From across the divide in North Belfast, where so-called “peace gates” separate communities, a group of women gather weekly to build bridges between those living there. These women dream of a city without ‘peace gates’, and in one sense, it is already happening.
Belfast, Northern Ireland’s capital, has a long history of conflict, sectarianism and division – and whilst the last two decades have shown significant advances, there are still many communities demarcated by “peace walls” and “peace gates”, designed to curb violence and antisocial behavior. As Alison asserts, “we want them gates gone then, because we can't teach them to be together, when we're going to put a gate between them.”
Alison, Rosie and Sarah are founders of the women’s group and the driving force for some of the changes they are seeing. They live in Tiger’s Bay and the New Lodge – two communities that sit side-by-side in North Belfast and were notorious flashpoints during the ‘Troubles’. The ‘Troubles’ refers to the period of intense conflict from the 1960s to the Good Friday Peace Agreement in 1998.
Historically, Tiger’s Bay is a unionist community and predominantly Protestant. The New Lodge is historically nationalist and predominantly Catholic. Broadly speaking, unionists want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, while nationalists want independence from the UK in the form of reunification with all of Ireland. The road that divides the New Lodge and Tiger’s Bay is known as an interface–the name given to the areas in Belfast where nationalist and unionist communities border one another. This particular interface is only a short walk from the Antrim Road, which was known as “Murder Mile” during the Troubles.
Along the interface between Tiger’s Bay and New Lodge, there are peace gates at various intervals. Opened at 7am and locked at 5pm, the purpose of the peace gates is to “keep the peace”, but they also perpetuate the disconnectedness of the people who live there.
It is in the middle of this interface, that the Macrory, a newly created community center, transcends the divide. When the peace gates close, the doors of the Macrory Center stay open. One door of the Macrory center opens into Tiger’s Bay and one door into the New Lodge. Whether the peace gates are open or shut, the Macrory remains a shared space where children can bridge the gap and come to box, play games, bake, and make friends. In one sense, the dream of a community without peace gates is already a reality.
Belfast is changing. It is obvious in talking to the women, that the situation is markedly different to when they grew up – and largely for the better. But there is no doubt that in neighborhoods like these, young people face issues common to any urban areas in the UK and Ireland – lack of opportunities, high unemployment, addiction, and suicide.
This is what makes the 174 Trust and the Duncairn so extraordinary – an organization that exists to provide genuine shared spaces, where peace-building and community development can thrive. The 174 Trust is one of Belfast’s most respected community organizations, facilitating peace-building and community projects for almost 40 years. Their aim is to create spaces and opportunities for people from the surrounding areas to bring about the change they want to see in their community. They don’t do projects for people, they encourage people to become agents of change themselves, recognizing that this is the only way sustainable transformation will happen.
The Macrory Center is the latest initiative of the 174 Trust and home to a state-of-the-art boxing ring, weights room, gym, sports hall and community kitchen. Open every day of the week, the center is filled with children and youth of different ages – learning to get fit and have fun. The hope – indeed the reality – is for children to develop friendships that supersede prejudice, stereotyping and sectarianism. As Dr. Eugen Koh describes it, “the Duncairn is not just a place for peace-building activities, it epitomizes peace-building.”
Boxing gym in the Macrory center
When asked about the impact the work is having, one of the women explained, “It's healing, definitely. There's a lot of us here that would never have met each other, or never spoken to each other a few years ago.” Alison, who comes from Tiger’s Bay, explains how she always had Catholic friends, ever since she was a teenager. She has carried a longstanding interest in cross-community work, but this increased after her son Dean took his own life in 2010. The motivation to imagine a different future for young people goes deep and it’s what drives volunteers like Alison. For others like Rosie, involvement helps her in her own life. Coming from a background of addiction, she explained how she didn’t socialize much, but the women’s group and children’s work has changed that.
Asked about their most satisfying achievements, the women talked about their care for the elderly. During COVID, the elderly were particularly isolated and the women’s group were involved in visiting and providing meals to those who needed them. On one home visit, an elderly woman invited one of the volunteers in. “I saw the way she was living, she had nobody,” one of the volunteers explained. They immediately mobilized the women’s group and provided brand new bedding and a new pair of shoes. Beyond material assistance, there is a deeper work – those feeling isolated and alone are surrounded by people who love them.
Not only is the Macrory fostering connection between the long-term residents of Tiger’s Bay and the New Lodge, but it is also a hub of diversity that is representative of a changing city. With refugees from Ukraine and Syria, new arrivals from Pakistan, the center comes to life with different cultures, languages and ethnic groups. “We love the refugees!” says one of the women. Many of them don’t have proper identification and struggle to join a gym. The Macrory welcomes them with open arms.
Memorial to the Titanic, which has a become a politicized symbol of unionist East Belfast where the shipyards are located.
A short walk from the Macrory is the Duncairn Arts Center, a former Presbyterian church, which is home to the majority of the 174 Trust’s work. The stunning redevelopment of the old church has introduced an authentic “shared space” that also addresses the lack of arts provision in one of Belfast’s most disadvantaged and marginalized areas. The Duncairn is North Belfast’s first purpose-built arts and culture venue, with a theater that can accommodate 180 people and has attracted bands like Snow Patrol. Throughout the year, the Duncairn hosts exhibitions, concerts, drama performances, debates, master classes and political dialogue.
At the heart of the work is a prioritization of children and marginalized individuals – with a nursery preschool and afterschool club, as well activities for people with physical and intellectual disabilities. The playground has a mural of its own, a Peace Train, inspired by Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam song:
'Cause out on the edge of darkness
There rides a peace train
Oh, peace train take this country
Come take me home again
You only need to spend a few moments with Rev. Bill Shaw, Director of 174 Trust, to see his love of Belfast. Having done ministerial placements in different settings in Northern Ireland, for Bill, returning to the streets of inner city Belfast was “like coming home”. When talking about his work as a minister, he remarks, “I try to avoid the word ministry, because what does that mean? But if I was going to have a base and be able to relate to people, I felt it was going to be in the streets.” He goes on to explain, “I'm not blind to its issues and its problems, either back then or present day. But yeah, it's my city.”
It’s in this city that he loves, that he has devoted much of his adult life to peace-building and community development. Walking down the street and driving round the city with Bill, there were multiple encounters with friends of his, hollered pleasantries by passers-by and hugs exchanged with former youth group members. Bill exudes community development in its finest sense – present, relational, and hopeful. Speaking about the role of churches in communities, Bill explains, "If you're not improving the place that you're in, then you shouldn't be there."
But it wasn’t always like that for Bill. His beginnings in ministry were more limited in scope and perhaps more traditional in form – focusing on preaching, leading prayer and worship. But he soon observed how so many churches conducted ministry “in a vacuum”. He explains, “it was a bubble that really didn't impact the community at all, other than even evangelistic sorties into the community to give out tracts and to preach in the open air.” And it was within the context of this approach to ministry that Bill was confronted with the realization that they were “not doing anything to help the lot of these people.”
He adds, “I felt, even then, a stirring of something deeper in me. That we needed to be doing more.”
Coming up to his first Christmas at one of his congregations, Bill announced they were going to suspend midweek meetings in December and do door-to-door work as a way to get to know the community. He recalls how he and someone from the church knocked on the door of a home and a kid came to the door. After asking if his mum or dad was home, the kid went away and came back with an older kid, who in turn went away and came back with another older kid. Then eventually, the mother came to the door - completely blank-faced and dazed. And while waiting in the doorway, they realized “there was no carpet on the floor. And this was probably a week or so before Christmas, so no Christmas decorations. Nothing there to suggest this was Christmas. And I remember reaching her this evangelistic track-cum-Christmas-card and thinking, ‘This is not what this woman needs.’” He jokes about being a heretic for admitting that, but says, “this woman needs financial support or a bag of groceries. I should be able to be doing something rather than giving her this fricking [card]...”
There is a tinge of sadness in his retelling of the story – of coming up short in the calling to minister to the whole person. The following year, Bill instigated a special donation fund to support their door-to-door work and enhance their ability to meet people’s daily needs. Bill describes it as one of his Damascus Road experiences, “[It was] a realization that preaching the gospel wasn't enough. That we needed to do something practical.”
Bill had a similar epiphany where his reading of the Bible shifted and he was confronted by the biblical and Christian imperatives to be peacemakers and agents of reconciliation in the world.
“I'd never read the scriptures in that way. Or I'd always missed the reconciliation agenda within the scriptures. And the call to be peacemakers... That just hadn't registered for some reason. Here was I with a theological degree and read the Bible through, cover to cover, every year. And I had missed this,” says Bill. This new perspective began to inform his preaching and reshape his approach to Christian ministry.
Shortly after this epiphany, Bill took the role as Director of the 174 Trust. At that time, the space was just a vacant Presbyterian church building in an almost solely Catholic community. The congregation had previously vacated and the church - which was functioning as a second-hand furniture store and government employment program–was essentially a blank slate. For Bill as the incumbent director, the question was “where to go from here?” It was 1998 and the Good Friday peace agreement had just been signed to create a power-sharing agreement and ostensibly bring an end to several decades of violent conflict. It was a period of optimism for real change in Northern Ireland.
“I try to avoid the word ministry, because what does that mean? But if I was going to have a base and be able to relate to people, I felt it was going to be in the streets.”
Bill Shaw, 174 Trust
Bill recalls one of his first experiences in the role. It was the Wednesday prayer meeting and after a knock on the door, he was introduced to Sister Carmel, a Catholic nun from across the street who had come to pray. Up to this point, he had never prayed with a Catholic. Bill confessed that he felt reluctant to have taken the job. But as soon as she prayed, it was like a penny dropped, "This woman's a Christian. What's the problem?"
"This was God's way of telling me that I wasn't bringing God into this neighborhood. That God was already here. And that the first lesson I was learning was that my job was just to cooperate with whatever good was already happening in the community. And so that became my message, my introductory comment to people if I was talking to people of faith, that I wasn't here as an evangelist. I was here to complement the good things that were happening and to cooperate with people of good will. And that became my way of working in the community."
Bill’s aim wasn’t to restart a traditional worshipping congregation, but rather to reimagine ways in which the church could contribute to positive change for everyone in the area. This led Bill to enroll in Ulster University to study community development as a means to inform his work.
For him, community development is about empowering and equipping people to improve their neighborhoods themselves. Not surprisingly, Bill talks about the important role that women have played and continue to play in community transformation. From Sister Carmel to the current women’s group, they are change-makers and influencers in the community. During the Troubles, when so many men were in prison or dead, women played a particular and vital role, one they continue to play.
Bill is motivated by a compassion for people on the margins of society, regardless of their religious or political affiliations. “Whether it's lower Shankill and New Lodge… or Tiger's Bay, the socioeconomic conditions are more or less identical. The generational issues, coming out of conflict, again, drugs, alcohol dependency, prescription drugs, suicide, generational unemployment, lack of ambition...” Within the backdrop of these circumstances, the communities have a sense of where they sit in the social strata, which is “pretty much the bottom rung.” Crucially, one of the goals of the 174 Trust is to increase confidence levels in the community and contribute to a greater sense of aspiration.
Bill’s heart is for people in each community within North Belfast, communities whose social issues are similar and ultimately compounded by the physical barriers and fear of the other.'' As deputy chair of the Belfast Interface Project, an organization aiming to develop creative ways of regenerating Belfast’s “peace-line areas”, Bill says, “[I want to] make those walls redundant so that people can make those cross community contacts and have that experience of meeting the other.” For him, missing out on the richness of cross-community relationships is a tragedy.
“It’s not just about this beautiful building,” says Bill, “it's about what people do in that space.” This has been one of the most satisfying outcomes of the whole journey for Bill – to see people come in and inhabit the space. He looks over at one of the community rooms, “right now there's a group of asylum seekers and new arrivals who are doing English language classes, so that they're better equipped to play a positive role in developing the city and making it more diverse, but also meeting the needs of their own family.”
“If you’re not improving the place you're in, you shouldn’t be there.” The 174 Trust, along with Bill and his team, have without question cemented themselves in the list of those that should be.