Stormont urged to back communities' drive against paramilitaries

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By Rebecca Black

Communities are working to divert young people away from paramilitaries but they need the support of Stormont, the chair of a funding body has warned.

Paddy Harte took up the reins of the International Fund for Ireland in March.

His chairmanship has come at a challenging time with devolved government in Northern Ireland collapsed, Brexit and violence on the streets including the murder of journalist Lyra McKee.

Mr Harte paid tribute to communities as the great unsung hero of Northern Ireland's peace process.

But he warned too much is now being expected of them.

"The resilience which is there in communities has made peace possible but we are expecting too much of communities now," he said.

"We expect they can not have the Assembly, they can spend loads of time talking about Brexit, cross their fingers and say well communities have stayed in place so far, it's just a huge thing to expect of communities," he said.

"A lot of progress has been made by communities however they can only take that so far, you cannot have a healthy prosperous society without a functioning democracy, that's just a fact of life."

Mr Harte described some of the work the IFI funds as diverting young people away from paramilitary groups.

"One of the projects we fund targets hard to reach young people, young people who are vulnerable to recruitment by dissidents," he said.

"Our programme is very targeted, our mentors will literally - with the permission of parents or guardians - go to the bedroom door to say, 'I would like you to come to our course today',

"If they don't turn up that day, they'll go back the next door and persist until they get the young people on the programme so they can then begin to get skills that will get them into employment eventually, build up their personal resilience, expose them to other cultures, expose them to the adverse consequences of violent conflict.

"You can see from the bomb on Bishop Street in Derry and the Lyra McKee murder that its very easy to get young people who are vulnerable involved and once they are involved, the consequences then begin to appear for people.

"There is no point in saying we run those programmes, you have to actively go and talk to the young person until you can get them confident enough to actually go into a room where there are other people doing the course."

Mr Harte grew up in Donegal where his father Paddy served as a Fine Gael TD and also founded the Island of Ireland Peace Park in Messines.

"I've been either actively involved or an observer to peace building since I was quite young," he said.

"That gives me a personal passion to make sure that we continue to work on our relationships on both sides of the border and not allow Brexit or anything else to get in the way. Ultimately how people relate to each other on a human level is far more important."

He recalls the border going back to the 1960s, through the Troubles to quieter times, but now he said it is back in conversations because of Brexit.

"Whenever Nancy Pelosi's delegation was over in April, one of the Congressmen asked me where is the border, I said 'actually I don't know', I know within 50 yards probably," he said.

"It's regrettable those conversations are back and people are imagining borders that may never happen. But once people start imagining things, then they extrapolate that into events and that's the danger. That's the big danger."

Mr Harte said the fund is at the beginning of a new strategy for the "post Brexit era".

"Whatever way Brexit lands, the whole concept of Brexit has rekindled old wounds, fear of identity, threats to culture, and the border and that's going to be a big issue for some time to come," he said.

"I seem to have ended up in a particular place at a particular time, a border person ends up at the head of the fund when the border becomes an issue again."

Mr Harte was speaking as the IFI announced its latest funding allocation, investing £1,133,026/E1,359,631 into nine projects, which are working with the most polarised communities.

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