This day last week, North Belfast was the topic on everyone’s minds for all the wrong reasons. A hoax bomb driven to the Houben Centre at the top of the Crumlin Road, where Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney was giving a speech as part of a peacebuilding event. Mr Coveney was quickly taken away by security, attendees of the event were evacuated and perhaps most painfully of all, a family had the funeral of their mother; which was taking place in the neighbouring Holy Cross Church, cut short and finished outside in the car park. I was down the road at our office in Duncairn Gardens when I heard the news. Spaces like the Houben Centre and Girdwood, as well as the schools themselves are used by CRIS regularly to bring together parents and pupils. They are safe, warm and welcoming for everyone. My heart dropped to find out something like this had happened there.
But this week I’ve been reminded of the real North Belfast.
On Monday, we hosted a workshop for our principals based in the area. Despite the heavy pressures that they are all under at school, they took the time to come, discuss and plan their Good Relations priorities for the year ahead. A group of dedicated educators, working hard to make their schools a vibrant, inclusive space for their children and families. We held the session in the Marrowbone Community Centre, a new capital build under the Executive Office’s Urban Villages Initiative. The facilities are fantastic and much needed for the community - they include a space for youth clubs to meet, a dance hall and a boxing ring. But more important than all of that, was the warmth and vibrancy of the place. The welcome and helpfulness of the staff (special mention to caretaker Geordie who was on hand to help find extension cords and flipchart stands when I was panicking), the feeling of real community spirit and resilience that is unique to somewhere like North Belfast - an area that has not always felt the benefits of the peace process as much as other part of Northern Ireland.
On Wednesday, I spent the day with pupils & staff from Holy Cross Girls PS & Wheatfield PS at Streamvale Farm. With an awareness of history, it made seeing the pupils run around laughing and playing together all the more important. Every class in both schools takes part in shared education, with staff at the forefront of planning and developing solid relationships and friendships with each other. Everyday leaders taking small steps to make change in the long term.
Thursday morning, the sun was shining as I drove to Stormont Park. I was heading there to facilitate a morning with P1 pupils from Holy Cross Boys PS & Glenwood PS - a school partnership which exists across the interface divide between the Shankill Road and Ardoyne. We spent the morning playing games, going on a scavenger hunt and meeting our puppet friends Fred the Moose & Paulie the Penguin. This was the first time the pupils had met, so you’d be forgiven for thinking there would be a bit of nerves and apprehension. Instead, there was curiosity and the beginnings of friendship. Each child has a ‘buddy’ from their partner school - one person that they get to know and develop a relationship with. Within minutes of meeting their new friend, they were telling each other their favourite colour, finding out which superheroes they both loved and taking each other’s hands to run and search for bugs, leaves and fairies in the forest.
We ended our day at Stormont with a visit to Mo Mowlam Playpark, where the kids played, laughed, and shouted their buddies' names to come and explore with them. My colleague & I were chatting to the staff, and I began to reflect on the poignancy of ending the day in the park. Named after the former Secretary of State who did so much to bring peace here, I liked to think that we were paying her the best tribute we could. Bringing children from across community divides together in friendship and showing that when hope rather than hate is the fuel of the fire, positive change can happen.
These are the stories you won’t always hear about on the news. Stories of ordinary people, working hard on making their community a better place to live. A resilient, open and warm community who deserve to be heard and championed.
And that’s the real North Belfast.