For 30 years, Northern Ireland was the scene of violent confrontations between Unionists in favour of remaining within the United Kingdom, who were mainly Protestant, and Republicans in favour of reunification of the two Irelands, who were largely Catholic. It was at this troubled time that Peter Sheridan became a policeman. Today, at a time when Brexit has rekindled certain tensions, he is now convinced that the economy and cooperation are the keys to a better future north and south of the border.
At the age of 16, a bit of guidance from a Catholic priest would set Peter Sheridan on a long career in policing. When he retired more than three decades later, Sheridan didn’t believe a move into peacebuilding was ‘a million miles apart’ from his former career.
Troubles and police
The 63-year-old man who is now carrying boxes into the new headquarters of the NGO Cooperation Ireland in Belfast, served in Northern Ireland during and just after the Troubles – the 30-year long sectarian and violent conflict opposing Irish Republican and British loyalist paramilitaries, and some UK state forces. At stake: the status of Northern Ireland and discrimination against the catholic minority. The conflict claimed over 3,500 lives and left thousands of people injured. It officially ended in 1998 with the signature of the Good Friday agreement.
“My teacher talked to me about joining the police cadets. In 1976 if your teacher told you to do something you did it.”
So, why did a Catholic teenager, who at the time was mainly interested in local girls and football superstar George Best, want to police in a conflict ridden jurisdiction like Northern Ireland? Surrounded by boxes, Peter recounts his journey from policing to peacebuilding: “I kind of fell into it. My careers adviser was also my Irish teacher. A Catholic priest from County Monaghan. He was either looking rid of me or was a visionary. He talked to me about joining the police cadets. In 1976, if your teacher told you to do something you did it. And if your teacher was a priest you definitely did.”
The Met Police in Britain were not recruiting at the time, and An Garda Síochána, the police service in the Republic of Ireland, didn’t reply to his application. So, Peter joined the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) in 1976 and then the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) – this service was created in 2001 after the Good Friday Agreement because it was recognised that policing in the region needed to be reformed.
“Peter remembers his grandmother saying at the time: “If he was born to be shot he’ll never be drowned”
Regarding the possible dangers to him of joining the police in the 1970s, who were viewed by some as legitimate targets by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and other paramilitaries, Peter remembers his grandmother saying at the time: “If he was born to be shot he’ll never be drowned”. He explains: “She was essentially saying if it’s meant to be it’s meant to be, and after 32 years she turned out to be right”.
Peter was stationed in Derry from 1978 until 2003, meaning that the majority of his career was during the era of daily shootings and bombings which left thousands dead, and thousands more injured. The trauma of that time, and the intergenerational trauma that has flowed from it, is still felt acutely today. Concerning the reality of policing a divided place during a time of conflict, Peter is honest: “I was naïve at 16. It wasn’t what you would expect policing to be. I didn’t really understand the politics of what was happening.”
Being a minority in the police
On his retirement from the PSNI in 2008, Peter Sheridan was Assistant Chief Constable, and the most senior ranked Catholic officer policing in a society that has an extremely complicated relationship with policing. For every section of society to have confidence in policing, police forces need to reflect the community they serve, which was not the case at all at that time. According to the 2021 Northern Ireland census, 42,3% of the country identify as Catholic and 37.3% as Protestant or other Christian, and Catholics serving as police officers now represent around a third of the workforce, however two decades ago it was only 5%.
“During the 1980s the guards intercepted a plan for a bomb under my car”
Being a minority in the police force and not wanting to lose his sense of self was a continuing theme throughout Peter’s career. He recalls: “I was in an organisation with a 95% Protestant culture. People could lose their identity or their faith, and I didn’t want to”.
On one of the occasions that Peter was told his life was directly at risk, he understood that he could not continue to attend his usual church service for Mass on Sunday. “During the 1980s the guards intercepted a plan for a bomb under my car. I went to see Bishop Daly (Bishop of Derry between 1974 and 1993, ed.) and he told me I could go to Mass any time of the week, any day”, he recalls. So the Irish Catholic police officer ended up going to the British Army camp on a Sunday. Being in the RUC didn’t prevent him from retaining his identity and culture, nor from doing his job.
Peter finished his policing career aged 48, after being in charge of murder investigations, organised crime, and intelligence. “I was looking for a different career and opted for peace building.” In 2008 he joined Cooperation Ireland. The peacebuilding charity founded in 1979 to promote reconciliation between divided communities in Northern Ireland and understanding between people across the two jurisdictions on the island. To reach that goal, Cooperation Ireland works on a range of cross-border and all-island projects in areas such as education, women’s leadership, youth programmes, and community and economic development.
The former policeman is aware that it might appear to be “an unusual move”, but fifteen years on, this diplomatic man is convinced he made the right choice in joining the NGO. Peter has always argued that “policing should be about peace building and communities” and thus thinks his two careers “should not be a million miles apart”.
Peace process and Brexit
The demographics and political landscape of Northern Ireland are changing, it is at peace but still contested between those who want to maintain Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, and those who wish to reunify with the rest of Ireland following the partition over 102 years ago.
The peace process means a lot to the international community too. The EU has been central to investment in peacebuilding and infrastructure projects. For Peter: “The EU did an enormous amount but Brexit showed how polarised this place still was”. Brexit has accelerated ongoing conversations about the future constitutional position of the jurisdiction – in other words on whether Northern Ireland should stay part of the UK. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement peace accord brokered by the US between the British and Irish governments included a provision allowing for a referendum to take place on the constitution so that in the future a majority of the people could either vote for the status quo, or to create a new, reunited Ireland.
“If you only have your own story then how much of that is about a shared place?"
Over the course of his career, the former policeman has witnessed society changing, but not enough: “A large amount of peace, the absence of violence, is done, but that is different to reconciliation.” Peter believes that when it comes to a post conflict society “there is responsibility on us all to accept there isn’t just one narrative” of the past.
Today different narratives may differ on who is responsible for the conflict, why it carried on for so long, how it could have concluded sooner, and what happens in the future… Looking back, Peter admits he’s not the same “naive” person he was at 16 years of age and urges everyone “to take time to look at things differently in life as you go down the years. If you only have your own story then how much of that is about a shared place?”
Handshake and courage
The work of Cooperation Ireland has the seal of approval from the President of Ireland and the UK royal family. Through quiet conversations the charity was key to arranging one of the iconic global images of peace process reconciliation: a 2012 handshake between the Queen and the late former IRA commander and Sinn Féin deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. “It took enormous courage on both sides to do it. It wasn’t that Martin McGuinness was in favour of the monarchy but he recognised by reaching out that it was an acknowledgement of the Unionist community,” Peter comments.
“It is not the job of Cooperation Ireland to put two fields together, but it is our job to put people together”, Peter argues. And they get the job done, sometimes at a national level but first and foremost at a local level. On the 9th of May the organisation gathered scores of organisations from North and South of the Irish border for its Social Innovation Conference at Crumlin Road Gaol, the former prison of Belfast. The event is part of the Future Innovators project funded by the PEACE IV Programme, and managed by the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB), including resourcing from The Executive Office in Northern Ireland and the Department of Rural and Community Development in Ireland, and costs just under €1,000,000.
The aim of the project is to help communities from Belfast, Derry and Donegal to develop plans to improve the social economy using social innovation. Working with businesses is an important part of Cooperation Ireland’s activities. “It doesn’t matter if it is social enterprise or high tech jobs. It gives the place a different feel,” CI chief executive says. Peter believes passionately that if you want a peaceful society then you need a vibrant economy. “Their part is creating jobs and opportunities for young people and our part is reconciliation. You need both to create the conditions for a peaceful society,” he explains.
In the four-floor Victorian building, which hosted numerous political prisoners during the Troubles, representatives of 14 organisations from Belfast, Derry and Donegal are now sharing their experiences of setting up community interest companies through a series of workshops and masterclasses. Among them, Justin McMinn has just returned from the Homeless World Cup in California where the Northern Ireland team, including players from Syria, Ghana, Yemen and Iran, achieved their best ever result by reaching the quarter finals. “It was incredible. Our goal was to be in the top 16 and we finished in the top 8. Our hearts were broken by Portugal who beat us on penalties,” he says. The 38-old-man from Belfast founded Street Soccer NI 15 years ago after working in a homeless hostel and seeing the physical and mental health benefits of sport.
Now 14 staff work on men’s football, women’s football, and learning disability football projects, and each week around 200 people are participating in programmes in Bangor, Belfast, Coleraine, Derry, and Downpatrick. “It gives players structure, and routine, a sense of family and a network of friends. It also helps us identify needs around housing and employability.” The organisation helps people with their first month’s rent and getting set up in homes. They also fund football coaching and referee badges. Justin is passionate about his job and the value of sport. “It is very rewarding work seeing the change in people’s lives,” he says smiling.
Initiatives like Street Soccer, targeting marginalised or poor communities are highly encouraged by Cooperation Ireland. According to Peter, “a lot of people in working class communities have not had the opportunities they deserve”. “It is critical in a peaceful society. You have to have hope,” he argues. As an example, Peter mentions the young people who were throwing petrol bombs at officers at Easter in Derry, during a Republican parade a few days before the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. “If they could buy their own car and holidays…”, Peter is convinced they would not be doing this. “You don’t have to have the wealth of golfer Rory McIlroy. You need a good standard of living and to be self-sufficient,” the chief executive of Cooperation Ireland explains.
Grants and innovation
Receiving thousands in funding from across Ireland, the EU and elsewhere “helps make a difference to communities”, but organisations are working in an era of stretched budgets so they need to generate cash flow for themselves. Running an organisation such as Street Soccer NI is not always easy.“Grants don’t cover everything, so you have to have a pot of money to be able to use. We had to think of ideas of how to generate income to cover gaps and debts that build up over the course of the year,” Justin explains. Recently the organisation that received £8,000 though the Future Innovators programme decided to launch a social enterprise van removals business.
The passionate director is proud of the results: “We got a van and now do paid dump runs, and house, office and hostel removals”. “Since last November we got our own building in Botanic, and have been able to take furniture and clothes donations. So now we also have a charity shop, and are developing our website,” he adds.
In Derry, the North West Cultural Partnership charity followed the same path. The organisation located in New Gate Arts and Culture Center in the Fountain area, home to the small Protestant, Unionist, loyalist community in the city which has a majority Catholic, nationalist, Republican population, also benefited from a £8 000 grant. Just like Justin and Peter, Kyle, the business executive of the charity, is committed to making his community stronger and more prosperous. The 36-year-old man with a background in community development and accountancy clearly understands the importance of growing the economy to strengthen the capacity of the local population.
The charity, which does a lot of cross community and cross border work, programmes and projects, has found a new way to generate income and pursue its mission at the same time, “changing misconceptions and preconceptions, and allowing people to express themselves and build relationships”. “We looked at getting a recording studio done up to help the community and give people the ability to express themselves. And then it could be rented out and generate income and help communities,” Kyle explains. “The main thing for us is creating a vibrant space where it is safe. The knock-on effect of that makes changes in how people think. We need to extend that. You can see what we do is making a difference. The people we work with have more confidence.”
A new cycle
On the other side of the Irish border, in the village of Termon near Letterkenny in County Donegal, Majella Orr (48) is also enthusiastic. This warm and caring woman used to work in an insurance and estate agency, but made a career change into community development as her family grew. She is now manager at the Craoibhín Community Enterprise Centre providing childcare and after school services, sports facilities, meeting rooms, and adult education classes.
Lately, together with her 25 staff, she came up with a new idea: ‘Grass Routes’ bike hire business, and ‘Cycle Right’ courses for children in cycling proficiency and safe cycling practices. Termon is a very rural location so does not have the footpaths you find in cities, therefore knowing how to be safe on the roads is important. “We have a lot of displaced people in our local schools from Ukraine, Somalia and elsewhere so teaching them about the rules of the road in Ireland is so important.” As a parent also concerned about reducing carbon footprints, Majell Orr hopes that thanks to this activity kids “will cycle more in their life”.
The bustling centre, at the heart of the village, has been a focal point of the community since it opened. “We had lots going in the winter but in the summer nothing was happening, so Cycle Right courses came about as another way of generating income,” explains the manager of the centre enterprise that received €3,000 through the Future Innovators programme. “And the feedback we get is fantastic,” Majella says with joy. “Cycling is one of those things, it does not matter where you are from or what language you speak, kids all enjoy cycling”.
As the event at Crumlin Road Gaol comes to an end Peter is pleased with the success of all the organisations it is working with and is thrilled the Future Innovators event allowed groups to learn more from each other and about how to develop their ideas. “I always get a buzz from those events. Bringing together groups from the far end of Donegal to the people in Belfast. It does your heart good. They are good news stories. You know progress is being made in this place.” Real cooperation in progress.
This story is part of the YOUTHopia campaign, a journalistic project shedding new lights on the EU Cohesion Policy.
Brexit and funding cuts
With Brexit now in force, many associations in Northern Ireland have found themselves faced with one of their biggest concerns: budget cuts. Before Brexit, Europe, through its European Social Fund, subsidised hundreds of associations with up to 40 million pounds a year. To replace this aid, the United Kingdom has created the UK Shared Prosperity fund – 57 million pounds over two years. But not all the NGOs have received a favourable response to their grant applications, as is the case for the Women’s Centre in Derry. Its director, Catherine Barr, provides an update on the situation.
ereb : Before Brexit, you were funded by the ESF, how were you using this money?
We used it to combat poverty by helping people furthest from the labour market gain access to education, vocational training, gain life learning skills and gain sustainable quality jobs.
Our project promotes social inclusion by addressing the challenges and specific barriers faced by women furthest from the labour market – unemployed or economically inactive women, women from BAME backgrounds – as well as lone unemployed parents. We deliver a holistic range of mentoring and support activities such as the delivery of work qualifications, training plans, literacy and numeracy assessments, childcare, CV writing, job search and interview practice…
With Brexit you lost this funding, what happened?
Funded organisations campaigned for over two years about the impact that the loss of funding would have within our communities and on the most vulnerable people that are hard to reach. Organisations were told that UKSPF (the UK Shared Prosperity Fund that was created in 2022 to succeed the old EU structural funds, ed.) would be the new fund which we could apply to for the same work. The outcome for the UKSPF (the fact that their ESF was not being replaced, ed.) came out on the morning of Friday 31st March, meaning staff had no job to return to the following Monday and many services were immediately cut.
What were the direct consequences for your organisation?
Last year 292 women were supported by our programme, 165 gained accredited qualifications, 72 gained jobs, 116 progressed onto further education. Loss in funding means that these services can’t be provided and there were 6 layoffs in our organisation.
Why is this funding not being replaced?
All budgets were being decreased and the number of key resources needed for each government department was increasing. Nobody stepped up to cover the funding and all previous match funding was also pulled from government departments.
Have you found any solutions to compensate for this loss?
We are now a HUB for Triax, – Success North West project, an ESF group which was successful in gaining a UKSPF project in our area. This means we can provide a reduced number of services. This still leaves a difference of 90% in the activities we provided before.
We are also recruiting for other UKSPF programmes, providing classrooms and onsite childcare to ensure women can engage and remove barriers. The Women’s Centre is doing this with reduced staffing and no additional budget to ensure women are not disadvantaged as a result of the funding decisions.