With its sumptuous lakeside setting on a green hill above the cool blue waters of Belfast Lough, the Bawnmore neighborhood would make a perfect site for a city park or a lush private resort. In fact, Bawnmore is a slum--a public housing project so burdened with urban pathologies that the local government has almost given up on the place.
Children play soccer on a cracked asphalt field littered with broken glass and rusting auto parts. Their teenage siblings use the burned remains of a building across the street as a drug market. Their parents spend most days at home, because the unemployment rate hovers around 75 percent.
Barely 10 minutes' walk up the hill, the British government runs a bright, friendly employment center, its bulletin board filled with news of job openings and training courses. But Bawnmore residents don't dare visit the job center. It's in a Protestant neighborhood, and the Roman Catholics of Bawnmore are not welcome. In recent years, eight people from Bawnmore have been shot going to or from the center.
Bawnmore's despair makes it a microcosm of sorts for the economic, political and religious differences that divide this British province. But there's another sense, too, in which Bawnmore reflects the province as a whole: Ordinary people here are stepping in to fill the gaps left by the political stalemate that has delayed implementation of last year's Good Friday peace agreement.
With financial help from the Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust, a community group that guides and funds local events here and in the northern tier of the Republic of Ireland, just south of the border, the people of Bawnmore have created their own women's center and child-care facility to give parents the freedom to look for jobs. Local folks have created a private employment center as well, in a safer neighborhood. In just a year, the Jobs Co-op has placed more than 100 people. Now, even Protestants drop in to look over the employment listings.
"We petition the government. . . . We complain. But this is basically a forgotten neighborhood," said Jim McCole, a social worker from the Voluntary Trust who has a dusty office in Bawnmore's graffiti-splattered community center. "So we decided to get things sorted on our own."
All over Northern Ireland, from lakeside areas like Bawnmore, just north of the Belfast city line, to rural valleys, community-based movements have sprung up to "get things sorted" while the political leadership is snarled in disagreement.
"Yes, the Good Friday peace process is stalemated, and yes, violence is still part of life here," said Avila Kilmurray, director of the Voluntary Trust. "But I keep telling people that the idea of community is alive. There are thousands of local projects with Protestants and Catholics working together."
For all the segregation in Northern Ireland--in almost every neighborhood, the shopping area and public school are clearly delineated as either Protestant or Catholic--there are many areas of life in which its 1.6 million residents work together. In garden societies, hiking clubs, library boards and music ensembles, people are finding that shared interests can overcome long-standing enmities.
The same thing happens in town and village councils. While the leaders of the Ulster Unionists, the largest Protestant party, and Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, won't even shake hands, rank-and-file members of both parties manage to sit down every day in local governments and community groups to work on common issues.
"When you get depressed about the political situation, you have to remember all those local councils," said John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, a moderate Catholic party, and a co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize last year for his work on the peace plan. "That's where the hope is in Northern Ireland."
An influx of community development money--from the U.S. and British governments, the European Union and private fund-raising campaigns, primarily in the United States--has provided the wherewithal for a huge expansion of these local projects. Kilmurray says the Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust oversees about 2,000 community efforts.
Many of these projects focus on the particular problems of a war-torn province.
In a nondescript second-story office on North Belfast's York Street, Protestant Billy Mitchell and his Catholic sidekick John Loughran run a support center for former sectarian militiamen who are being released by the hundreds from prisons here under the Good Friday accord.
"Our rule is simple," said Mitchell, who served 14 years for crimes he committed in a paramilitary gang. "Whether you're from the UVF [the Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force] or the IRA, you're people, aren't you now? That gives us a wee bit of shared space, where we can steer these ex-prisoners away from hatred."
In the Upper Springfield neighborhood of West Belfast, Jim Auld runs a "Restorative Justice" project dealing with a basic fact of local life: The Catholics who live in Upper Springfield refuse to rely on the overwhelmingly Protestant police force. Instead, crime victims turn to the rough-and-ready tactics of local IRA vigilantes, who regularly beat and maim those suspected of criminal activity.
"We had an 18-year-old kid over in Ballymurphy who knicked [stole] a car, and he was seen," Auld recalled. "Of course the victim said, 'I'm going to have the IRA kill that kid.'
"Instead, we got the kid and his family to sit down with the victim. The offender saw that his joy ride inflicted a lot of pain and cost. It was a couple of hundred pounds [about $325] of damages, so they worked out a repayment plan."
In Bawnmore, social worker Jim McCole has another cross-community project underway. The aim is to stop construction of a massive new public incinerator, which would block the neighborhood's handsome view of a dramatic cliff called Cave Hill.
"This is another case where people work together when they see the common interest," McCole said. "When it comes to enjoying scenic beauty, it doesn't really matter whether you're Catholic or Protestant. Even in Northern Ireland."