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"It's not about watering down our cultures or identity, but finding a way to accommodate both."

29th March 2011

On 24th March we held an event to celebrate 10 years in the Stewartstown Road Regeneration Project building. Here is Jean Brown's speech on the evening:

"As Paddy has already said we are delighted to be able to welcome you here today to the 10th anniversary of the Stewartstown Road Regeneration Company. It’s lovely to see people here tonight who were with us right at the start and whom we haven’t seen for a long time.

When we launched our SLIG strategy in September 2008 we told the story of how the small number of us who began tentatively meeting in 1996 had very little, if any, concept of what those meetings would eventually lead to. All of the work that SLIG is doing, the staff that are employed, the support from funders and the recognition that our work would receive, even the development of the Stewartstown Road Company, at that stage, was a very far off, unlikely possibility. A dream that we hadn’t even begun to dream.

We now get lots of visitors and groups who want to come and visit us, to hear about our joint work and it’s very encouraging that both the Stewartstown Road Company and the Suffolk Lenadoon Interface Group are considered as role models of good practice for both community sustainability and community reconciliation. We know that there are now other examples of groups out there in other areas who are doing very good work and it’s very encouraging that many of those groups have come to us over the years to hear our story and learn from our experiences both positive and negative.

It hasn’t been a particularly easy journey as those of us who have been part of it can testify to. We’ve had many bad days, disagreements and different points of view. Before we even moved into the building we spent 6 months in mediation trying to sort out some of our differences but we think that has been one of our strengths. We made an agreement right from the beginning that no matter how tough it got we would work through the issues rather than run away from them and we have. As we always point out given the relative normality in which we now live it is difficult to fully appreciate what an unprecedented, brave and challenging step those first meetings were for the people who were prepared to take them.

We’re standing here now in 2011 with Sinn Fein and the DUP sitting in government together, with our own assembly having just completed its first full term in office, with devolved policing and justice, with ex combatant groups of loyalists and republicans working together, all of which is very positive and necessary to build a normal society. When we began it was very different.

We began against a backdrop of 27 years of ongoing violent conflict, deeply held suspicions and mistrust and during some of the worst years of violence this interface has ever seen, linked to the ongoing situation in Drumcree. We began our work long before a shared society or shared space was even being discussed in any other arena and the idea of cohesion, sharing and integration was an anathema to many people including many in our own communities who found it difficult to understand what we were trying to do and were either unable or unwilling to travel this road with us.

Our history is well documented. Nothing can change it and nobody can rewrite it because we want our story to be told as it was, The Stewartstown Road Regeneration Company was the first of its kind in Northern Ireland, it hadn’t been done before and like we have said, there were no ground rules for us to follow, we made them up as we went along. We weren’t special people. We were just ordinary people who lived in these communities and wanted something different. Who didn’t particularly believe that violence and what was considered to be the norm in which we lived at that time was the answer but were prepared to have a go at the opportunities that was being offered to us at the stage to try something different without any guarantees of success. Was it worth taking the risks for? if you look at what has been achieved since I think that question answers itself.

I know there were a lot of people who were involved and without whom this wouldn’t have happened, and Renee will mention some of them. At this stage I would particularly just like to pay tribute to one of our original stalwarts Liz Balmer who was one of the people there from the beginning prepared to have a go. When Renee and I are talking about our work we always quote Liz at the first joint meeting we had when it was a big deal for us to be meeting at all. You didn’t mess with Liz, you may not have liked what she said but you always knew exactly where you stood with her. Liz said to Michael Doherty ‘before we start any of this it’s important for you to know that I’m British and I’ll always be British and there’s nothing that you can make me do to change that.’ Michael responded by saying that he was really glad to hear that for it was important for her to understand that he was Irish and very proud to be Irish and there was nothing anyone could do to change that either. We agreed that this was a good starting point and this has remained one of our core foundations. That our work was not about watering down or compromising anyone’s culture or identity but to try and find a way to accommodate both.

As Paddy said it is actually 15 years since we began meeting, ten years since our building went up and that isn’t such a long time but it feels like a long time. It feels like history. In terms of marking progress I like to quote my almost 18 year old granddaughter Jasmine who was born in Suffolk and lived her all her life and said to me one day not that long ago ‘Granny, do you know anything about the troubles for we’re doing a project on it in history’ My first thought was ‘how did I get to be that old that they’re looking at my life in history!’ but then I thought how amazing it is that there are young people growing up in our communities who know nothing at all about the dark days through which some of us lived. That’s real progress.

We hope you will take the time to look at the pictures on the walls and remember where we came from and what we had. Our joint work has completely transformed a bleak, desolate space into something that is attractive and welcoming. We have created real jobs and are now generating substantial income that helps to support community development in the Suffolk and Lenadoon areas. Here’s to the future and the best that is yet to come."

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