Suburban civic society has largely abandoned these areas, and so is in no position to tell others what to do or how to live.

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Interfaces are, by nature, complex places. Separation and division are visible in the concrete, steel and brick walls of separation, as well as in the softer dividing mechanisms of mini-gardens and environmental planting.

So it is both brave and highly commendable for the International Fund for Ireland to venture (again) into these complex places with their well funded initiative to help the much needed discussions on the future of some of these obscene monuments to fear, sectarianism and violence.

Yet a good deal of humility is needed by both wider civic and political society in helping these discussions. For these areas have seen little tangible benefit from the peace process. Few jobs have come to these areas, and fewer still can be hoped for. Even the local schools are likely to be stripped of either teachers or classroom assistants (or both). And almost none of the decision makers live in these areas.   They are not the natural habitat of senior civil servants, accountants, architects, doctors, consultants, journalists and politicians.  Suburban civic society has largely abandoned these areas, and so is in no position to tell others what to do or how to live.

My own experience in North Belfast is that interface areas are also places of great passion, tenacity and conviction. People care deeply about what happens. Life may not be comfortable, but it is certainly not bland. There is often huge energy in the midst of a bleak physical landscape.

The life of the local community has many players and committed stakeholders. There are small businesses and local traders; well organised charities and statutory agencies;  voluntary groups and community groups; residents’ groups and churches; political parties and long term investors such as IFI and the Rowntree Trust.

If the initiative by IFI is to produce long term benefit, then it seems self evident (to me at least) that all of these groupings and agencies need to be part of and contribute to the community discussions both in public and behind the scenes. There is a substantial challenge here to bring in those groups or individuals who do not normally make their voices heard. Inclusivity must mean just that. Everyone will matter. No mere box ticking or the making of convenient assumptions.

IFI is clear that it is not an arm of government – and that is a good place to be in helping to frame these community discussions. Yet that very fact of itself presents a significant challenge to government. Will any new Cohesion, Sharing and Integration strategy bring the same energy and resourcing to interface and other areas? We wait to see.

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About Author

Rev. Norman Hamilton is the former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church. He is currently minister of Ballysillan Presbyterian Church in North Belfast. Born in Lurgan on 6 October 1946 Thomas Norman Hamilton was brought up in First Lurgan Presbyterian Church and was educated at Portadown College graduating with a BA from Trinity College Dublin in 1969.

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