April 28, 2009

An unsung hero of cooperation from East Belfast

George Newell is a community worker in a deprived area of East Belfast. He is also well-known in Drogheda, Monaghan and Donegal for the large numbers of working class Belfast Protestants he has brought across the border to experience life in the once feared and hated Irish Republic. He never appears in the media. He doesn’t win any awards. For much of the time he doesn’t even have a properly paid job. He is one more unsung and undecorated hero of cross-border cooperation in Ireland.

Originally from the Shankill Road, Newell came back to Belfast in 1995 after having lived for 10 years in South Africa. What he found on his return shocked and depressed him: “Belfast was still as small-minded as ever. I was amazed how old the young people looked: their shoulders hunched, their heads down, closed in on themselves. They had no motivation, no enthusiasm – life seemed to have died in them.”

He got a job as the cultural development worker in The Base, a community resource centre at the bottom of the Protestant Albertbridge Road and a few yards from the small Catholic enclave of Short Strand. Within a few years, this ‘interface’ area would explode into outright sectarian conflict, with houses burned, shots fired and people intimidated from their homes. Catholic and Protestant near-neighbours in these small terraced streets lived lives of almost total separation and mutual hostility.

In the Protestant areas Newell found a terrible lack of confidence: people knew little or nothing about their own history and culture, let alone the history and culture of their Catholic antagonists. Young people, in particular, were deeply ignorant about the 30 year conflict that had recently consumed their city, and about the history of Northern Ireland. They couldn’t even begin to articulate what it meant to be a unionist, a Protestant, or an Orangeman.

Newell started to educate them in the most obvious but challenging way possible: by bringing them to meet and talk to Northern Catholics and to people south of the border. He brought Protestant flute bands to Monaghan, where they found huge commonalities between their music of bagpipes and Lambeg drums and the uilleann pipes and bodhrans of Irish traditional music. In Emyvale they played past midnight because the locals refused to let them leave. A drama group from Castleblayney came back and put on a play in East Belfast. “They spent a weekend in a loyalist area, and got a real feel of life here – not through the distorting lens of the media” says Newell.

The trips to Monaghan led to invitations to Donegal, and the EU-funded Cultural Pathways project was born, to bring young people from East Belfast and Ballybofey together to play music and sport, talk and debate, and visit one another’s home places. Youngsters from Ballybofey came up to watch a 12th July parade in Belfast: “just to experience it for themselves, so they could make a judgement based on their own personal experience”, says Newell. He is very keen on young people, in particular, experiencing other people’s cultures – that, he believes, is a crucial way to begin to overcome ignorance, mistrust and prejudice.

Adults also wanted to be involved in these new cross-border initiatives. Newell was involved with others – notably Sean Collins in Drogheda – in putting together the PATCH programme (Political Awareness through Citizenship and History), which brought people from four of Belfast’s toughest loyalist areas – Highfield, Mount Vernon, Rathcoole and Inner East Belfast – to meet the ordinary people of Drogheda, hold political debates with them, and host return visits to Belfast. Together they visited republican graves in Glasnevin Cemetery, the Maze Prison, the Somme Centre near Newtownards, Stormont and the Bogside in Derry.

Last year, as with so many reconciliation projects, the EU Peace funding for PATCH ran out. Newell spent five months on the dole. Undeterred, he turned his attention to the new problem of racism. “Seven or eight years ago the people of Belfast would have seen very few black people in their areas. Now there are quite a lot of black kids in East Belfast. Too many young Protestants see such people trying to take something from them – their jobs, their money, their girls – it’s the old siege mentality again.”

To combat this Newell has devised an anti-racism programme which he is now teaching in several secondary schools – both Protestant and Catholic – and with youth groups. He concentrates on trying to change attitudes by focussing on the roles in the community of vital immigrants like doctors and nurses, and on the glamorous ‘coloured’ people of the big soccer clubs and the big screen, people like Didier Drogba, Jackie Chan and Jennifer Lopez.

He was awarded six months funding for this programme from the BBC’s Children in Need charity. This is due to run out at the end of May. Newell doesn’t know what he will do then. If there is any reason and common sense and justice on this island, some benefactor or charitable foundation will come forward with medium-term funding for this remarkable man. For let’s be honest: without support for the mighty work of people like George Newell – reconciliation work in the streets and schools and youth clubs of the hardest of hard-line areas – we may as well forget about a peace process in Northern Ireland. We may as well just sit back and wait for the next explosion of angry, alienated, ignorant young people turning to violence because nobody talked to them or listened to them or provided jobs for them or tried to teach them a better way to become valued citizens of this still deeply-divided society.

Andy Pollak