East Belfast community work is ready to blossom

6 Sep 2019 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 6 Sep 2019

A multi-partner project aiming to build capacity and leadership among community groups appears to be that rare thing – an unqualified success.


Summer’s over and East Belfast is likely to fall out of the news.

The public’s defining memory about the east of the city’s in 2019 will probably be the Avoniel bonfire and the many, many ructions that both led to that stand off and followed in its wake.

If there is any rival at all, it is Harland and Wolff, and the ongoing threat of complete closure and the loss of a huge number of jobs.

Leaving aside politics – and the potential for a general election with another live contest in East Belfast– the fact is, when the days start to shorten the east side tends to lose that place in the spotlight that it garners in June, July and August.

Any end to Belfast’s shipyards would fall outside the usual green-vs-orange themes of summer discourse. However, it would fit well with the broader narrative of areas that once thrived but now do not, and where increasingly flags, emblems and the rest fill the space left by shrinking of ambitions for the future.

But there’s a problem here. Narratives like this are, at their kindest, dim-witted pastiche. At their cruellest (or most thoughtless) they are snobbery or worse. They are also failures of insight that reduce certain communities, and the individuals within those communities, to cartoons.

East Belfast has plenty going on, including in the areas of need that are amongst the most deprived in all of Northern Ireland. Nobody cares only about bonfires.

Building capacity

In April – just before the summer really started to heat up – NICVA, alongside various partners, completed the East Belfast Community Capacity and Leadership Programme.

The third sector has a lot of power and can do a huge amount of good but, the truth is, outside organisations can only do so much. The real driver of social change are within.

The programme was an enormous success. Expectations were far exceeded. This starts and ends with the people who took part – community workers and community leaders in East Belfast, working on a wide variety of schemes trying to boost the area socially, economically and culturally.

The programme was funded by the Social Investment Fund, as part of the Delivering Change programme, and worked with community groups and civic-minded individuals to improve capacity, leadership and networking. It was led and managed by the East Belfast Community Development Agency (EBCDA) and delivered by NICVA, Interaction Institute, Youth Action and TIDES Training.

Scope spoke with Helen McLaughlin, Project Coordinator at NICVA, about the programme. She said: “The reason it was important to do it in East Belfast is because of all the reasons we know around issues in East Belfast. Those issues are not exclusive to East Belfast, but it gets a lot of really bad media attention. We know there are challenges the community faces.

“There are communities that feel that the peace process hasn’t benefitted them. Because of the bonfires East Belfast gets a big spotlight in the summer. However, we didn’t set up this programme because of parades or bonfires. It was aimed at East Belfast because of disadvantage, because of increasing poverty, because of lower levels of community development, because of what we know about educational underachievement.

“It was about building capacity generally and giving people leadership tools to build things for the community and make life better in their community and also enhance leadership skills because that’s what brings you out of stale situations and towards a better future.”


The programme dates back to May 2017 but really got going a few months later. The services and ways to engage included accredited training (in various areas), bespoke training for individual groups; mentoring in leadership, governance reviews, networking events, support for emerging leaders and also partnership projects.

However it was intended, by design, to be flexible. Anyone could pick up the phone, ask questions, or make requests for assistance that really suited their needs. Overall, it far exceeded the targets set:

  • 181 groups/organisations were involved in the programme
  • 602 individuals took part
  • Over 400 sessions were held with more than 2000 attendees
  • Over 150 accreditations were achieved

Ms McLaughlin said: “There were ambitious targets about what was going to be delivered and we far exceeded those. It shows the appetite in East Belfast for this kind of thing. It was so positive. I didn’t go through a single door where people went “What’s the point of this? It’s a waste of time.” They got involved, came on courses, and spread the word amongst themselves.

“There are a whole raft of complex social issues and challenges facing East Belfast. There is also recognition that people need to be equipped and motivated to deal with those things.

“We have had a failure of political leadership at the top levels, so people need to be given the skills and capacity to look at what they can do for themselves or how can they influence those higher levels of leadership.

“We have had decades of programmes in NI and you can understand community groups going “Oh, another one” and being wary of it - but that didn’t happen at all. There was a willingness and people expressed how delighted they were to have and to be able to take this opportunity.”



Wider support – and the future

Part of the programme involved the construction of an emerging leaders group, made up of young people who want to improve communities in East Belfast.

This group has decided to continue to meet and build links with each other, offering an example of tangible progress among community groups in the east of the city.

Ms McLaughlin cites this as one of the most important developments from the programme, while other highlights include working with the Scaffolding Project – a collaboration based at East Belfast Partnership.

“It comprises about 16 different groups and organisation which in some way are doing something around poverty. very pleased we have supported them with bespoke training on lobbying and training.

“They are not just about putting food in people’s mouths, they are interested in getting to the bottom of why poverty has increased, what the systems and structures and policies are that have caused that, and how as a partnership they can intervene to turn that gigantic tanker around.”

The programme’s success also owes a debt to its construction – and, according to Ms McLaughlin, the Executive Office, who gave plenty of room for a tailored approach.

“It was a programme that was not heavily pre-designed by the funder, that being Executive Office who supported it with the Social Investment Fund.

“Yes, the tender laid out various specifications but within that they showed a fair bit of recognition for what people were saying - that they needed a bit of flexibility to meet community needs.”

NICVA CEO Seamus McAleavey said: “We at NICVA believe that the East Belfast programme has been so successful because of the model used. The programme offered multiple ways to engage, was delivered by a team of experts and used a Community Development approach throughout.

“We believe that this flexible model offering different ways to engage with a focus on meeting needs rather than just delivering an off-the-shelf product, is the reason that the programme has exceeded all anticipated targets.”

The organisations behind this scheme received incredibly positive feedback from the individuals and groups involved. Many have changed their practices. Many relationships have been built. Organisations say they have better links with potential partners and feel more connected and aware of ongoing work in East Belfast.

All of these are positives and bode well for the future.

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