Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Peace at whose cost? Davy Carlin

Peace at Whose Cost?

My partner and I recently travelled to the Odyssey Centre in Belfast to watch a newly released film. It was our first time travelling across to the venue, getting a 'black hack' down the Falls Road and a private taxi across to its doors. This recent venue holds Warner Village amongst other entertainments while others are still in the process of development. It also hosts a variety of restaurants, not your usual sit in cafe as in the Kennedy Centre picture house in Andersonstown but Spanish, Italian, Chinese cuisine and American diners amongst others to tempt your taste buds. Although only about 5pm, many of these restaurants were quite full with families and groups of school friends, and with meals around a tenner a touch there was still a steady flow of punters.

The centre itself was well furnished with the latest technology and designs all geared towards family entertainment, a testament one may say of the peace process. After the film myself and my partner went outside for a walk along the waterfront where we noticed immediately the cleanness and lack of graffiti as council workers busied themselves picking up the smallest of litter. As we walked past the mounted water sprinklers and watched the dazzling of lights reflect off the water along the water front, we looked also at the lines of luxurious apartments and offices that graced it with many others in construction. It was a far cry from even ten years ago and although not many persons from working class estates could afford such apartments or offices at least their kids can find the benefit of such recent venues as the Odyssey - or can they?

As we took a taxi across to a friend's house in South Belfast I started to wonder as to how many families from local working class areas could attend such a venue with regularity. For two adults and two children to watch a film, grab a hotdog, a drink and maybe some popcorn it would cost, in the Odyssey, around fifty pounds, almost a weeks shopping budget in some homes - this not including transport or sitting in for a meal. Such venues of entertainment were once out of reach to many working class children, in part for political reasons. Now ironically with the peace process such venues are still out of reach to many working class children for now increasingly economic reasons as we see still the poverty gap ever widening. Although such venues are welcomed we will still see mainly those families and communities that bore the brunt of the troubles finding it increasingly difficult to appreciate such alternative family entertainments as such are becoming already increasingly financially out of reach for many.

After a quick visit to our friend’s house we decided to dander through our city that recently did not make the 'A' list for the potential of being the City of Culture. Coming down past the infamous Ulster Hall we saw two young men wrapped in a sleeping blanket with a similar situation across the road. We stopped to briefly chat to them and to find out if they had found hostel shelter to stay in for the night. I found from the brief discussion a story of broken homes and abuse while others had more overt psychological problems. These young men in their early twenties knew neither peace or found a process that gave even a glimmer of hope.

As we then cut down by Brunswick street several other persons were lying outside the Holiday Inn again wrapped in blankets with a bowl and a sign of 'homeless please help' - a woman lay on the ground with her arms embraced in sleep to a partner. Coming then into Castle Street we looked up at our right and another young man was begging outside Primark and as we got into our taxi two men lay asleep urine soaked on a cardboard box while a woman drank from a cider bottle.

As I watched and read the fanfare of the possibility of becoming the City of Culture from nationalist politicians and press, from unionist politicians and press I believe such calls to be but a matter of hope rather than realism. As we then travelled up the Falls I saw some aspects of material change in the community in which I was raised. Where once stood the St Augustine's Youth Club were I went as a child now stood an unemployment centre. Just past that my old primary school St Finians where I attended until the early eighties stands now an education centre, and such material change was reflected in small ways all the way up the road. Yet to me it seems many important issues are given but a gloss where priorities are not based on need but directed towards ever increasingly cross party economic consensus which can cope with political differences as opposed to the once mainly political and economic discrimination with virtually no consensus - isn't it interesting though that the aspects of consensus now found is still leaving many of the same peoples behind?

To those who may be surprised that Belfast did not go forward for the City of Culture, walk through our city - see the ever increasing numbers of homeless laying on our streets with their faces getting younger and their numbers more numerous. Go through our working class estates and on 'both sides' you will find in many cases unity in poverty and social deprivation. Check out the statistics for the growing number of our youth taking their lives. The tourist guides of our city may show our new wonderful sites but I believe we have more important sights that need to be urgently addressed - that of those who eke out an existence on our city streets or those increasing numbers of children and families that live in poverty. A new tourist venue or new exhibition would mean little to them but the mindset of our process I increasingly find as one that seeks prosperity and provides development for sections and areas of our society while crumbs are waved to deprived communities and the vulnerable to be fought over - only the most in need or desperate need apply for their share.

As we got out of our taxi and entered our estate we walked down the alley, in which essential street lights remain still broken, and squeezed past the burnt out car that has lain their for several days. Again I wondered how long it would take 'a call out' if one of those dazzling lights along the water front was broken (so spoiling appearance) or indeed could we see a burnt out car lying for several days outside such apartments? I think not. And despite community activists in working class estates working tirelessly for the communities, many persons in such estates are part of the 'other two sides' within this process. That is - the lifestyles of social and economic inclusion as opposed to the life of persons, families and communities and their continual exclusion.

Whether one argues that this is not deliberate or that the peace process is not perfect it has to be said that there is a mindset amongst many within this process that such issues are of rhetorical priority only. Are those increasing numbers of youth that lie on our streets worth less that bailing out a private company? Are those increasing numbers of children and families falling into poverty worth less than looking for tax breaks for the rich? Is is right that on the one hand to continually finance venues to service those who can afford them while on the other hand continually closing local community, youth and educational centres in the most deprived areas for those that need them?

Our politicians spend much time and finance travelling and looking continually for inward investment - they seek also new and prosperous developments as is witnessed along the water front. All this may be welcomed but I wonder if maybe they could also spend more time and finance on our citizens who have benefited not from this process - could they seek new and affordable developments in areas of need, could they provide more affordable housing and facilities instead of closing down centres and cutting funding? While they marvel and speak out at the new skylight buildings that are springing up in sections of our society let them speak out and address the continual closing of vital services in working class areas.

The process as many have stated is not perfect. The political mindset of the governance of our society was for a long time dictated through a political and religious basis of bias with economic and social repercussions. Despite the political change the continued economic status quo has meant little change for many of the most vulnerable. The divide between Catholic and Protestant is often referred to as the 'two sides' yet this process has increasingly highlighted 'the other two sides' that of the 'haves' and 'have nots'. Is it not time that real and important issues that affect many of our society's somewhat 'forgotten' and vulnerable peoples are given the same attention as that of others?

Davy Carlin

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