Community Leaders and Violence
In his review of “What the Papers are Saying” BBC journalist Mike Philpot said that the “The News Letter … wonders if local politicians and community leaders are doing enough to bring an end to the conflict”.
Are local community leaders doing enough to stop the violence? If you really have your finger on the pulse of community development and know what is actually going on at community level, you have no need to pose such a question. Indeed the question says much more about the journalist who posed the question than it does about community leaders.
Community leaders are responsible for developing and managing community projects within their respective areas. In the majority of cases they work on a voluntary basis, employing community workers to carry out the day-to-day tasks of the project. Neither community leaders nor community workers are responsible for policing incidents of violent street disorder. Why should they, any more than leaders or workers in other sectors, be challenged in relation to their success or lack of success in preventing violence on our streets?
Perhaps more to the point, why should community leaders/workers more than journalists be singled out to account for their success or lack of success in preventing violence? When one considers some of the inaccurate reports, sensationalised headlines and biased coverage of events that help to fan the flames of controversy and violence, some journalists need to examine their own consciences.
The cycle of deprivation, alienation and violence that has plagued North Belfast for so long is not due to the inability of community leaders/workers to effectively do the jobs that they are appointed or employed to do. It is due to the collective inability of all sectors of society to develop ways of living together with their differences. Society as a whole is responsible – not just the community leaders and the community workers – and change will not come about until there is a coherent cross-sectoral strategy for addressing the issues that divide us and for developing the capacity of people in conflict to address their problems in a non-violent manner. Community leaders have a role to play in developing such a strategic approach to conflict and violence. But that role must be within the scope of their training, experience and competence.
Even those of us who are engaged specifically in conflict transformation and inter-community dialogue are unable, on our own, to effectively address the issues involved. The core task of building trusting relationships between people in conflict – which is crucial to conflict transformation - is a long-term project that complements rather than replaces other initiatives. Even to point the finger at conflict transformation and community relations practitioners in times of communal violence is unjust. The cord needed to bind people together in trusting and peaceful relationships has many strands – the community sector provides only one or two of those strands.
As someone who has been responsible for assessing the impact of a number of community projects in North Belfast I am aware of the immense value that ordinary people in the community place upon the work of the sector. I am aware too of the increasing demands that are being made on inadequately funded projects and on community leaders/workers who give unstintingly of their time and skills in the service of their communities.
I believe that I am in a position to refute any suggestion that the community sector has failed to make a positive contribution towards peace and reconciliation in North Belfast. I would argue that it is the one sector that has been to the fore in promoting dialogue and developing inter-community initiatives at grass roots level. The level of meaningful contact between loyalists and republicans has been greatest at community level. Inter-community development, particularly in volatile interface areas, has been undertaken by men and women of courage whose contribution to the community peace process is well documented. It is ironic – indeed tragic - that many of these courageous people have been marginalised and ignored by those heading up the North Belfast Action Project established by the First and Deputy First Minister.
The community sector has a crucial role to play in healing social divisions, empowering local communities and striving to develop a just, anti-sectarian and stable society for our children. The sector has many problems to overcome – some of its own making - and there most certainly is a place for constructive self-criticism, but it does not need and it does not deserve the negative criticism of the journalists.
Note: Billy Mitchell is Programme Co-ordinator of LINC Resource Centre’s Conflict Transformation Programme and a member of the Executive Committee of Community Dialogue and the Board of Director’s of InterComm. This statement has been released in a personal capacity.