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Story Publication logo November 17, 2013

Belfast City Official Responds to Youth Discontent

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It has been 15 years since the end of Northern Ireland's Troubles yet in Belfast, a city carved by...


On the River Lagan in Northern Ireland lies Belfast, a city divided by religion and politics dating from the time referred to as "The Troubles." Although the bloody conflict between Catholics and Protestants ended 15 years ago, political tension stills runs rampant in the city. It reached a violent outburst in January 2013, when the City Council declared it illegal to fly the Union flag on public buildings—an exception to be made only on a pre-selected 16 days a year. "Peace walls," barriers built to separate neighborhoods, still stand. And many on both sides would like to keep it that way.

Sammy Douglas, a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, a Democratic Unionist and a Protestant, has spent more than 20 years working to regenerate the economy of East Belfast. He is very well-known throughout Belfast, and when asked for directions on how to get to his offices, people say, "It's the red awning with his name on it. You can't miss it."

According to Sammy Douglas, Belfast is influenced by 5 P's: parades, protesters, police, politicians, and people. Douglas holds a position on the Parades Review Panel, overseeing what he calls "a very complex situation." During summer months in Belfast, known as the "marching season," parades commemorate some of the most violent episodes in history. These parades cut through mainly Catholic districts. Shops that line the street are forced to close, everyday life comes to a halt, and tensions resurface.

A friendly and well-liked man, Douglas has a passion that is unrivaled as he begins to talk about conditions in Belfast. When asked about issues that were important to him, he mentioned the high unemployment rate in Northern Ireland, 25 percent among people under the age of 25, and higher still in Belfast.

People may have ignored this issue, since the young people didn't always have a voice, he says. Social media has changed the dynamic. Yet social media does not always get the facts straight—and young people lost control when news of the flag riots escalated in January 2013.

"To be quite frank, it was a wake-up call for us," Douglas said. "It showed us that we're still a divided society 15 years after the Good Friday Agreement.... "The economic downturn couldn't have happened at a worse time . . ."

"Co-community" organizations that bring together different groups are doing the best that they can to help ease some of the tension. However, the number of these organizations and charities has greatly diminished in the past few years. They may have worked to transform society, but they haven't dealt with the long legacy of hurt and anger felt by both communities.

While many schools have lost their funding integrated schools are "not the silver bullet that solves everything," Douglas says. Religion still factors greatly into education here, with only 6 percent of students coming from integrated schools. Douglas was the first to go to university from a very big family, though his father wanted him to pursue a trade. However, post-secondary education isn't always first on everyone's list, he says.

Although Belfast has a tumultuous feel unlike that of any other city, Douglas keeps working to bring the city together.


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