“The Troubles began at the time we moved up to Andersonstown from the Falls Road. My lasting memory is the raids, whenever the army and police came. This would be before Ulsterisation. They closed off streets and searched all the houses. As a young girl, I remember, English soldiers in my bedroom going through clothes. It was very embarrassing more than anything else. It was a very abnormal place to grow up. Although we lived through those times in what appeared to be quite a sane and rational way, I think it left us quite traumatised in terms of our generation.”
Today, Roisin has children of her own and she reflects upon her mother’s life. “I look at my own children and I think what it must have been like for our parents. It must have been absolutely awful. Looking back it was almost like a paralysis in our communities. I became a parent in my late twenties and I remember thinking when the first ceasefire happened… ‘please God don’t let us go back to that.’ I could cope with it while it was happening, but once it was not happening, you didn’t want to go back to it. That was when a great fear came.”
In the beginning, Roisin’s community work centred around youth issues and rights. “ I worked in Ardmonagh Gardens (Turf Lodge), and I really loved it up there. Young people would be referred by the Save The Children Fund, some of the cases would be heartbreaking. As I grew older a realisation came upon me that young people, really didn’t have that much of a chance”.
Roisin found challenges when she went to work with the Belfast Education and Library Board in the Lower Falls, engaging with disaffected young people who were drug abusers, joy riders and those with general anti social behavioural issues. “It was at that stage, working with young people from the Lower Falls area, I started to get a real sense that these young people were very hungry to meet people from the other community. It was then that I started to dabble around inter-community work. It occurred to me that there was certainly more to this conflict than two groups of people not being nice to one another.”
Roisin explains her reasons for becoming a community worker, “It was about equality, justice and empowerment. It was about helping people impact on the decisions that affect their lives… to say to people ‘stand up, stand up and say.”
Mistrust existed in both communities in Northern Ireland. “A lot of the violence was on the back of stories that weren’t true or misinterpretations of people’s actions. We decided to have a community enquiry with a panel from Counteract, Queens University and the Community Relations Council. We asked them to go out to the different areas and to hold hearings where the ordinary public or groups could come and talk. We edited these reports into a book, On The Edge. Fortunately we were able to do another publication, which, looked back at what the community had achieved once we had identified what the problems were.”
From these studies, the groundbreaking mobile phone networks in interface areas, which still exist today, were established. These networks help to create a peaceful environment at segregated interface areas through intervention, prevention, engagement and dialogue.
“We had a lot of trouble getting that first Mobile Phone Network, no one would listen to us and every Government agency didn’t trust us. Eventually we lobbied all the political parties, (there was no Assembly in those days), to put pressure on the civil service. They agreed to give us 13 phones for four weeks. That was many years ago. Now we have mobile phone networks 24 hours a day, all year.”
Roisin vividly recalls the moment when she felt that all the hard work and effort was beginning to pay off.
“We had a meeting with the phone holders. The phone holders grew. More and more friendships developed. One woman arrived late to one of the meetings and she said … listen I’ve just heard on the news that there was trouble at Lanark Way and no one phoned me. What’s the problem?’ One guy from the unionist community said… ‘that is our side, there was a party and they went down and they were kicking the gates.’ A guy from the nationalist community said… ‘hold on, that was our side that did that last night. The army were parked up at the gate and they came up and started to stone them.’ And I thought ‘we’ve done it, we are not blaming each other, we’re taking responsibility’. That’s when I knew that we were going to be able to work this.”
Roisin believes the biggest challenge in today’s society is sectarianism.
“We have a fundamental, underlying issue around sectarianism and I think we’ve taken our eye off the ball. At a Government level people got very complacent. You have to work hard to change hearts and minds. I know the Northern Ireland Assembly is only up and running for a short time. I have great faith that, if we can get past the sectarian politics, we can get to a place where we really are helping people. Part of dealing with sectarianism will be about dealing with our past.”
…and for Northern Ireland, Roisin says. “There are concerts in Belfast now. I just smile at this. I love the idea that people are coming in from outside. I love the idea that we are becoming a multicultural society. So for the future, I think it’s us, the older ones that really have the battles on our hands with our own hearts and minds. I would just love to see a vibrant economy where people if they wanted to work, could work, could go to university, everybody could play their part. A good social fabric where there’s good nurseries and all those things that I never had when I was bringing my kids up”.