The Secretary of State’s first visit was to Forthspring Inter Community Group on the Springfield Road. The Group was set up in 1997 to encourage good relations between local people in the Springfield and Woodvale areas of the city, which experienced considerable loss of life on both sides during the Troubles. The centre allows people to talk openly about their religious, cultural and political similarities and differences within a safe environment.
Ms Villiers saw a presentation of Forthspring’s current community inferface and youth projects and heard how the centre is actively tackling community divisions on the ground.
Her second stop of the day was the Argyle Business Centre on the Shankill Road. The centre was opened in 1993 in an effort to rebuild the former commercial vigour of the Shankill area and revitalise its entrepreneurial community.
The centre provides 72,000 square feet of space for a variety of uses - from administrative offices to manufacturing - and it offers support and facilities for emerging local businesses. Argyle’s tenants currently provide employment to over 400 people, contributing in excess of £3million in wages and salaries to the local economy per year.
The Secretary of State met local business owners and board members based in the centre and heard how their vision for community regeneration and business growth is helping to re-establish the Shankill’s economic dynamism.
Theresa Villiers said:
Northern Ireland has come a very long way since the Belfast Agreement was reached 15 years ago. Few can deny that life here has changed for the better.
The Agreement called for ‘reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust’ and as I’ve travelled around Northern Ireland, I’ve seen many fantastic initiatives that are bringing different parts of the community together. Forthspring Inter Community Group and the Argyle Business Centre are two great examples of the courage, leadership and tenacity that local people have demonstrated in order to help make the Belfast Agreement’s vision a reality.
But at too many levels society remains deeply divided and huge challenges remain if the hopes enshrined in the Agreement are to be properly fulfilled. We urgently need to tackle sectarianism and segregation in order to build a more cohesive society.
Today reminds us that Northern Ireland’s political leaders have overcome challenges just as great as this in the past. Now is the time for them to demonstrate that they can do so again.