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The Vacuum - Issue 13 - Wonking with the Community spacer The Vacuum - Issue 13 - Wonking with the Community
Tsun Tzu and the Art of Community Living
by John Hoey
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Some years ago between the second and third IRA ceasefires and as a result of curiosity, interest, a liking for adventure, and a reasonable desire to have a place of my own I chose to set up house within battle range of one of Belfast's notorious 'community interfaces.' In hindsight this can be seen as a slightly naive choice but one that ultimately has been a stimulus to personal growth and provided invaluable insight in to the nature of ideas such as 'community', 'identity', and 'conflict'.
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As a front row resident I viewed many and varied confrontations between 'warriors' from the two tribes. These were mostly laughably shambolic affairs conducted by drunken youths who may have imagined that their capacity to hit an opponent with a bottle or rock would somehow be improved by shouting "bastard" at the instant of releasing said projectile. Occasionally there were well-planned military style attacks aimed at causing serious damage to property with the intention of making people move out of their houses. These kinds of raids always succeeded.
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One particular youth oriented engagement stands out in my memory because I witnessed it alongside one of my neighbours who happened to be the chairman of our small community residents' association - a "community worker" in current mass media parlance. Opposing small groups of youths had gathered at opposite ends of the wide and once grand Victorian boulevard arena rocky ammunition in hand. Soon the first stony volley escalated to a chaotic squabble at the half way point, each side too afraid to use serious weaponry like knives or catapults and too cowardly to directly engage in any kind of hand-to-hand combat. Nothing unusual about this child-centred four minute foray in the afternoon.
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But what surprised me was that my neighbour a lifelong local resident didn't urge the youths from 'our' side to withdraw and take up a defensive, non-engaging position on the high ground. My surprise stemmed from my knowledge - gleaned from a couple of readings of Tsun Tzu's "Art of War" - that this manoeuvre would have forced the attackers to halt and ultimately retreat because of the increasing risk of counterattack from arriving hostile spectators on their now exposed flanks. I felt this also might have been an opportunity for someone oriented towards conflict resolution to begin to illustrate the relevance of a non-violent approach.
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But no, my respected neighbour instead spurred on the adolescents to engage with their opponents - his reasoning presumably being to keep the battle in the middle of the arena thereby preventing the attackers from reaching property on his side. But at what cost to long-term community well being?
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Sometimes there are moments which though perhaps not fully comprehended in the instant nevertheless gain 'plot point' status as your life's script evolves under the editorial influence of events. This one did it for me. It has come to mark the confirmation that violence simply cannot terminate violence be it in Belfast, Basra, or Baghdad.
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Now, half a dozen years on my former home is derelict and unoccupied - along with a full quarter mile stretch of road frontage and blighted side streets centred on the interface. There is hardly anything resembling a community remaining on either side. I've followed my socio-economic destiny by moving to a quiet suburb and professionalized my interest by managing a successful regeneration project situated at another once violent Belfast interface.
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So what has made my current employers' communities progress while others elsewhere in the city have ceased to exist? I often ponder this question and the only conclusion I ever come to is that it all boils down to luck and street geography. Luck in having a critical mass of courageous people living on both sides who know that violence doesn't work but that vision, imagination, and a genuine desire to create constructive change ultimately does. And street geography in that there are some localities where constructive urban tribal living just isn't possible. At the level of youth warfare one side will perceive itself to have a strategic advantage for attack and the other a constant need to ward off such attacks so constant low grade war results.
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