Life beyond drugs and thugs

Despatches from Belfast

In early December, Ikea opened its first Northern Ireland superstore in Belfast. It was the latest example of the city's supposed "normality", reflected in the store's cosy slogan: "Home is the most important place in the world."

Half a mile away, the most important place to a few hundred east Belfast Protestants has also changed drastically in the past year. "Home" for these Ulster loyalists is three small public housing estates, clumped together under the flight path to George Best Belfast City Airport.

In 2005, the estates of Knocknagoney, Orchard and Garnerville were notorious for ceaseless feuding between the three armed loyalist factions, the UDA, UVF and LVF - the latter also known for selling drugs openly on the streets. Things climaxed in the late summer when UDA and UVF supporters moved jointly to expel the LVF, silently but thoroughly, from the area. The inaction of the police in these events was widely criticised at the time, but out of it has come a turning point in relations with local people. "Before, people were simply too afraid to report criminals. No one is afraid any more," says John Lavery, a community activist. This new freedom has also been helped along by groundbreaking education workshops organised by an anti-sectarian group, Trademark.

Through Trademark, local children and adults are being taught about their history and culture in programmes which challenge the usual, narrow interpretation of the two subjects. Shared moments in history are explored, such as the time during the Great War when Catholics and Protestants fought alongside each other. In contrast to the better-known and divisive events of 1916, Trademark focuses on the Battle of Messines in 1917, when the remnants of the 36th Ulster Division shared trenches, tea and death with the 16th Irish Division, raised by the Irish Nationalist leader John Redmond.

Religion itself is being opened up for discussion: the Protestant Reformation, for example, is re-examined as a triumph for free expression, rather than as a war with Catholicism. It is a short step from here to discussing the principles of free speech, and criticising paramilitaries who dress up sectarianism and crime as "defending Protestant culture". Lavery's wife, Michelle, a volunteer with local education projects, agrees "there is definitely less of a fear factor. People are standing up and speaking out."

But what is important to both Laverys is that these changes "are not from the top down". The local community centre has been transformed and is busy with cross-community basketball tournaments and even Irish dancing.

To mark the area's new identity, a huge anti-drugs mural has been commissioned by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and designed and painted by local artists. A decade ago, the mural that defined the community featured a burnt-out car, "celebrating" the riots after the Drumcree Orange march was stopped in 1996. The old paramilitary flags and red-white-and-blue-painted kerbstones have also vanished.

The life chances for local children and teen agers have been transformed. "They no longer have the choice between drugs and thugs," says John Lavery. "The change has been simply tremendous. A couple of years ago, if I wanted some young fellas to do a quick job, there would be 20 or 30 available. Now it's really hard to find them - they're all working!"

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007