Northern Ireland

Londonderry peace-building after Stormont's collapse

The Peace Bridge over the River Foyle
Image caption Derry's Peace Bridge was among the projects designed to promote cross-community integration

If you think of peace-building in Northern Ireland, what may spring to mind is the negotiating table; handshakes between politicians and visits from prime ministers and presidents.

But at the local level, years of sensitive, round-the-clock and sometimes secret work has been delivering change.

Those involved in that sort of work feel they have stepped into a significant gap, dealing with what they call the "vacuum" left by the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont.

And earlier this year, there was a dreadful reminder of what is at stake when the journalist Lyra McKee was shot dead by dissident republicans during rioting in Londonderry.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Lyra McKee was observing rioting in the Creggan estate when she was shot in April

Grassroots organisations in the city have been running schemes for years to steer people away from the influence of armed groups.

"A battle a day," is how Peter McDonald describes his challenge in the mainly nationalist Shantallow area.

He is the co-ordinator of the Leafair Community Association, which runs a number of programmes aimed at tackling social problems.

"The area I'm in has a high volume of young people between the ages of 16 and 25," he explained.

"A lot of them are unemployed, a lot of them lack education, a lot of them are just doing nothing.

"To a young person with no employment prospects, when someone talks to them about 'this glorious Ireland' or 'this glorious Ulster' - that can seem very appealing."

Image caption Shantallow ranks highly among the most socially deprived areas of Northern Ireland

His group receives support from the International Fund for Ireland (IFI), which was set up by the British and Irish governments in 1986.

Since then, the IFI has distributed about £750m to projects in Northern Ireland and the border counties of the Irish Republic.

The money comes from the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the European Union.

Paddy Harte, who became chairperson of the IFI in March, believes there is a danger Northern Ireland is drifting into what he terms "negative peace".

He said the Stormont crisis, as well as the re-emergence of the Irish border as an issue in the context of Brexit, have contributed to the reappearance of "old sores".

Mr Harte noted that other countries are considering how social deprivation, and a lack of faith in politics, are driving marginalised people towards extremism.

He said the international conversations are the same "up to a point" but the difference in Northern Ireland is the legacy of trauma from the Troubles and the existence of paramilitaries.

"Paramilitarism is contagious, in that it moves very quickly through your community," he said.

"So that makes the challenge bigger here."

Image caption Paddy Harte is the chairperson of the International Fund for Ireland (IFI)

He described how the mediators in IFI projects "go to a bedroom door, and say 'we want you to come to a course today'".

"They know they have got to get these young people onto a pathway that will get them another purpose in life," he said.

The Londonderry Bands Forum is another group that benefits from IFI money.

It provides employment training, mentoring and skills programmes to members of loyalist bands, as well as promoting their culture.

Co-ordinator Derek Moore said that any ongoing tensions are more likely now to happen within communities, rather than between communities.

"It's about territory and influence," he said.

Image caption Derek Moore claims rioting is often due to "boredom" rather than sectarianism

"I think young people need to be made aware that if you are caught up in all that you may be at a huge disadvantage - the damage to job prospects, to your opportunities for world travel.

"A lot of us have made mistakes like that in the past and realised the stupidity of it."

He said the flexibility of the funding model means he and others can "tackle issues when they happen".

"When there was early summer rioting last year, we were able to stifle that within a week by working across two or three peace impact programmes.

"It was more a boredom issue for young people, than a political or a sectarian issue."

James Kee, from Bready Ulster Scots, has also worked on schemes aimed at people in their late teens and early 20s who are regarded as susceptible to paramilitary recruitment.

Image caption James Kee said Stormont's collapse has "left a void"

"The queues aren't massive at the moment," he said, "but if it wasn't for support from the likes of the IFI I think they'd be a lot longer."

He added: "There's no doubt the lack of political representation has left a void.

"We're now delivering the leadership to the grassroots, which they feel should be delivered by the people they elected."

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