‘We all have a wealth of experiences. We have never shared those experiences, we have never written them up, we haven’t even analysed their legacy themselves’. Belfast Community Worker

‘People’s organisations arose from the ground in times of crisis’. Belfast Community Worker

‘I still have a book I read in the 1970s which said that if you became involved in the system then the system took you over and part of the need for those involved in developing communities and working at a grassroots level was to create alternative structures and to make sure they didn’t become involved in the system. The book was written by Peter Hain who later became Secretary of State for Northern Ireland’ Belfast Community Worker.

These comments and many more like them, led to the idea for Our Generation, an archive of documentary features and personal stories of those who in a myriad of small ways and most often at a community level, sought to build positive structures and resources amid and despite the violence of the Troubles.

So much has been written and discussed about Northern Ireland since the late 1960s that anyone could be forgiven for wondering if there is anything new to say! In fact, much of the coverage has inevitably concentrated on violence, political groupings, the clash of ideologies, the military, police and prisons and more latterly the change from the long war to the peace process.

The intention of this archive was to be different. It is not so much a hidden heritage, more an unrecorded one of two generations of people, who tried new ideas, new ways of engaging people in actions to effect change and build a modern society. Whether their efforts were intentionally focussed or not, many of the results of those efforts became the building blocks of the society we live in today. When viewing the personal stories, we should remember that the majority of people were young, sometimes very young people, when they became involved in social and community action.

Why do we say that such people were engaged in ‘building society’? Casting our minds back to the mid to late 1960s before the Troubles broke out, it’s hard to imagine a time in British politics when Northern Irish affairs were dealt with by a department in the Home Office which included the regulation of British Summer Time, London taxi clubs and the protection of birds and animals. The small changes made by the 1960s Government of Terence O Neill, who resigned in February 1969, had only scratched the surface for the mass of people.

Poverty, unemployment, discrimination, emigration remained, there had been massive redundancies in traditional industries and further decline in the newly introduced textile and food processing industries. Despite a house building programme (the poor quality of which would lead to the housing protests of the 1970s), huge swathes of the population still lived in wretched nineteenth century dwellings, most of which were judged unfit for human habitation.

The 1970s was the decade of economic depression, horrific violence, rising poverty with unemployment rising by 90%. Only 20 firms survived out of the 200 that had been in production in the 1950s. Many people left, north Belfast, for instance, lost nearly a third of its population….and yet arguably the 1970s were one of the most fascinating decades in terms of community and social development in the history of Northern Ireland.

There were unprecedented levels of participation by local people in tenants and housing action committees, community associations and advocacy groups. Most of our larger community organisations trace their origins back to this time. The Falls Community Council grew out of meetings in a local social club and is now an umbrella organisation, small tenants groups from Ainsworth, Glencairn, Springmartin, Highfield, Silverstream, Benview, Tynedale and Sunningdale became the Greater Shankill Association, the Woodvale Youth Training Project became Farset – a pattern which was evident across Belfast as the protests of the 1970s gave way to projects in the 1980s and the infrastructural fabric of society in the 1990s as regeneration came full circle.

Housing remained a contentious issue into the 1980s and beyond. There were rent and rates strikes, demolition committees in Divis, Moyard, New Barnsley and the Lower Shankill. There was tragedy, such as the death of Rosie Nolan, a single parent living in Turf Lodge which sparked a women’s action committee whose demand was simple – to demolish the flats. On the Shankill between 1973 and 1983, 400 streets quite literally disappeared which sparked the Save the Shankill Campaign.  The proposed Ring Road which ‘put cars before people’ united working class areas in the inner city – New Lodge, Unity Flats, Sandy Row, the Markets and Donegall Pass – in opposition to the proposals.

Not all was about protest. The 1970s also saw the beginnings of some interesting experiments in building resources for the unemployed such the co-operative movement, now more commonly referred to as the social economy. Projects such as Ballymurphy Enterprises, Farset and the Workers’ Resource Centre, claimants unions and the Law Centre and the Belfast Unemployed Centre which grew out of the Belfast Unemployed Group (BUG) at the Crescent Arts Centre. The trade union movement initiated its ‘Better Life for all Campaign’. Interesting experiments began in education in working class communities such as the ‘empty room’ in Springhill Community House and the Shankill Education Project. Nowadays adult education is an accepted fact of life, in the 1970s it wasn’t.

There were experiments in building new community structures such as people’s co-operatives, establishing black taxis which provided transport to and from the city, the establishment of people’s assemblies which amazingly achieved two full sessions with 60-80 participants all elected by the people. Concerned local people came together in an effort to stop the conflict and build community relations, their names have changed over time, such as the East Belfast Community Development Agency which started life as an attempt by local people to halt the conflict between young people. New forms of communication were tried. The Andersonstown News was set up with funds from a sale of a record produced ‘The Men Behind the Wire’ and a plethora of community news sheets began to emerge at grass roots level in working class areas from the New Lodge News to the Shankill Bulletin.

Like housing, education was one of the two primary areas where social and political separation was most immediate in people’s every day lives. In 1970, two thirds of all children left school without the minimal qualification of one 0 level pass.  Inevitably education was another area in which local people in the community began to establish new ways of delivery, from the efforts of five families living in a row of terraced houses on the outskirts of Belfast who set up the first ever Irish language primary school in Belfast, Bunscoil Phobal Feirste, an action which paved the way for the phenomenal growth of the Irish language throughout Northern Ireland, to the twelve integrated schools, all established in the 1980s by parent groups and independently funded with support from charitable trusts. Local people also  established a plethora of community education projects, experimental projects such as Crazy Joes in Divis which attempted to assist young girls who had been expelled from school and larger projects such as the Conway Mill and the East Belfast Education Project, both of which mixed education, the arts and enterprise in new ways of delivering life long learning.

Women formed the backbone of local community action as indeed they did of the anti-internment marches and relatives action committees of the 1970s and the Heath Service and Save Our Schools disputes of the 1980s, but their efforts were slow to be recognised. Women had been brought up to see the home and the family as their primary responsibility and the survival of these was increasingly being threatened. It was paradoxical that society should seek to keep women passive yet by threatening the basis of that passivity, provoke action from women.

Virtually no resources existed for women in 1970. There were no women’s centres, no refuges, no rape crisis centres, no women’s’ studies, virtually no nursery places, no well women centres or even consideration given to the specific health needs of women, no equal opportunities – even in teaching where equal pay was established in 1961, women earned only 78% of male earnings – and more liberal legislation passed in England & Wales had not made it onto the statute book for Northern Ireland. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s a quiet growth of a wide range of voluntary bodies organised by and for women occurred—rape crisis centres, legal advice centres, refuges, mother and toddler groups, many organised across the sectarian divide.

Women’s support raised both the need for specialist services and the profile of cases such as Noreen Winchester who was granted a Royal Pardon in 1976 for killing her father after being repeatedly raped and assaulted for 8 years. Belfast Women’s Aid opened with an eight bedroomed house for 15 families in 1978.  Reclaim the Night marches became a more regular feature and the Rape Crisis Centre began counselling on International Women’s Day in 1982.

The various women’s’ groups came together in the 1970s for ‘Unity’ meetings leading to the Women’s’ Right Charter calling for equal opportunities in education, training and work, equal pay, family planning services, maternity leave and child care facilities amongst other initiatives and the Northern Ireland Women’s’ Rights Movement, formed out of a women’s film weekend, opened the first Women’s Centre in Belfast and the Northern Ireland Women in Education group, both formed also in 1982. Other groups, including the Crescent made attempts to set up day nurseries, negotiating the conversion of a house in North Belfast with a housing association.

Locally based women’s groups ‘mushroomed’ in the 1980s and were increasingly active at community level including the Falls Women’s Centre, the Shankill Women’s Group, Ballybeen Women’s Centre and the Lower Ormeau Women’s Information/Drop-in Centre all of which had strong identities. In the early 1990s, the Women’s Support Network, a loose network of community women’s centres, began an innovative project called Women Into Politics as a forum for women to talk politics and developed into training for women who wanted to enter the electoral arena. Similar to community development, the women’s movement took the form of an organised and radical movement in the 1970s with more mainstream alliances and projects in the 1980s to become part of the infrastructural fabric of society, including a women’s political party, the Women’s Coalition, in the 1990s. By this time there were 197 organisations supporting the needs of women.

Of all the resources established for youth over the period, a few stand out for their ability to incorporate the aspirations of young people, the popular culture of the time and a uniqueness of vision in terms of community relations. The Belfast Youth & Community Group to the general public and Warzone Collective to aficionados was one such group. Set up by young people for young people to alleviate their boredom and disaffection, this groups of punks, rockers, Protestants and Catholics established a live music club, café, design studio, print workshop, practice room and sound studio (opened by Brian Kennedy), providing a self-supporting network run almost entirely on voluntary commitment. Their ethos of ‘co-operation not competition’ provided an alternative message and the centre they established became a Mecca for young people.

The arts in Belfast and Northern Ireland, in the early 1970s was a conservative and generally contained pursuit for the middle classes, who themselves considered the local offering to be inferior to the arts on offer in Dublin or London. Over the intervening years, change has, more often than not, been forced by groups of creative individuals who have established a huge variety of ventures and resources in all art forms from art centres, galleries, theatre companies, the circus school, festivals, the film industry and the most successful community arts movement in the UK.

The Belfast Arts Lab, one of a dozen labs across the UK, operated out of a rather run down Georgian house in the warzone between the New Lodge and the city centre in the very early 1970s and was more interested in ‘bringing people together in an involved way rather than marketing art’. It offered a meeting space and gallery, litho printing and silk screening, crafts such as candle making, music and discotheques with film and slideshows and an embryonic community arts programme for local children. Advertised by the London alternative information centre BIT (named after the binary information transfer in computers), it was also a stopover for the alternative cultural tourist.

Art & Research Exchange, formed in Belfast in 1978, when resources for visual artists were at their lowest, was the Northern Ireland workshop of the Free International University established by Joseph Beuys and Heinrich Böll in Germany in 1974. It had aspirations to cross the boundaries of art and community, politics and economics, history and culture. The organisation housed two exhibition spaces, occasionally used for seminars and rehearsal spaces for bands like the Idiots and Stiff Little Fingers, screen printing, photographic darkroom, artist studios and eventually became the first headquarters of the Artists Collective of Northern Ireland and CIRCA, the magazine for the contemporary arts, a significant vehicle for driving forward a new agenda for the visual arts in Northern Ireland.

Nothing could stem the tide of community arts! From very modest beginnings in Belfast’s poorest communities such as Turf Lodge which experimented with community theatre in 1976, it has seen its ethos and practice infuse all of the arts, including the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.  Larger organisations such as An Culturlann and Belfast Community Circus School have pioneered new activities, festivals and carnivals, including Feile an Phobail which employed community arts practice in its changeover from an anti-internment rally persistently ravaged by violence to an international festival.  Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival was set up by community arts organisations to regenerate the oldest past of Belfast city centre. The Orange Order expanded the Twelfth of July celebrations to include an Orangefest. There have been some ground breaking community theatre initiatives which have enabled the people of Belfast to review their heritage from different perspectives.  Today, community arts is employed in social, cultural and environmental situations, for peace building, (for example the The Big Weekend in Mount Vernon where it was employed to encourage community participation for higher quality education, health, children;s facilities and a day centre for the elderly), for social inclusion, for citywide regeneration, skills building for the creative industries, in television communication, youth work and good relations between indigenous and the new communities.

One area of politics where young people made a very real, and with hindsight, momentous effect in shaping the future of Ireland has barely been recorded. It is hardly credible today but in the 1970s a very real option for Ireland’s energy plans was nuclear power with the Minister for Energy striving for four nuclear power stations at Carnsore Point in County Wexford. Belfast was one of the cities in Ireland with a strong local group, the majority of its members comprising young people. All local groups were independent and every couple of months would host a national gathering. Hundreds of people turned out for these gatherings. In Belfast the national gathering was held in a church hall in South Belfast. The movement forced the government to back down and Ireland retained its unique position as a nuclear free country. Young people in Belfast were also pivotal in the struggle to stop uranium mining in Donegal.  Thousands of copies of a 20 page pamphlet, paid for by the efforts of young people in Belfast, were distributed free in Donegal. This was followed by a series of public meetings to discuss and finally drop uranium mining.

Keeping to the shadows was de rigueur for the gay and lesbian community during the 1970s but despite the difficulties they had with not being accepted, the 1980s gay scene changed out of all recognition, after Geoff Dudgeon, a shipping clerk and gay activist, won a landmark case at the European Court of Human Rights. Homosexuality was decriminalised in Northern Ireland in 1982. Gays and lesbians established their own support services such as Carafriend and Queer Space which had Saturday drop-ins, the Carpenter Club with disco and coffee bar which was established by local gay men, a gay rights association and various health initiatives which provided much needed and sympathetic services.

Although first Indian communities settled in Northern Ireland in the 1920s and the Chinese community in the 1960s, emigration, rather than immigration has been the norm in Northern Ireland. Similar to the rest of the population, ethnic minority communities have had to live through the Troubles since the late 1960s with subsequent consequences. Slowly, people realised that there are other voices to be heard and other stories to be told in Northern Ireland, at least 60 other ethnic groupings, which are not seen as part of the Unionist/Nationalist fault line.

Minority ethnic communities do not always view themselves as interrelated or able to identify with a common focus and not surprisingly perhaps, the new communities which have come to live in Northern Ireland – the Chinese, Indian, African, Polish and other minorities – have also built their communities, providing resources for welfare and community well being. In 1998, Muslim women set up Al Nisa, specifically to address the problems and needs of Muslim women in Northern Ireland in areas such as healthcare, childcare, cultural events, policing, education and employment. This follows similar experiences by other minorities, the Indian community set up their centre and related resources on a peace line in the turbulent year of 1981 Hunger Strikes, the Chinese community in 1986 and the Polish community in 2006.

When asked about their priorities over the last forty years, there was little difference between them and the indigenous community. Ethnic minorities identified their contribution to the wider society to include the following – promotion of equality and justice, recognition of human rights, redefinition of Irish society as viably multi-ethnic, democracy and participation at all levels, encouragement for people to speak out, ability to serve as a focal point for information and cross-community exchange and opportunities for younger people to get involved in politics.

The last forty years in Belfast has seen an immense landscape of activity. Implicit within the heritage are the recurring motifs of conflict, violence, peace and reconciliation. Communities with a strong associational and participatory life have built up social capital and are stronger and more successful than those which did not.

The players within this panorama are not static, they are more often involved in many different activities making connections and influencing the way we live today which makes the heritage even more fascinating. Their contribution has been underestimated, partly and understandably because of its relative invisibility in the context of the Troubles and the search for a political settlement. However, in the last decade, this contribution has begun to come more to the fore – perhaps most noticeably given the increasing influence of Europe and the peace funds which were aimed at renewal and social inclusion in grassroots communities, a process which brought earlier initiatives to light.

In 1969, the then Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Terence O’Neill resigned amidst chaos and anger. The vexed question, which he asked the people of Northern Ireland on that day has resonated over the decades …What kind of Ulster do you want?

Almost forty years later, we know what kind of Northern Ireland has been brought into existence but not all of the story of how it was shaped has been told. Our Generation is inevitably a work in progress and we trust you will enjoy some of the work of the collection achieved to date.