Social Regeneration in Limerick City

 West End Youth Centre, Limerick

West End Youth Centre, Limerick

Limerick is a dynamic city. It has a rich historical heritage and a vibrant arts scene. World-class rugby and renowned multi-nationals have been everyday success stories for the last ten years. Despite all this, however, Limerick’s reputation continues to suffer in the media. Dramatic crime reports have created a distorted reality in which the actions of a small few are regularly portrayed as standard behaviour. The social problems in Limerick are not unique, nor are they endemic across the entire city. In reality, most of the images seen on television are recorded in and around particular streets. The average viewer is unaware that he is viewing the same pictures over and over again. Limerick, as a whole, is not a big city. To put it in context, the entire population could effectively fit inside Croke Park. That said, the malaise, where it does exist, is pronounced and served as the genesis for the Limerick Regeneration project in 2007. There is now an opportunity to build on the successes of this programme through a renewed emphasis on community empowerment.

Limerick Regeneration is focused on four designated areas, two in the north of the city (Moyross and St. Mary’s Park) and two in the south (Ballinacurra Weston and Southill). Just as in Ballymun, there are three pillars on which the project rests: ‘Physical Regeneration’, ‘Economic Regeneration’ and ‘Social Regeneration’. Without question, ‘Social Regeneration’ is the most elusive of the three. It is not captured in new buildings, or announced by the cutting of red tape. It is a gradual and piecemeal process that does little to celebrate any politician or public figure. Various approaches have been adopted to facilitate this social regeneration over the years. While the majority of them champion the concept of ‘empowerment’, few have been able to challenge the current lack of upward mobility.

‘Empowerment’ is one of the most enigmatic words in the community development lexicon. It can range from embracing the Internet to challenging planning permission. What it rarely entails, however, is salaried positions. Community development is almost unique as a sector in that those involved are, in effect, expected to create their own jobs: whether that be a local café, a community garden or a viable commercial enterprises. What is more, when these jobs have been created, the general assumption is that they will be staffed on a voluntary basis, or at best, on a Community Employment (CE) Scheme.

The real jobs in the community are, more often than not, reserved for third level graduates. There is no structure in place to change this. There are many local people in marginalised communities around the country who would serve as the perfect social worker as they know the challenges, dynamics and personalities on the ground far better than any social theorist. Many children growing up in disadvantaged areas never meet a single employee of a state service who can relate to them on a personal level. Community empowerment for many communities has long meant tokenism and voluntary roles that, if not dramatically embraced, are seen as further evidence that more intervention by trained, salaried professionals is required.

With this in mind, I pioneered an innovative ‘Apprentice Programme’ in the West End Youth Centre, Limerick. Up until then, there has been little opportunity for the formal advancement of volunteers in Ballinacurra Weston. Furthermore, there was little reason to imagine this situation would change. As a result, the West End Youth Centre, with the support of several local partners, offered two local people the chance to complete all training and qualifications necessary to become professional youth workers. They also had the opportunity to acquire two years’ experience working as part of a youth team. The initiative attracted interest from other community groups around the country and its leadership invited to share the vision from the TEDx stage. The first two participants graduated with a diploma in Youth and Community studies from University College Cork in November 2014 and are now both in employment. They serve not only as leaders but also as role models in the community.

There is no special formula for this pilot and similar programmes are possible elsewhere; we just need to put theory into meaningful practise. The ‘Social Regeneration’ of any marginalised area needs to be recognised as the pivotal pillar that it is. Without real ownership of the services provided in a community, no true progress will ever be made.