- in Environment
When growing up, many of us will have been told by our parents to avoid certain areas, to not go down certain streets.
In north Belfast, where friction regularly flares between two communities that have lived in uneasy proximity during the bloodiest decades of the Troubles, that advice is more like an unwritten law.
Here, from a young age, people are told they’re different in those no-go areas, in those other streets. You don’t belong there. It’s dangerous.
During the Troubles – a period of conflict in Northern Ireland which lasted almost 30 years and cost the lives of more than 3,500 people – 563 people were killed in north Belfast.
Now, tension is again on the rise, particularly along the interfaces, where predominantly unionist and nationalist areas meet.
In recent weeks, petrol bombs were thrown at police, sectarian graffiti appeared on a Catholic family’s home and a Protestant man was attacked while shopping with his son on the Twelfth.
Politicians called for unity after they said people wearing Gaelic games jerseys were asked to leave the council-owned Grove Park.
First Minister Arlene Foster also criticised people who placed “sectarian and offensive messages” on top of Eleventh Night bonfires.
But some young people are keeping any tension strictly between the ropes of a boxing ring.
“Boxing keeps you out of it, it keeps you busy,” Eamonn Lavery told BBC News NI.
The 14-year-old is a member of Kronk Amateur Boxing Club in the New Lodge, a working class nationalist area.
Along with Midland Amateur Boxing Club, in the nearby unionist Tigers Bay, work is being done to join the two communities, rather than divide them, through the Peace IV Programme, which is funded by the EU.
“We’re throwing punches in the ring, not throwing petrol bombs outside – so it’s all good,” joked 14-year-old Jude Thompson, from Midland.
While many teenagers view certain parts of the city as being “off limits”, the boxing clubs are trying to break down those boundaries.
“We want to build cross-community relations through trips, having a bit of fun, and allowing the kids from both sides to see that there’s no real difference,” said Cooper McClure, Midland’s head coach.
“We have had kids in the past who have been out causing trouble and boxing has changed them, and we’ve had kids who we can’t change.
“There are kids out there who are just bad and no matter what we try – talking to them, helping them, whatever – they just don’t want to know. That’s fair enough.
“But for the kids that do, they learn that when they’re in the ring there is no difference.”
Environment Underprivileged but reaching out
When asked about why they think trouble flares so regularly in north Belfast, no one really has a definitive answer.
But it’s clear that deprivation plays a huge part.
According to official statistics published in 2017, north Belfast is one of the most underprivileged parts of Northern Ireland.
“Both sides of the community in north Belfast are very deprived – you’ve a lot of drug and alcohol abuse and unemployment,” Kronk coach Martin McCullough told BBC News NI.
“There needs to be more investment in places like boxing clubs, which are actively trying to help the kids in these communities.”
Daniel O’Reilly, who lives in Carrick Hill, a nationalist area, said that boxing has allowed him to make friends from different parts of Belfast.
The 13-year-old said that growing up around an interface, you are aware of the conflict, even if you do not get involved.
Now, he goes into boxing gyms in parts of north Belfast he was always warned about as a younger child.
It’s the same for Jude Thompson and Jay Craney, also 14, who live in the predominately unionist Shore Road area.
“Before, I maybe would’ve thought that the ones from Kronk were different from us but they’re not really once you get to know them,” said Jay.
He said that while boxing can be a violent sport, it is controlled, unlike the fighting that often takes place yards away from the Midland gym.
Jude added: “Until you get to know people, like the ones at the Kronk, you think they’re so much different from you because you just don’t go there – but now we’ve both got loads of friends from Whitewell, Shankill, Glencairn, New Lodge, all over north Belfast.”
Jordan Stockard, a coach at Midland, said he “was brought up with the same mindset as the kids”.
But now, he added, if The Star Amateur Boxing Club in the nationalist New Lodge area is having an event “nine times out of 10 we’ll walk there”.
“Growing up, I was always told that was a no-no. You always think that there are certain areas that just don’t mix but boxing shows you that there is no reason why you shouldn’t.”
And coaches Cooper and Martin understand this mentality too. They met as youngsters, when Cooper “was probably the first Protestant kid to come over and box in the New Lodge”.
“Even though it’s so close, you grow up miles apart,” said Martin.
“We want these kids to thrive and so many of them have built up really good friendships.
“They can beat up each other in a controlled environment and then shake hands or go out for the day after, it’s not about religion or where you come from.”
Cooper added: “See, once they go in there, knock each other about and then come out and shake hands, and have enjoyed it and respected one another – that’s our jobs done.”
Streetbeat Youth Project, based in the unionist Shankill area, works with young people aged 11-25.
The youth workers there believe that things “have definitely improved” and say that in recent years “massive strides have been taken”.
They credit youth organisations for helping to bring together people from different communities and create “lasting relationships that carry on into their adult lives”.
Environment ‘Shining light’
Thomas Turley, director of Ardoyne Youth Enterprise, has been involved in youth work in the area for 18 years.
He said that more resources are needed, as well as security for youth workers, to enhance relations long-term.
“North Belfast has so many interfaces and, given times of tension over the summer period, these locations can flare up,” he said.
“We still have much to work on and by providing worthwhile programmes that can enhance the learning and development of our young people, then I believe that we can see successful good relations work being a shining light in north Belfast.”