Jackie Redpath grew up in the Woodvale area of the upper Shankill Road, a child of Evangelical Christian parents, his early life was dominated by the Shankill Baptist Church. “It was a very strict evangelical, fundamentalist upbringing, very clear lines between right and wrong, black and white. You were separated from your friends in the street by difference, because your whole week was dominated by church based activities when you weren’t at school.”
In his teens, Jackie was preaching in his local Baptist church. “It’s a bit ridiculous really, a 15 year old, I was a boy preacher, because I was just brought up to believe that.” When rioting on the Shankill Road broke in the late 1960s, Jackie began to look at different ways of bettering people’s lives.
“It was an uprising on the streets, it was riots, it was nightly, it was turmoil and that sort of stuff invaded the church, except that the church attempted to avoid it, and this opened my eyes. Sunday night at the Shankill Baptist was the Gospel meeting, this was the bit where you were meant to have the great unsaved to get them saved, they were all outside rioting and you were inside, quite safe. The church’s reaction was to move their Gospel meeting from 7pm to 4pm before the riots started so that they could drive in and get their cars out before the riots. I thought, something’s wrong here, instead of being out talking to these people and getting them in from all this mayhem, here are people getting out of the way before it actually happens. That really changed the situation for me, a few of us said look, we need to be doing something about this if we believe in what we believe in. We opened a two up two down derelict terraced house, fixed it up, moved in and called it The Way, which was like an outreach thing for all the kids who were out causing all sorts of trouble. That was, I suppose, a key thing for me in breaking away from the established church.”
In the early 1970s Jackie studied History at Queen’s University. He was also trying to understand the redevelopment that was happening around him. “People talk of the Troubles over the last forty years, and, I remember during it saying a bigger trouble for the people on the Shankill, was redevelopment. That’s what turned their lives upside down. The redevelopment impacted not only on people’s lives and families but on the whole community, because the process was inhumane, it took apart a community and never put it together again”
In 1973, Jackie was married and living in the Hammer area of the Shankill, working for the Shankill Community Council. He became involved in the ‘Save The Shankill’ campaign, fighting the planners as well as the N.I. Housing Executive in an effort to save the Shankill community’s way of life.
“Save The Shankill campaign was one of the great joys of my life, I think we did have a big impact. I think there was a question mark over the future of the Shankill and I’m not sure what would have happened if the community had not risen up and said we are not taking anymore of this”.
“Over a three to four year period the ‘Save The Shankill’ campaign was probably one of the most successful community action campaigns in the UK. It really took the planners on. We opposed the motorway happening, we stopped the building of the flats, we turned plans on their heads and got terraced housing put back, we stopped the demolition of Shankill shops, really the ‘Save The Shankill’ campaign did do what it said on the tin, it was a very exciting time.”
Jackie learned was that it was difficult to get the NI Housing Executive to start building. “It ended up that you had acres of land left derelict.”
In 1977, Jackie left the Shankill Community Council and started working at the Shankill Education Workshop. “It was ahead of its time. It was trying to out education the forefront. We started publishing a community newspaper called The Shankill Bulletin. It started of as an A4 news sheet that we was printed at the Print Workshop in Belfast (located in Just Books). We thought if we turned this into a proper tabloid newspaper maybe this could work. A local newspaper is so important, it gives a voice to the area, it strengthens the identity of an area when the area itself feels under threat, it allows you to raise issues, it can hold government and others in authority to account if done properly and it can also be a big voice in terms of sanity in the area in scotching rumours. I mean this was through the worst of The Troubles”.
“The Shankill Bulletin later became The Shankilll People, it was a voice for the people, but it not only reflected what people felt, it also challenged what people felt and it had an important role over many years”.
“We did fight a lot of issues, not least of which was a whole succession of imposed rent increases, that made people’s lives very difficult. We could mobilise hundreds of people at that time and closed parts of north and west Belfast for protests.”
“Then it was about community action, this is before there were community projects as such. I see this in different phases. The Save The Shankill campaign and the tenants’ associations, they were all about direct action dealing with grievances. Then you entered another phase starting up projects. I remember when Lord Melchett (Minister of Education) came over to Northern Ireland, I remember him saying ‘your are all about protesting, but you should be moving to the next phase which is starting to do positive things with projects’. Out of that you had housing associations formed, youth training programmes set up, different projects happening, which moved us into the next phase, where we started to create.”
The Belfast Action Teams (BAT) initiative was launched in 1987 as part of a series of government initiatives to help regenerate Belfast. West Belfast was one of the first areas to benefit, but this led to some further fragmentation on the Shankill Road.
“The Belfast Action Teams were a good intervention by government, and the reason for them was that in West Belfast in 1986/87, things were spiralling out of control. In republican west Belfast, the pillars of that community were losing control, the Catholic Church, the SDLP, those organisations were losing out to militant republicanism and I think the government decided to do something about it. I think their initial focus was the Belfast Action Teams. I remember on the Shankill saying ‘wait a minute’, there’s deprivation here as well, we need to deal with this across the community, across the peace lines, across the board. So Belfast Action Teams were formed, the first ones established were Lower Shankill and Lower Falls, jointly across the peace lines, and what that did was split the Shankill between lower and upper Shankill. I wouldn’t attribute it all to that, but the subsequent community fragmentation, pain and hurt that happened, that people had, was partly as a result of the Government putting money into one part and not into the other.”
1989 saw another pivotal role for Jackie when he joined the Greater Shankill Development Agency as the Director. “I had been working with the Shankill Bulletin/Shankill People during the 1980s and you never knew if you were going to get paid at the end of the week. The Greater Shankill Development Agency were looking for a Director, and I remember applying for that job, I had been unemployed for a period, it was desperation. I needed work and got involved with that. This was at the point when the Belfast Action Teams were operating in the Shankill.”
“There had been a decade of cuts on everything, housing, health service, schools, you had civil servants walking about with cheque books, to put it crudely. It was the first time there was a bit of money about, so we got some older organisations revived, you got new ones setting up and for a three year period 1989 to 1992 a bit of new energy was created. There was a few quid about to do things, and the Greater Shankill Development Agency was one of the organisations that were doing things.”
On October 23rd 1993, the Shankill Road faced one of the lowest points in its history. “It always felt, during the Troubles that community development work was like pushing a big rock up a hill. It was against the odds. The Troubles could undermine what you were doing. The Shankill Bomb happened at a time when we were starting to develop a long term strategy for the Shankill. It was devastating, most devastating for the families of those killed. It brought a whole community into mourning and it set community development work back”.
“Thirty years of decline is going to take thirty years of rebuilding. I think, for the first time, a community in Belfast, the Shankill, sat down and said ‘let’s look long term, strategically’, we need to think twenty, thirty years ahead. That was a big ask, but we did that and developed what we thought then was a regeneration strategy. It was a good one actually, whether it was a strategy I’m not quite sure, but it was a good attempt. We were one of the first communities in Belfast to actually do that.”
“We began developing this regeneration strategy. We were saying look, we think the community knows what needs done but we don’t have the resources to do it. So the simple and natural thing was to put the people with the resources, which was the government, put them together around the table with people with ideas, which we said was the community, and bring them together. We established an organisation called the Greater Shankill Partnership, the idea was to get all the key players, community, private sector, elected representatives, government agencies round the one table, round a common agenda, a regeneration agenda, taking that agenda forward.”
“When you set up a partnership you are making a statement about the future. You are saying we believe we can achieve this regeneration, we believe it is possible to do this by working together with government rather than working against. When the government makes a wrong move you are left quite open, and it’s easier for things to go wrong. I’m still absolutely clear that if government and community don’t work together, community can’t do it on it’s own, definitely government can’t do it on it’s own because they wreck the place, but together it’s worth it.”
The Shankill Road has a history of educational underachievement and this greatly disturbed Jackie. A determination to change this led to the Early Years Project, helping to equip children for their lives ahead, but also raising parents’ self confidence and esteem. “There was no doubt that the critical point was the investment in education. We said if you want to break this vicious circle of educational under achievement that is being passed on from one generation to the next, it’ll take a generation to fix this and if we want to start somewhere, we start at the beginning and that is when the child is born”
2000 was to be a traumatic year for the Shankill Road when a loyalist feud tore through the community destroying many lives in the process. “It destroyed what I understood to be a community, and it will take a long time for that community to be put back together again.”
“I would always have said during the Troubles with the I.R.A., the redevelopment and the loss of jobs, ‘You’ll never break the spirit of the Shankill’, but the feud all but did destroy it. It’s not the same community now that I grew up in and worked in, so I don’t know what’s intact from that, it’s a work in progress”.
“You get nowhere in a divided community, you only get somewhere when a community is united around a common agenda, we are trying to create that common agenda now”.
“My feeling is, that all around us in the Shankill there is new energy and a new willingness for people to work together, that I hope will carry us forward”.