The North Down housing estate that is on the up

Pacemaker Press Belfast 27-03-2012:  Kilcooley Estate Bangor feature. Picture By: Arthur Allison.
Pacemaker Press Belfast 27-03-2012: Kilcooley Estate Bangor feature. Picture By: Arthur Allison.

Around three miles outside the affluent town of Bangor lies Northern Ireland’s third largest housing estate - Kilcooley. In the fourth and final installment in our series about life on some of Ulster’s estates, LAURA MURPHY meets residents and community workers who have both lived through its past and been instrumental in shaping its future

IN many of today’s middle class suburban neighbourhoods, some of us may not even be on first name terms with those whose back-yards back onto ours, or whom we nod a brief hello to every morning as we simultaneously go out to do the school run.

We casually throw around words like ‘community’ without a genuine knowledge of what it means to live in one - properly.

In Kilcooley estate, on the outskirts of Bangor, community is everything. And as a place that has seen and survived some of the worst aspects of the Troubles, and often been berated because of its working class loyalist affiliations, it has had to be. Its people are its most important asset.

“I always felt safe in the estate,” says 29-year-old Michelle Martin, who I meet at her office in Kilcooley Square, where she works as a support worker for Kilcooley Tenant Support Project.

She has lived in Kilcooley for nearly all of her life - bar a short period after she turned 13 when her parents moved over to the Belfast Road, subsequently leaving her, by her own admission, “devastated.”

“And then when I met my husband, we bought our house in Kilcooley,” she adds.

It is the sense of togetherness, of feeling protected, that for Michelle, is what makes Kilcooley ‘home’.

“You walk past anybody and whether they know you or not, they say hello,” she says.

“When my mum and dad moved out, it was literally just across the carriageway I had to walk, and I was terrified walking home.”

Of course, over the years, like most large working class estates in Northern Ireland, Kilcooley has attracted attention for the wrong reasons as well as the right ones.

It has been renowned for having a significant loyalist paramilitary presence, and in the past has been the scene of several incidents of public disorder. The most notable of these was probably the riots of 2007, which were blamed on the Ulster Defence Association.

The fact that it has previously gained an undesirable reputation has not escaped its residents, including Michelle.

“I think at one point everyone would have turned their nose up at the estate,” she concedes.

“But I think over the years, the name of Kilcooley has got a bit better. Years ago, if you had said to somebody, ‘I live in Kilcooley’, they would have said ‘whoa’, whereas now it’s not too bad.”

She adds: “I feel proud to say I live in Kilcooley.”

Home to roughly 4,000 people, there are 3,400 dwellings today in Kilcooley, half of which (53 per cent) are privately owned. The remaining are owned by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive.

The first homes in the estate were built in 1950, although much of it was built from the 60s to the 80s, to re-house people who had been displaced from inner city areas of Belfast.

Its long loyalist affiliation is visibly demonstrated in the form of murals on gable walls, painted kerbs, and the controversial paramilitary plinths erected a few years ago dedicated to the memory of the UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commando.

Issues like unemployment, drug addiction and anti-social behaviour are problematic here.

However, in recent times efforts have been made to improve the image of the area; some murals have been repainted over, and a number of unique and attractive artworks erected at various points throughout the estate.

The local community centre is an attractive looking and I’m told, well used, building, and Kilcooley Wood at the Rathgael Road entrance of the estate is a peaceful, popular open space for walkers.

There are also a number of important facilities including a primary school, two churches - the Church of Ireland and the Presbyterian - Ravara House, a residential home for elderly people, and Ravara Training and Resource Centre, a day centre for disabled young people.

Improvements to many of the houses and ‘pensioner’ bungalows have been carried out by the Housing Executive, and there is also a private estate ‘within’ Kilcooley - Glastry Court.

Further up the estate towards the Clandeboye Road end lives Jim Kirkwood, a true ‘Kilcooleyite’, having resided in the area for 42 years.

He and wife Sadie - who’s keeping a close eye on him as he paints the fence of their terraced house - moved here from Tiger’s Bay in Belfast when their children were at school, and describe Kilcooley life as “brilliant.”

“The transport’s handy into Bangor, we’ve never had any trouble and have very good neighbours,” he says.

“We’ve got a committee that is doing a bit of work in trying to keep the area up to scratch.”

Jim says that his family were never affected by paramilitary-linked trouble in the estate, “even in the 70s.”

He adds: “The thing is, you have good and bad people all over the estate. We have never had any trouble with anybody, but I’m sure if you are picking out people you could get those who would speak ill of the estate.”

Tommy Crawford is another local who has raised a family in Kilcooley.

“My wife was from England and we lived in east Belfast for 11 years then moved down here,” he tells me.

“We’ve lived here for about 38 years. I’m in (Kilcooley Community) Forum, and I’m am elder in the Presbyterian church.”

Tommy says he has seen many changed in the estate over the years, in terms of both its physical appearance, and its mindset.

“There have been clean-ups, and the people are a lot more friendly. There is less fear that what there was.

“The church does a lot, volunteers would go around painting and decorating people’s houses who have just moved in, unmarried mothers, and things like that.”

He admits he wasn’t impressed by the programme The Estate.

“I only saw one episode and one was enough for me. I didn’t think they put it over (in the right light). They only focused on a couple of people, they weren’t worried about the people who had maybe done something for the estate.”

Another person who believes The Estate misrepresented the people of Ballysally is Jim Martin, who works for Bangor Alternatives, a community-led, government accredited restorative justice project, which aims to redirect young people away from crime and address anti-social behaviour.

Explaining the role played by Alternatives, Jim says: “If a youngster smashes a window, and the police decide to take him to court, think of the expense. On the day of the court, the solicitor does all the talking, and then he’ll probably get lunch with his parents on the way home, whereas our way he has to go in front of the victims and apologise personally. They (the perpetrators) are taking responsibility for their own actions. And it’s cost effective.”

Jim is originally from Belfast, but has lived in Kilcooley for 40 years. Like Tommy, he says there have been vast changes in the area.

“A number of years ago people saw the way it was going, it was going downhill, and they said, ‘look, we have to live here’.

“Today, every age is catered for in this estate; there are the over 50s, the youth. Everything is well used and there’s a very good community spirit about this place.”

Indeed, community spirit is so important in this estate, that in 1996, an umbrella organisation was set up to oversee the work of 14 constituted, active groups.

Kilcooley Community Forum meets on a monthly basis, its community development manager, Mark Gordon, tells me, “to look at the issues that the groups are set up to address to find out if they are addressing them and if not, why not?”

Just some of the groups under the Forum’s remit include its sports forum, over 50s club, and fishing club.

“Basically, the Forum was set up to stop the community going further into decline,” says Mark, adding that pre-1996, Kilcooley suffered from the effects of anti-social behaviour and crime, social housing and drug problems, and unemployment issues.

He says some residents could recall the times when the police refused to walk through the estate, and would only come in if they were travelling in landrovers, and there were “high levels of paramilitary activity with punishment beatings and shootings” occurring.

He continues: “The turnover in the estate was quite high. There was a bigger waiting list to get out than there was to get in, and we were in partnership with the Housing Executive offering thousand pound grants for people to move into Kilcooley.”

Nearly 20 years on, and Mark reveals that in the past year alone, there has been a 27 per cent reduction in crime, and there are over 800 people on the waiting list to get a home in the estate.

Perhaps most significant of all, Kilcooley is now, he says, a “vibrant active community.”

Local DUP councillor and current Deputy Mayor of North Down Alan Leslie lived in Kilcooley for five or six years, and has been heavily involved in working to improve the area.

He says great steps have been taken since the community emerged on the other side of the Troubles, but what needs to be next on the agenda are more chances for residents to have a better standard of living, and great opportunities to educate themselves.

“Going to university, getting an education, bettering themselves - that’s what it’s all about,” says the softly-spoken Fermanagh native as we chat over a coffee in the drop-in cafe and shop run by the friendly ladies of Kilcooley Presbyterian Church.

“We fought our way through it and worked our way through it,” he says of the dark period that was the Troubles.

“My view was always to try and work with people and try and do our best.”

Indeed, that concept of self-betterment seems to be the main hope for those living in Kilcooley.

As Michelle Martin rightly points out, some of what we witnessed on The Estate goes on day and daily in every community - “and not just estates, but all over the world.”

And as she states, ultimately, where our concern should lie is with “trying to help the people and better their lives.”