I remember the first time I cast an eye down on Belfast from the ‘other side.’ It was a disorientating moment, writes Jonny Campbell. The landmarks occupied their proper place in a landscape snapshot that is deeply embedded in my every childhood memory and yet now they appeared as though displayed in a mirror, so familiar yet somehow so strange. Brought up in south Belfast and educated in the east I know every road that meanders over the hills on my side of town. Every morning that I plummet into Castlereagh I notice that Belfast Lough is beautiful captured from the surrounding high ground. I was 17 years old though, before I saw the cranes from north and northwest.
Returning to Belfast last year in my mid-twenties I recognise the name of every interface on the Crumlin Road. Well-known geographical points of reference there come with terms, conditions & a past that seem inextricably attached. Conflict. Bloodshed. Intimidation. Hardship. Despite its limitations, Wikipedia.org remains a quick and comprehensive overview for anyone outside Northern Ireland seeking an access point into our historical episodes and events. The inquisitive will find under ‘Crumlin Road’, an ugly portrait.
On my first venture up the road in October I discovered an entirely different narrative, one gradually adopting the tune of Belfast’s slowly emerging renewal. Redeeming our Communities is a charity growing steadily across the UK and just finding its feet in NI. They bring local communities, public authorities and agencies together to restore for people what poverty, disunity and hopelessness have stolen. The ROC café on the Crumlin Road was already up and running when I stepped into my new job as NI coordinator.
Volunteers had been sourced from the local church & community to open a drop-in for young people and their families. Twenty regular visitors became 25, then 30, and now 40. Peter (not his real name) is a young lad of just nine who exhibits some challenging behaviour. He has responded to an environment of bullying and instability by scrapping and aggravating. He found his calling in life a few months ago. Goalkeeper. As a footballer I was a ‘confidence’ player and it turns out so is he. It’s amazing the impact that investment in young people has, words of encouragement can so quickly rebuild busted walls of self-belief.
It has been wonderful also to profit from the support of local agencies. The fire brigade and PSNI have given to the project and the young people loved them. Rebuilding respect and understanding for these authority figures is a wonderful side effect of their kind gift with no strings attached – their time. Nobody cares about Banjo’s funny accent because in their eyes he is a legend. Simple.
I was born in 1989. I’m right on the borderline of a generation who know relatively little of the most brutal realities of our ‘past’. I’m so glad that the next generation will be able to learn from it but they will experience even less. ‘Division, hatred, prejudice…’? That is their past. Our present is so much brighter.