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Unsung hero who saw peace-building in a different light

The architecture of the peace process, from the Good Friday to St Andrews and Hillsborough agreements, has been painstakingly constructed by politicians.

But such edifices would’ve been far harder to erect if it wasn’t for the years of low-profile, cross-community work of countless unsung heroes — people like Hannahstown’s Danny Burke.

Having spent decades fostering better inter-communal relations by teaching media skills to at-risk youth, the 62-year-old photographer died on Saturday at Belfast City Hospital following a massive heart attack.

Born in Galway, Danny grew up a staunch Irish republican. In the 1960s, he joined the IRA. When the 1969 split occurred, he sided with the Officials (OIRA).

However, he quit after being court-martialed (along with most of his Galway City unit) for disobeying orders from a Dublin-based OIRA leader to enter Northern Ireland to burn Protestant churches.

In 1972, Danny moved to Belfast to begin teaching geography in Ballymurphy. At one point, during feuding between the OIRA and the INLA in the 1970s, he was hooded and kidnapped by the INLA while teaching a class.

Released following days of interrogation after convincing his captors he’d severed his OIRA ties, he later cited the ordeal as a reason he sought a new outlet for his politics — photography. In 1983, after Danny was laid off from his teaching job, a cousin of Gerry Adams suggested that he organise an exhibition of community photographs — snaps by non-professionals — to illustrate how ‘ordinary folk’ documented life during wartime.

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The show, which opened that October at Conway Mill, was a huge hit, with the BBC, UTV and RTE all covering it.

“We didn’t expect more than 20 people to turn out. In fact, about 200 people turned up,” Danny told me in a 2003 interview I conducted for the Boston Herald.

At the opening, an elderly Protestant asked him if he would bring the show to a Protestant area. He readily agreed. Over the next year, the exhibition toured several loyalist strongholds, |including the Shankill.

“I always remember the people on the Shankill threw their arms around us and welcomed us,” he said. “And we had photographs in the exhibition of the IRA. But not one of those photos was defaced or torn down.”

Under Danny’s direction, the Belfast Exposed collective began using photography to build cross-community links.

In 1991, Danny toured Massachusetts and Vermont with a Belfast Exposed exhibition. At each stop, he gave talks about the group’s work, Northern Ireland’s history and political landscape.

His breadth of knowledge, coupled with his passion for ‘people’s art’ (that anyone can find expression through the arts) won him admirers wherever he spoke.

In 1995, Danny helped found a new outfit, Community Visual Images (CVI). Within two years, with EU Peace and Reconciliation Fund backing, CVI had a gallery on Belfast’s Donegall Street, stocked with state-of-the-art gear.

Since then, CVI has allowed scores of people from across Belfast a chance to document their areas’ stories, while also acquiring valuable technological skills.

Although a lifelong republican, Danny strove to keep CVI politically neutral. “We have no hidden agenda of promoting a united Ireland,” he said.

“But we certainly do want to transform human relationships on this island in a small way. And not in a ‘nicey, nicey’ way. We never attempt to hide the differences.

“But there has been so much division, death, and destruction over the years, that we just hope to build something new and positive from the scars of the past.”

In recent years, CVI’s EU funding dried up. Although not wealthy, Danny tried to fill the gap with thousands of pounds of his own money. It was the type of unsolicited generosity I’d seen many times during our 22-year friendship. The physical strain took a huge toll.

The stories of community workers like Danny Burke remind us that peace-building has many facets and is not strictly the domain of those walking the corridors of power. And, although many history books may not record their deeds, theirs is a legacy that will live on in the hearts of the many who they affected and inspired.

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