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Northern Ireland is more than green and orange now - as new communities enter the debate

“Our young people are fierce and brave and they’re coming for us. And we should let them.”

This article is part of The Good Information Project, a new initiative from The Journal to help create greater understanding of big issues we face. This month we are focusing on the question ‘What could a shared island look like?’

IN HIS SPEECH launching the shared island initiative Taoiseach Micheál Martin said that women, young people and new communities are often left out of any debate about Northern Ireland’s future.

This is despite the seismic influence women had in securing the Good Friday Agreement.

The Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition under Monica McWilliams has constantly been name-checked in terms of its importance to the peace agreement; while the Northern Ireland’s rural alliance made a particular impression on EU negotiator Michel Barnier as he maintained the North was a priority in fraught Brexit negotiations.

In more recent times, young people have been a driving force of significant social change on the island of Ireland: in both the same-sex marriage referendum, the Eighth Amendment referendum, in Black Lives Matter movements and in protests against Direct Provision. 

Meanwhile, new communities in Northern Ireland are shifting the all-important demographics, while also increasingly wanting more of a say in the constitutional debate. Census day in Northern Ireland was on 21 March, and will be telling about how its new communities are developing.

An online poll conducted by Focaldata for the group Hope not Hate, asked a representative sample of 1,014 black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) respondents questions about the Black Lives Matter movement from 10-14 January 2021.

In one poll, 40% said they were indifferent to Northern Ireland leaving the UK and joining the Republic of Ireland. 26% were either very or somewhat happy with the idea, while 28% were either very or somewhat unhappy.

A plurality said that opportunities for their children, UK investment and the fight against organised crime would be worse off outside the European Union, though similar proportions also voted that it wouldn’t make a difference.

Half said that Brexit had made the split up of the United Kingdom either much more likely, or slightly more likely.

An all-island forum for women

National Women’s Council of Ireland’s women in leadership coordinator Emma DeSouza said that she would be “absolutely interested” in setting up an all-island women’s forum to discuss the similar issues faced by women and girls north and south.

There’s no border in the issues women are faced with, she told The Journal.

We need more women groups appearing in committee hearings, and an all-island women’s forum to talk about their experiences when it comes to the different barriers women face. They’re the same north and south.

Although the Northern Ireland First Minister and Deputy First Minister were both women, it doesn’t mean that female representation is as strong further down the political food chain, DeSouza says. 

“You can fall into a false sense of security because we have a female First Minister and Deputy First Minister, but that leadership doesn’t trickle down,” she said.

“In terms of the North and South, they are equally both pretty grim. There’s still a really strong absence at the table – even for an event I have tonight on a shared island, I’m on a panel with three men and a male host.

“There’s not a space for women to put their voice forward, so it’s great that the Taoiseach is highlighting that those voices are being marginalised. I hope that the Taoiseach’s words are more than just words.

DeSouza – who took part in the Shared Island Dialogue on civil society last month – said that there was “such a hunger and desire for a space” to discuss issues, but asks how a meaningful debate can continue beyond a “three-hour discussion”. 

“Strength can be taken about how women already work together on this island.”

‘Young people are coming for us – and we should let them’

Cara Cash-Marley has been chief executive of a not-for-profit integration group called Groundwork NI for two years.

“A lot of the work that the organisation did was around, peace and reconciliation shared spaces and reimagining of community space,” she told The Journal.

Although the peaceful past two decades have lessened the immediate need for that work, Cash-Marley said that communities are still very much divided. 

Alliance leader Naomi Long made this same point on RTÉ’s Claire Byrne Live show, that segregation in Northern Ireland was “a blind spot” for politicians in Westminster and the Dáil.

“People don’t realise the degree of segregation, because let’s be honest when you look at the people of Northern Ireland we look like a pretty homogeneous bunch and so it’s very hard to see those dividing lines. If we looked spectacularly different to each other, I think people would be shocked at the depth of segregation in our society, in schools, in services, in housing and all of those other factors. If we want to talk about uniting people, I think that’s where we have to start.”

At the heart of the Groundwork NI’s work to combat this is horticulture – reinvigorating neglected spaces into public gardens, and bringing communities together through planting and pruning.

“I think in Northern Ireland we’re very cynical of [the term] good relations, because it’s been talked about for decades now. And if you were really good at ‘good relations’ would you need ‘good relations’ anymore?” she asks, adding that it means people need to be creative about their approach to bringing groups together.

One of Groundwork NI’s projects involved unemployed young men from both Catholic and Protestant backgrounds who went around to people’s homes, also in both Protestant and Catholic areas, and asked them if there was any work they needed done in their garden.

“We were taking guys from maybe Ardoyne, and we were putting them in the Tiger’s Bay, and they were making a house in Tiger’s Bay look beautiful. Similarly, we were taking guys from Tiger’s Bay into Ardoyne and they were making a home in Ardoyne feel special to the person that lived there. But we never spoke about good relations.”

She said that the shift in recent years is that ‘good relations’ and integration aren’t just about Protestants and Catholics anymore. 

Cash-Marley gives the example of an Indian family who had moved into an area of north Belfast, which has seen more ethnically diverse families move into in recent years. 

“We had an Indian family who approached us who had moved into the area. They had no connections or relationships in the area at all, but wanted to develop them and didn’t know where to start. 

So what we did was we supported them to have a cookout in the garden. They did a traditional Indian cookout, dug into the ground for a spot to put the equipment. They made the most beautiful dish using some of the vegetables that we’ve grown in the garden: onions, potatoes, scallions. And then, the smell of the fresh food being cooked drew people into the garden.

“So that begins a conversation: ‘Oh you’re living in such a street? Sure I only live in this street’. And then we started to see those little potential nuggets of community relations and good relations happening with no one even realising that what was going on.

“Good relations is about making community good for everybody that lives in that community, and you start at the point of need: what does the community need?

“I think we’re smarter than we have been before. We’re taking our time to be curious, and to talk to communities about what they need, and not just arrive on a white horse saying ‘Well this is what you need. We’ve thought about it. Here you go’. That’s just not going to work anymore.” 

She says that young people in particular will be a key part of the debate. 

The North’s youth have already been at the heart of its same-sex marriage and pro-choice movements, and activism around the Irish-language (called ‘Dearg le Fearg’) and anti-Brexit movements have also been powered by young people.

“I’ve actually been quite excited about the voices of young people recently – they’re really brave and really articulate and that is exciting,” Cash-Marley adds.

Groundwork UK are doing work that I would love to do here where they’re setting up youth panels where you go directly to young people and you say ‘This is the issue, how are we going to solve it, you tell us?’

On whether the debate around a shared island is stunting the work organisations like Groundwork NI Have done, Cash-Marley says:

“The conversations around a shared island and all those things are interesting. But, I get a sense that maybe some communities aren’t there yet, they aren’t ready yet. So maybe it’s about a step back and looking at what would it mean for those communities.

“But some young people are up for that discussion and want to know ‘Well, what would that mean? I’m not saying yes, but I’m open to knowing what opportunities would that bring for me as young person.’ 

‘Would it mean I have access to more educational attainment, would I have access to better jobs, better housing, what would it mean?’

“We believe in listening before you talk, and to try and really understand. it sounds like that’s really simple, but I’m not sure we’ve often thought, ‘Actually, what does the community need?’ The more inclusive we are, the better.

“Our young people are fierce and brave and they’re coming for us. And we should let them.”

‘The problem was here when we came here’

Jahswill Emmanuel is co-founder and chair of the Multi-Ethnic Sports and Culture group (MSC NI). He has won awards that acknowledge his integration work in Northern Ireland over the last four years in bringing communities together through music and sporting activities. 

During Covid, the MSC NI teamed up with Ulster GAA for three weeks of activities in the National Stadium to play Gaelic football, rugby and soccer. “If you want to integrate, you must learn the sport – it’s part of Northern Ireland’s culture,” he tells The Journal.

They also teamed up with the Irish Football Association to organise a discussion between the MSC members, the Catholic community and the Protestant community once a week, every week online, to discuss secularism, racism, hate crime and disability. “They mix easily, they understand each other,” he said.

When asked whether new communities are left out of the debate about the Union, a united Ireland, and Northern Ireland’s future in general, he says:

“Yes, definitely, we are always left out. Maybe our representation is not enough, but because we are a minority doesn’t mean we can’t say something. I’ve been here 18 years, so I know my way around. My wife is from Northern Ireland, and I have kids here.”

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He says that some members of ethnic minority backgrounds arrive to Northern Ireland from London, and stay for one or two months before moving to Dublin. Similarly, members of ethnic-minority communities arrive in Northern Ireland from Dublin, stay for one or two months and then go to London. 

“That is why the population is not increasing. That is one thing I’ve noticed. they come here as the new migrants, get their papers sorted, next it’s London, Dublin or Manchester. They want to go somewhere more stable, social, diverse.”

When asked whether new communities want to take part in Northern Ireland’s constitutional debate, Jahswill Emmanuel says:

“They feel like they can’t take part. Because, we came here and the problem was here already. We’ve got to live by it, we’re going to try and say [something], but to be honest, at the end of the day, our say doesn’t even matter. Ten or 20 years down the line, when our kids are grown up and they want to challenge this, I think that is when you get a say from the ethnic minority people.”

Reflecting on the question of whether a shared island is something that should be explored, he says:

“I ran an entertainment company before Covid. African musicians are more in Ireland and the UK, so it’s easier for me to get them from Ireland to come here to do celebrations, festivals and events because it’s cheaper. 

I don’t have to pay for plane tickets for six people, hotels, things like that. They can just easily come, we can do activities and they can come back the same day. So to me, the relationship is good. 

“For the sports we are doing, we get Nigerians from Dublin to play with Nigerians in Northern Ireland, Ghanaians from Dublin to come and play. So it’s like us forming our own relationship on the island. 

On the united Ireland, technically, we are already trying to unite ourselves! But it is up to them to decide.

Cash-Marley adds that any discussion of a united Ireland should be mindful of the cultures and ethnicities that are developing in the North.

“I think any sort of shared island discussion, or whatever form that’s going to take, needs to be mindful and inclusive of all of the citizens that are now within Northern Ireland.

“We have a rich mix of cultures and ethnicities here and we should be open and welcome to all of them. And when communities start to feel like they belong to everybody, then everybody looks after them. And that’s what we should want.”

“I think there’s definitely an appetite for discussion from our new communities. We are seeing more inclusion and conversation with them than I think we ever did before.

“New communities want to have a voice because they own this place too – it’s their home.”

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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