The people of New Lodge in North Belfast have been shocked and angered at the decision of the Belfast Education & Library Board (BELB) to close the Artillery Youth Centre. The centre is a vital resource for the local community, focusing on helping young people outside of education to develop skills.
According to the NISRA Multiple Deprivation Measure (2010), North Belfast is in the top 2% of the most deprived areas across Northern Ireland; with the New Lodge area suffering more than most with unemployment up by 10% in the past year alone.
Artillery Youth Centre has been at the heart of the New Lodge Community since 1969 tackling these very issues. It has brought £1.4 million into the area over the years; providing young people with educational and training programmes. This centre gives teenagers and young adults the opportunity to achieve a constructive future away from the dead-end of sectarian conflict. It has also fought to stay passionately independent, non-sectarian, secular and not influenced by any of the sectarian political parties.
The local community, recognising the value of the youth centre has rallied overwhelmingly around it in support and defence. Staff have gathered thousands of signatures from the local community demanding that the centre remain open and have organised meetings with members and families.
This has forced back the BELB who would have seen the centre closed at the end of August. Under tremendous pressure from the community, BELB has put the date back to December. Staff and supporters should not turn down the heat now. This extra time gives an opportunity to further organise and put pressure on the politicians who are responsible for funding these services. North Belfast has three MLA’s who are Ministers on the Executive. The Minister responsible for funding the centre – Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd – could guarantee the funding at the stroke of a pen!
If funding is not secured shortly, a campaign to mobilise the local community directed at local MLAs and councillors can bring pressure on the Minister to act now to save this vital service.