Building Cultural Networks: Community-led project looking to the future of unionist culture and identity in NI

(L-R): Rev Harold Good OBE, BCN Steering Group and Mark Roxborough, BCN Project Worker.
-Credit: (Image: Ephy McConnell)


A new community-led project is looking to the future of unionist culture and identity in Northern Ireland. Building Cultural Networks, a group formed 18 months ago, is creating a framework for a more positive approach to cultural expression.

On Wednesday, May 29, the group held a convention attended by over 300 people, titled Cultural Expression: Rights, Roles, and Responsibilities, to target important topics affecting the unionist and loyalist community, including bonfires, policy, marching bands, and the arts. The main aim was to discuss how the community can celebrate its own identity in a responsible way.

It comes ahead of the summer marching season and The Twelfth, with the team at Building Cultural Networks working within communities across Northern Ireland year round to help manage many of the highly contentious and dangerous challenges around bonfires and cultural celebrations.

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Speaking to Belfast Live, Reverend Harold Good, an influential figure during the peace process and member of Building Cultural Networks' Steering Group, described issues around cultural expression as "the unfinished business of the Good Friday Agreement."

He said: "The conference title sets the scene, two words that spring out to me are rights and responsibilities - the right for people to be able to celebrate their own identity, their cultural identity. That's a basic human right for people, for all of us, no matter what our cultural identity may be, it's a right to be able to celebrate that and to express it and to share it.

"But alongside that is the word responsibility and you can't have one without the other. You have to be able to enjoy your right and be able to practise your right in a responsible way.

"That's what the theme of this is, it applies equally across our community be it loyalist or republican, we're saying the same message to everybody, but we're starting with ourselves. It's important before you start telling other people what to do that you practice what you preach."

Rev Good said they are keen to focus on a more positive way of celebrating. Recognising contentious celebrations in the past, they're looking at how they can move past this, and empower the unionist community to celebrate without demonising other cultures.

He explained: "This is about understanding what it means to be responsible. We've heard some very good stories this morning of places where people have taken responsibility in a new way for this celebration, so it doesn't become not only divisive but dangerous.

"The theme is how do we celebrate our cultural identity in ways that are happy and safe and not divisive. To be able to celebrate your own culture without demonising others. That was the old way of doing it, it was less of a celebration of your own culture, and more about demonising others. It's time to move away from that."

The Building Cultural Networks convention during one of its panel sessions with Panel Chair Dan Gordon.
The Building Cultural Networks convention during one of its panel sessions with Panel Chair Dan Gordon. -Credit:Ephy McConnell

Mark Roxborough, Building Cultural Networks Project Worker for the North West area, said they wanted to bring people from all aspects of unionism and loyalism together to discuss the best way forward for cultural expression. He said the project is all about building good foundations and networks within communities.

Mark said: "We're operating in a pilot area over 16 council areas in Northern Ireland. In each of those areas, we would have a cultural partner, someone who has delivered as a proven track record in delivering within the community and good community work. We're building up from that, and that's obviously with the support of the International Fund for Ireland to be able to do this and have this sort of outreach.

"I'm based at the New Gate Arts and Culture Centre, which is in the Fountain in Londonderry. Within the Fountain, we would hold cultural celebrations, people would normally assume it was maybe the 11th of July or the 11th of August, the main ones. But actually, the community wants to actively be involved throughout the year.

"For instance, for the King's Coronation we were able to bring the primary school together, the school children were involved, the local church St Columb's Cathedral was involved.

"All your different community groups within the community, those who are involved in building bonfires, and bringing them together to show you know what the celebration can really look like in a positive way. We've also done that in terms of remembrance and other events as well."

Looking ahead to the summer marching season and The Twelfth, the team at Building Cultural Networks is working within communities to ensure celebrations occur peacefully, in a more positive and family friendly way. Over the past 18 months, the project has made a significant contribution in helping to manage many of the highly contentious and dangerous challenges around bonfires and cultural celebrations.

Playing a crucial role in conflict prevention, they helped contribute to one of the quietest and more peaceful summers experienced in Northern Ireland in recent times.

Mark said: "A mantra for us is to seek peace and pursue it. Whenever it comes to July, before BCN you might have had politicians who would come in and maybe speak before the 11th of July to the bonfire builders or people come in and just interact for a short period of time. Sometimes to impose and enforce, rather than to endorse and build up the communities, to build up leadership from within.

"The great thing about this project is we've been working tirelessly up to this point, so this is a continuation now. We try to make sure we're all pulling together and working together."

Rev Good said the project began with looking at the topic of bonfires and marching season, but it has grown beyond that to helping communities have the confidence to celebrate their identity without feeling threatened.

"This project really began with the kind of attempt to bring some discipline, some order, into the bonfire situation and marching as well. But it's now blossoming well beyond that, it's now about building confidence and building relationships," he said.

"It's about giving people confidence in their community, then they feel concerned and they're not feeling threatened by others. When you feel under threat, at times, you do things you know don't make sense.

"If people feel confident in themselves and in their own community, you can relate much more comfortably to other people."

The Building Cultural Networks project is funded by the International Fund for Ireland's Peace Impact Programme, and is supported by its lead partner organisation Action for Community Transformation.

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