr Redpath at Stormont yesterday, Education Minister John O'Dowd described it as "inspirational" and pledged to play his part.
The Sinn Fein minister said as a result of his changes to the Common Funding Formula – where the number of pupils at a school on free school meals now has a bearing on how much funding it receives – schools in the Shankill area have received in this financial year alone an extra £1m.
He also announced yesterday that he has approved £1.85m for a new Glencairn Youth Facility.
Four other Stormont ministers – Nelson McCausland (Social Development), David Ford (Justice), Caral Ni Chuilin (Culture, Arts and Leisure) and Edwin Poots (Health) – also pledged their support.
North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds welcomed the initiative, describing it as "a red letter day for the Shankill".
PUP leader and Belfast city councillor Billy Hutchinson added: "We all have a duty to improve the services that are provided to our children and young people, ensuring that they have the skills and confidence to succeed in life and employment."
The Greater Shankill Children and Young People Action Zone is the first of its kind in Northern Ireland. The five wards of Shankill, Woodvale, Crumlin, Glencairn and Highfield are among the most disadvantaged in the country. The 20-year plan aims to provide "wraparound" support, bringing together many government departments to work together in the long term and improve the prospects of young people. The aim is to support not only children but also parents to help them succeed. Four priority areas identified are education; employability and jobs; physical infrastructure and a quality of life agenda.