Changing faces of the youths of today

20 Oct 2017 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 20 Oct 2017


Ardoyne Youth Enterprise helps young people in one of Northern Ireland’s most deprived areas. But times are changing, and the group is changing with them.

The challenges faced by community groups change over time.

Often this is discussed as a matter for forward planning; demographics are changing, local areas are in flux, the associated needs therefore shift too.

But organisations contribute to this picture. If you do good work, and that work has an effect, so the concerns of a community will be eased or at least focused elsewhere.

The word for this is success.

Ardoyne Youth Enterprise (AYE) is a youth and community development organisation that works in Ardoyne, Marrowbone and Oldpark in North Belfast. It is a membership organisation, founded in 1996 – as the Ardoyne Youth Providers Forum.

Its remit is to boost links between local youth services, and to develop available services to ensure local young people were getting the best possible provision – including through partnerships with other areas, such as Ballysillan.

A particular focus is on engagement with harder-to-reach young people, including street engagement, and follow-up work to get them involved with activities, continue their education, and so on.

Ardoyne and the surrounding area has a host of problems. But there have been successes too.

Changing times

Scope recently spoke with AYE Director Shane Whelehan, who has been with the organisation since 2000, and he said their focus has shifted to a great degree. Specifically, young people in the area nowadays are much less concerned about matters of green and orange.

“The key thing about youth work is to have young people help design it and help form it. I think there has been progress. We are lucky to have a very strong, cohesive sector with a lot of collaboration between youth organisations in this area, and with other areas.

“Since the Good Friday Agreement there has been a considerable changing of attitudes, particularly amongst young people. Existing tensions and sectarianism is passed down through generations but there are lots of collaborations between organisations and young people. Poverty on one side of the fence is the same as on the other side, they all play the same games and use the same social media. You can see the progress.

“They are more interest in issues of disparity rather than ‘isms’. They are more interested in LGBT issues, antiracism, the economy and enjoying the city.”

AYE recently carried out a massive survey with young people aged 12 to 17 in the Ardoyne ward. They estimate that about a quarter of the children in that age range responded.

“We asked them about the key issues to them, and out in front – and far and above everything else – were mental health at number one, and drug and alcohol abuse at number two. That was possibly not the case back in 2000.

“It’s good that we are becoming a more typical inner-city deprived area, rather than an exceptional inner-city deprived area. That may seem like a strange positive, but it is one.”

Ardoyne has gained notoriety as a flashpoint for summer marching season, including as the location for the now-defunct Twaddell Avenue protests. Mr Whelehan says that over the past ten years “as the temperature at the interface has decreased” the relevance of these sort of issues to local young people has also decreased, while it has allowed AYE to build capacity elsewhere because they are not so concerned with highly-visible work like removing young people from riots and similar situations.

About ten years ago AYE set up a football tournament to try and keep young people away from trouble of this sort. The George Best Street League was organised with the help of the legendary footballer’s sister Barbara McNarry, and Fr. Aidan Troy.

Last year this ceased to be. Numbers had dwindled year on year as interface concerns decreased, to the point where it stopped.

“It’s nice to see something finish because it’s not required any more.”


AYE is putting more efforts now into one-to-one interventions, dedicated efforts to help the youths who need it most. Street work – engagement officers going out onto the streets in pairs to speak directly with young people – is still important, however.

“We shouldn’t just be about referrals, there should be one-to-one personal development plans with young people.

“The youth engagement team engage and work with at risk and marginalised young people, but also we can dedicate time to them. Our target age range is 0-25, but primarily it is 6-19 and it is probably 14-16 most of all.”

While the nature of the problems faced by Ardoyne has changed, there are still significant problems.

It is an incredibly dense urban area – planners could hardly have fit in more houses – and despite the size of the population, particularly of young people, there is currently no post-primary school (although that is set to change in the next few years).

Mr Whelehan also points out that there is no creche between Ardoyne and Ligoniel, and indication about just how difficult access to some services can be.

Nonetheless, there is a lot of good work that goes on. AYE works regularly with around 40 different voluntary and community groups in the area, 24 of which comprise the membership of AYE itself.

They go to great efforts to publicise all the services in the area – Mr Whelehan says a common refrain from young people is that “there is nothing to do around here” – and ultimately this is bringing benefits.

Currently AYE is run out of an office in Ardoyne Youth Club, although it will soon be moving to new premises in front of the youth club, and is hoping to eventually take on  somewhere even larger on the Crumlin Road.

The Youth Club, one of AYE’s partners, is involved in a number of the excellent schemes young people in the area are able to use, such as R-CITY, a cross-community scheme with Hammer Youth Club from the Shankhill, and Belfast2Blanco – an initiative that links both those youth clubs with the township of George in South Africa.

Organisational concerns – and future planning

Moving into larger premises will be an important step for AYE. They face the same pressures as every other third-sector organisation. They are core funded by the Department for Communities and have other annual grants, while the area also gets investment as part of the Urban Villages project, but being able to generate income would make them far more secure.

“Sustainability as an organisation is our biggest issue. We are like everything else. Lots of really good organisations have gone to the wall in recent years, groups that we never thought would have struggled. We are only as solid as our last contract.

“As an organisation, we need to be more in control of our own destiny. It is important for us to bring in revenue. The only way to do that is through social enterprise. The new building would provide an opporunity to generate revenue.”

Organisational concerns are never part of the core mission of a community group, but they are always paramount. The history of AYE has been a fluid one – which is to its credit – although over time they perhaps took on too much, before a recent appraisal led them to trim back some of their unnecessary strands.

“It was originally set up as a forum and over a period of time slipped into service delivery because other groups didn’t feel confident – for example, we did research into community transport in 2005, and it said it was needed, and this is how it will work. None of our members wanted to lead on it so we set up Ardoyne Community Transport.

“We had an operational review before Christmas because there had been a drift – we were getting into community regeneration and development, etc. – and part of that review made a priority of getting back to basics, talking to people.

“We decided to invest more in communications and that’s about selling good news stories, getting good news out of the district, because there is good news here.”

As the area changes, AYE plans to change with it. They will continue to offer their own services, and also perform their key role in linking together existing services in the area. They also plan to keep working towards the changing needs of the area, and its young people.

“There has been massive change in the community and in the services in the community since I arrived.

“Generational problems can only be dealt with through generational solutions. If you start dealing with problems as a whole, from cradle to grave, you will get better outcomes.

“If young people have the best possible start from when they are born it will change their life chances and opportunities. This has to start as early as possible.”

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