Building Trust on Irish Borders

Newtowncunningham Village, East Donegal, Republic of Ireland

“We learned from the cross border and cross community model we have used, that slow, steady foundational steps are the basis for achieving sustainable outcomes.”

Shaun Gallagher, NCDI Youth Forum


Not only did the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland (CFNI) decide to work in parts of Ireland where there were significant community tensions and religious divides, but it also chose to work in disadvantaged communities that had little history of community development. Not surprisingly, then, that the Foundation’s Communities in Transition (CIT) Programme —operating in 10 areas of Ireland from 2003-2010 — was called a “calculated risk-taking model.” Part of the plan was to integrate areas that were previously regarded as being among the most excluded. This was seen as a necessary precondition for any long-term change. The ultimate goal and vision, however, was to “build relationships between people and communities, to promote local participation in community development and peacebuilding, and to create community cohesion.”

Practical Steps

Newtowncunningham was one of 10 areas selected for the 2003 CIT Programme. The village is located about eight miles from the Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland border. Not only had the village seen little investment, but there was a long history of mistrust between those belonging to the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church, and the Roman Catholic Church. Each community kept to itself and had its own “interest groups,” including sports. This led to triplication of services and there was a general unwillingness to work together. The Foundation admitted, in fact, that “preliminary interest in the project was more to do with fear that one group (or community) would benefit more than the others.” After trust had been developed within each community, public meetings were held and residents were asked to outline assets and needs related to issues such as the environment and education. At these early stages, discussions about sensitive topics — such as emblem displays and sectarianism — were avoided. The main goals of these initial meetings were to gather input and build support for participation in the CIT Programme.

Developing Communities

After around one year of this groundwork, the Newtowncunningham Community Development Initiative (NCDI) was born. With starter funds from the CFNI, a 27-person committee from the three denominations was elected and began planning meetings for community-wide projects. While CFNI provided support to NCDI in the form of administrative training, strategic advice, mediation, and evaluation, local control and accountability were priorities, i.e. it was ultimately up to local people to identify local needs, manage the budget, and take the work forward. And, NCDI — like the groups in the other 10 communities — were asked on an ongoing basis to consider the degree to which they represented their entire community, i.e. did they include religious, socio-economic, geographic, gender, and age diversity?

Construction of a support wall in Newtowncunningham; NCDI


Over the years, NCDI’s community projects have included: services for women and the elderly; building a children’s playpark, two support walls, and an important access bridge; and creating a computer training suite that provides IT training for the community.  NCDI has also organized several fundraising events and has drawn in €335,000 in external funding for infrastructure projects. More broadly, relationships have improved between the three Church communities and local capacity has grown considerably. A Youth Forum for 15-18 year-olds is one of the community’s most successful projects and it involves cross-border activities with other young people and youth leaders from the Protestant Loyalist heartland of Harryville and the Republican Catholic heartland of Strabane. With the youth initially sharing activities like poker and paintball, they eventually built enough trust to “develop skills and awareness in relation to peacebuilding, social inclusion … conflict resolution and healing divisions.” The community work in Newtowncunningham is regularly assessed against numerous indicators, such as individual participation; NCDI’s activities, policies, and procedures; and links with other organizations.


Although people have begun to work together in Newtowncunningham, there is still a long way to go. The antagonisms between the different communities are based on some painful histories dating from the 17th century — largely conflicts between the Protestant English, Scots, Ulster-Scots, and the ‘native’ Roman Catholic Irish. Mindsets are often very fixed and attitudes about “the other” have been ingrained over centuries. So, these feelings cannot be erased overnight. The process of change is a long one, but the CIT Programme has endeavored to build the platforms whereby neighbors can at least get to know each other. Contacts are increasing and there has been a lot of progress in the past eight years. Newtowncunningham, however, is rural and isolated and there is significant economic deprivation. So, pessimism still prevails and there are many people who don’t want to get involved in any cross-community work. Finding funding to continue this work also remains an ongoing challenge.

Lessons Learned

In analyzing the projects in the communities, CFNI concluded that long-term investment and face-to-face support, vs. “quick fixes” and cash injections, were necessary for success. Those who have been involved in this initiative over several years reiterate that “you can’t just bring in a facilitator and tell people to talk. You have to do a lot of preparation and research and be very sensitive to how people see things, and to understand their pain.” The dangers of just having a dialogue are enormous because you also need follow up as well as “tight agendas with clear ground rules and contracts.”  The CIT projects have faced progress, setbacks, and lots of learning — in Newtowncunningham and elsewhere — but they do demonstrate how community development can be used as model to show people what they can achieve together, if they try. (Want to comment on this case study? Click here for the blog link!)

Interview Sources/Additional Links:

Maurice Healy, Consultant, Newtowncunningham Community Development Initiative

The Communities in Transition Programme: Policy and Practice Lessons, CFNI and the Atlantic Philanthropies, October 2008.

Communities in Transition: Newtowncunninghma Community Development Initiative, CFNI and the Atlantic Philanthropies, 2008.


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