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Blog: Thanks Hughie!

Hugh Smyth

I count it a privilege to have worked with the late Hugh Smyth, O.B.E. for over four decades on the Shankill: him as the politician and me as a community worker.

The working relationship went back to the early days of redevelopment in the 1970’s, when Hughie was first elected a Shankill Councillor and held a critically important post in City Hall on the Town Planning Committee, a position he maintained for decades.  From there, Hugh could block, cajole and negotiate every plan produced, as he would have said, “to rape and plunder” the Shankill.  And that epitomised Hughie’s political career:  at its heart, and from his heart, but always using his head, he fought the Shankill’s corner and never gave up.

Hugh was a sharp political operator, in the best sense of the word, but was at his very sharpest with his ready and at times acerbic wit; feared by his political opponents but which often diffused tense negotiations and confrontations.  I once heard Gerry Adams publicly recognise Hughie’s witty interventions as vital in relieving tension during critical moments in the negotiations on the Good Friday Agreement.  As Lord Mayor in 1994/1995 he invited the Lord Mayor of Dublin on a first official visit to Belfast – a big symbolic act at the time.  On arriving in City Hall, Sean “Dublin Bay” Loftus (Green Party), by way of breaking the formality on meeting Hughie, referred to Down winning the all Ireland Gaelic final the day before and said, “I see we sent Sam Maguire up North yesterday”. Quick as a flash Hughie retorted “about time yez extradited somebody”! Nobody ever knew whether he was serious or not!

I believe he was unrivalled by any politicians for his wit and anecdotes.  They were legion and the legend will grow!

But if Hughie was Shankill through and through, and he was, he was also always able to see the big picture and the big opportunity beyond the Road.  He loved Belfast and led support for projects like the Waterfront Hall, back in the day when they were risky.  It was Hughie who brought back from a visit to Baltimore, a vision of a waterfront development that became Laganside.  He linked Belfast, as a sister city, with Nashville back in 1994 (he loved an aul chant and was a great crooner, especially country and western). This week, when the present Lord Mayor made Boston a sister city, he was building on ground-breaking visits to Boston by Hugh Smyth and the Lord Mayor of Dublin, way back in 1995.  Back then Hugh Smyth regularly broke the mould of Unionists and remodelled it right into the heart of the capital of Irish America.  He had no fear and was never overawed in doing this:  he was a pathfinder for all the Unionists who were to follow the White House trail.

However, I believe Hughie was proudest of his representation of working-class issues.  He formed the original working class opposition to the Unionist “fur coat brigade” in Belfast Corporation along with Gerry Fitt and Paddy Devlin back in the 1970’s  (he was close to Devlin and learned much of the art of politics from him). Hugh was the epitome of what David Ervine described as the “innate working-classism” in the P.U.P. – a Party Hughie helped form but which he pre-dated as an Independent.

Hugh Smyth was in that lineage of "independents" and working-class representatives sent to City Hall and Stormont from the Shankill – Nixon, Henderson, Boyd, McQuade and Smyth!  From the start he ran a daily advice centre, now called surgeries, in small dingy back offices for decades, with nothing more than a pen, a scrap of paper to scribble down constituents’ names and details and a phone which he used to great effect to resolve people’s problems.

Hugh Smyth’s achievements were not only party political but he was a founder member and served on many community projects such as The Greater Shankill Development Agency, Shankill Community Projects, Argyle Business Centre, Greater Shankill Partnership and of course his beloved Rangers Social Club.    He saw opportunities early and when Making Belfast Work was launched as the “West Belfast Initiative”, Hughie secured a Shankill focus in it right away, declaring “poverty know no religion”.  He was a True Blue and Orangeman but able to reach out to the other side.  Fitting then his funeral will be from West Belfast Orange Hall AND St. Anne’s Cathedral.  They say a sign of greatness is that a man “can straddle both sides at once” – even in death Hugh Smyth will do that.

The Shankill was lucky to have Hughie Smyth.  I was lucky to know and work with him.  He created the “space” for people in which to do constructive work and he gave them political cover.  The term “progressive” was invented for him.  We won’t see his like again and he will be missed, but not forgotten.



Shankill Population on the Rise

DSD Minister Mervyn Storey announced another 22 social & affordable homes for the Lawnbrook area at the Greater Shankill Housing Convention yesterday.

Speaking at the Convention, Minister Storey committed his Department to ensuring that the bad days of redevelopment are behind the Shankill. He made a personal commitment to the area, which he has now visited four times since his appointment last September. The Minister also stated that he is in contact with Minister John O'Dowd to see what can be done jointly to save Malvern Primary School.

Opening the Convention on behalf of the Agreed Agenda Group, Jackie Redpath called for a new Housing Strategy for Greater Shankill to build a sustainable community and address the issue of vacant sites. It was noted that for the first time in four decades, the Greater Shankill population has consistently risen over the last four years.

The Convention also noted achievements on the housing front since it last met as a Housing Convention in 2011: in Battenberg St (54 homes & 22 announced by Minister); Lower Shankill (33 & further 21 in pipeline); Woodvale (89); Ainsworth ( 5/6 to be built); Lower Oldpark ( 26 derelicts refurbished & 10/12 planned) and the Somervale development, after 12 years of struggle.


Blog: Our Children – Our Young People

This Thursday and Friday, 27/28 March, the Shankill will once more gather itself together in a Community Convention.

Thursday morning will showcase the often ground-breaking work of those who work with children and young people in our community.  On Thursday afternoon our children and young people will showcase their own work and achievements, all of which will be a remarkable story.

Then on Friday morning, in the Spectrum Centre, Convention 2014 will report back on how  previous Convention recommendations have been delivered on or not, around SIF; Integrated Services; the designation of Greater Shankill as a Children & Young People’s Zone; education, employment; infrastructure developments and neighbourhood renewal, and chart the next stage of our journey forward as a community.

All of this is against the backdrop of the impasse at Ardoyne, the on-going flag dispute, the failure of the Haass talks to reach agreement and the sometimes toxic political atmosphere.  It is a tribute to the maturity of the Shankill community that we will come together once again at a Convention to focus on that “pearl of great price” – the future of our children, young people and grandchildren.  Can anyone dispute that we owe them that future?

We owe them not least because of the massive educational deficit they have inherited, which so limits the fuller realisation of their life chances.  Shankill, Crumlin and Woodvale wards are 1/2/3 at the bottom of the 282 wards in N. Ireland for educational achievement and have been so since records began.

It didn’t once matter so much, because a generation ago there was always a job there for you in the shipyard, Mackies on the Road, or in one of the 18 linen mills within one square mile of the Road.  It matters now!!

Believe me; the scale of this problem for our children is so big that there is no single Government Department; no single Government Agency; no school; no church; no community organisation and no family also on their own who can turn this around.

It is only by a vision-led, focused coherent, and co-ordinated plan by every Department, Agency, church, school, community & youth group, G.P., social worker, probation officer, girl guides and BB Company and with every family that we can right this wrong; this injustice.  Oh, and it will take a generation to achieve!  You get the picture I’m sure.

This “concert of action” needs a framework to operate within, or else it will not hold together.  That is why we need the Greater Shankill designated and zoned as an area for priority action for our children and grandchildren.  A context in which we can all work together.

Convention 2014 will put in place the final pieces of the jigsaw to allow this historic advancement to happen.

Be part of this next step for generational change.  Be there – be the change!!

Greater Shankill Community Convention 2014



Eat yourself healthy with nutritionist Jane McLenaghan

Are you sick of eating greasy bags of chips or microwave meals from a plastic tray?  Maybe you're trying to make a healthy change in your life and need some info on how to start eating better?

Whatever you need, nutritionist Jane McLenaghan wants to help you maintain an optimal balance of health and wellness - no fad diets, crazy quick fixes or extreme diet makeovers - instead, you'll make practical, positive changes to help you eat well and feel better.

The event is 100% free and completely open, with no need to book a spot - just turn up!  We'll see you on December 12th at 10:00AM in the Hammer Community Centre.


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