27th March 2023

Community Relations Forum rises like a phoenix from the ashes to act as beacon of hope for local community

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The Community Relations Council (CRC) joined forces with the Community Relations Forum (CRF) in the late 1990s to secure a new shared space in Glengormley for the local community – only for their plans to suffer a major setback when the newly created hub was destroyed in a 2010 arson attack.

Now the Barron Hall has been rebuilt, rising like a phoenix from the flames, and is every bit as vibrant and full of life as originally hoped.

The need for the hub was originally identified back in the 1990s, at a time when Glengormley was facing a series of traditional cross-community challenges, according to Kathy Wolff of CRF.

“At the political level, the area is included in the Belfast North constituency when it came to MLAs and MPs, but what is now called Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council when it came to locally elected Councillors,” she explains.

“Some parts of our area also falls under South Antrim and some parts fall under East Antrim. You’ve a kind of wee jumble of stuff with people coming from all parts.

“The demographics were changing through the area; people were moving in and new housing developments were starting to be built.

“The area was changing. It seemed as if an unofficial interface was being created and the Community Relations Forum could see the challenges developing.

“Along with help and support from CRC we began to look to the future of our area and find ways to get people involved to overcome these challenges.”

That’s how a group of Protestant and Catholic residents came to join forces in 1993 to build Newtownabbey Community Relations Forum, a new group with a vision of a vibrant shared space where everybody would be equal.

Most importantly, it would be a grassroots-based organisation, with people of all religions and none, coming from urban and rural areas, forming friendships and with an aim to build positive relationships within the area.

For most of the people in the group there was something in their background – either they were living in an area that had seen a lot of violence or they had personal experiences that made them want to make a difference. Sometimes this is what provides the impetus to say ‘I want to make a change. I've been through this, but I don't want my kids to go through it

Kathy Wolff - CRF

“We were frustrated; we wanted to change what was coming up for the next generation – and the answer? Well, everybody must do their wee bit.”

The first thing, Kathy says, was to decide what they wanted to see happening and how they would get there.

“We asked the people of the area what they wanted, what they thought Good Relations was and how we could bring people together to start talking. With the support and advice of CRC and others we went back to basics. We looked at NVQ courses, training sessions and we asked what classes we should put on and what people needed.”

The answer, well it was to offer what people wanted – classes, fun events, music nights, intergenerational events with younger and older people, training, community mediation services, mentoring, dialogue forums.

The group were making positive progress in those early days with people joining in, building new relationships, and strengthening existing ones.

As participation and interest continued to grow CRF were faced with a positive problem: how could they meet all this new demand and interest in its work? They needed a bigger local venue to support their peacebuilding work.

“We had office space, but no meeting space,” Kathy says.

That’s where the Barron Hall came in. Dating back to 1884, it had previously been called The Meeting Hall and been a venue for Sunday School and where workers from the nearby mill would come for a cup of tea and a bun on many occasions. The Hall was also a school – Whitewell National School – before it was damaged in a fire and then rebuilt. When it was rebuilt, the name changed to Barron Hall after the Rev Barron who was the person who originally was behind the setting up of the Meeting Hall.

In 2008, the opportunity came up for CRF to take it on. One of the requirements set out in the deeds was that it had to be used for the betterment of the local community – so CRF fitted the bill perfectly.

“The Hall has something very magical about it,” Kathy says. “It has a long and vibrant social history and CRF were delighted to be able to take on the building and use it for delivering the activities and programmes that were of so much interest and benefit.

“It was daunting! This was a whole new area of learning and development for us. However, with the support and skills of the local community, Council, and CRC we were really driven to make the Hall a hub of peace building and good relations in our area.”

Although the group now had a proper home of their own, disaster was about to strike.

“We had secured funding for about a quarter of a million pounds to renovate the Barron Hall, when it was set on fire in 2010. Someone went up on the roof and poured petrol down into the Hall. The walls were still standing, but there was no roof and the interior was destroyed,” says Kathy.

Kathy admits 2010 was a difficult year for the CRF, with the Hall extensively damaged in a deliberate attack with the future looking bleak.

She recalls the terrible night of the blaze: “I was at home and one of the ladies that comes to classes phoned at about midnight and said, ‘I’m sorry, but the Hall is on fire’.

“Then the police rang me and said that they were coming to get me. I knew that if the police offered to come and get me, it must be bad. When I got there the flames were coming out of the roof!”

“As I watched I was asking myself ‘Why does somebody hate us this much that they would set the hall on fire?

“The police sent us home as there was nothing we could do and early the next morning I arrived at the hall. Local people were stopping their cars and getting out putting their arms around us, saying this shouldn’t have happened.”

“The people who had been coming to our classes were coming with sandwiches and sausage rolls and flasks of tea. It was great to have that support right there and then. Many people just couldn’t believe it”.

“In the following hours we realised that everything was gone! No computers, no files, and no office! CRC were on the phone straight away to offer support, offering to help in any way at all.” Kathy says.

“CRC stepped up. Practical help was needed as well as emotional – and I got both. They helped me replace forms, sent me information that I had lost and gave me a shoulder to cry on – a real source of support and encouragement that continued as we redoubled our efforts to address the challenges in the area. We wouldn’t give up!”

“Looking back, I remember thinking how hard it was to understand how someone can hate the work that you do so much that they climb on to the hall roof and pour petrol through the tiles. It was simply unbelievable. Did it make me angry? Yes, very angry to see all our hard work go up in smoke just days after securing over £250,000 to renovate the building.

“What kept me going was the support, kindness and love that people, I didn’t know and people that I did know, offered to me during this difficult time.

“It took two years to rebuild Barron Hall and it reopened at long last in 2012. It has a great atmosphere, and we have an open-door policy. You can come in, have a cup of tea and a shoulder to lean on, and, if we can’t help you, we can signpost you to someone who can,” Kathy says.

“It is a safe place where people can engage. You might have differences of opinion, but that is what they are- differences of opinion and nothing more than that.

“I look back and think about the community relations work that we have been able to do in our area with the support of CRC and other funders.”

The activities keep on coming – from litter picks, Meet the Neighbours events, karaoke nights to women’s groups, monitoring mini Twelfth events locally, to supporting the PSNI and organising the Great Glengormley Get Together.

“We’ve had 30 people in some of the classes over Zoom during the Covid-19 pandemic and we saw 3,000 people coming to the Great Glengormley Get Together. So, we’re happy that what we’re doing is right. And something we have learned from working with CRC is that working in partnership and collaborating are really important,” Kathy says.

For example, CRF has just secured funding from The Policing Board to engage with young people in Lilian Bland Park every Friday night to support the police and reduce anti-social behaviour. CRF is also delivering a hate crime programme to support victims of hate crime. They’re also delivering Women into Politics courses.

“We recently did a history of Lilian Bland for the women in the area, and looked at the Northern Ireland Centenary,” Kathy says.

“We secured funding to put out mental health packs through the Covid-19 pandemic, and we went round as many people as we could to check if everybody was all right.”

Working with others provides CRF with the support and encouragement required to help build more united communities.

“Council, funders, statutory bodies, community organisations, local clergy, and schools all play a massive part in providing the energy and enthusiasm to keep going. And of course, local people and our Board make a massive difference,” Kathy says.

But Kathy admits that work continues to be challenging.

“One sure thing – my job’s not boring. There are times when it can be very challenging but that’s what life is like,” she says.

“What advice would I give to someone else that is facing a difficult situation like we did? Well, let people support you, ask for help if you need it, cry if it makes you feel better and remember you are never on your own. I wasn’t, and CRC and all the core funded groups certainly made sure that I knew that I wasn’t alone. The local community and even those as far away as America, all supported us.

“Rome wasn’t built in a day and peace won’t be either, but whilst people want change and are prepared to work towards it, we will always have hope.”