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Community Spirit Stories: Maeve

Project: Limestone United

Location: Belfast

Young people playing football at Limestone United football projectRival flags hang from every lamppost. On one side of the junction: red, white and blue. On the other green, white and orange stare back. The rows are abruptly broken by a tentatively negotiated ‘no man’s land’, a concession to minimise tension between the two communities. This absence, a normal sight in most cities, stands out here in Belfast. It is a symbol of the progress that’s been made through a great deal of hard work and negotiation since the end of the Troubles. It is also a sign of how much more there is to do.   

Belfast continues to be a city with some deeply divided communities. For young people like Maeve it is not easy to mix with other young people from different areas, despite often being within a short walk of each other.

Peace Walls

What makes me angry is that you can’t go into a Protestant area without being part of a cross-community group with your youth centre.

The most visible, and sometimes literally concrete, sign of this division is the ‘Peace Walls’. These walls and fences, some standing over 5m tall, physically divide neighbours from different communities. Ironically, many of them were built after the Peace Process began. The one splitting Maeve’s local park in two was started just a few years before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. These barriers were designed to reduce rioting and other public order issues, but many young people like Maeve would like to see them taken down.

Groundwork has been running projects to help local people come together across the divide between Republican and Unionist communities for years. This has included initiatives like commissioning new art to replace divisive paramilitary murals found on the end of terraced houses, but also in less visible ways like supporting cross-community groups.

I want someone smart in the World to take the barriers down and just let everybody be together.

Groundwork has also been working with partners and local residents to bring down the physical barriers between the communities. People in the areas where these fences exist are naturally cautious about removing the barriers because of very real safety concerns. However, progress is being made, for example with the installation of a gate in Alexandra Park in 2011. This ‘Peace Gate’ in Maeve’s local park remains open all day and has been largely without incident since it was installed.

Limestone United football project

Alexandra Park In addition to work on the physical environment, Groundwork has also been working with partners to create groups that operate across communities. One of these is the Limestone United football group, which uses football to bring young people from both communities together.

Sessions are similar to those found at any youth football group and involve warm-ups, teach football techniques and include small matches. Things “boys think they can do but girls can do. Better”, according to Maeve.  The big difference here is that the young people playing for the same team here, are drawn from both sides of the wall.

For all the obvious differences, Belfast is also much like many cities in the UK. Young people growing up in inner-city parts of Belfast face many of the same challenges that their peers do elsewhere. So in addition to cross-community work, this project also provides more general youth work support to help young people into work or education, to develop self-confidence and to achieve their potential.

One of Maeve’s friends, who also grew up in a Republican area, is now thinking about joining the British Army. He seems as surprised to find himself considering that, as he does to have to have managed to stay out of trouble thanks to his involvement with this group.