A Shankill woman who joined the UDA at the age of 16 and went on to become a major peace-builder in north Belfast has been recognised for her decades of community relations work.
Having first volunteered with Shankill Women’s Centre in the late 1990s, now Eileen Weir – the recipient of the 2018 Community Relations Exceptional Achievement Award – works full-time at local, regional and international levels to ensure the Northern Ireland peace process continues to move forward.
Ms Weir was presented with her award yesterday at the Community Relations Council’s (CRC) annual David Stevens Memorial Lecture at The Duncairn Centre in north Belfast.
The award, presented annually by CRC, recognises exceptional achievement of an individual in promoting community relations, intercultural work or peace-building in Northern Ireland and is intended to highlight the ongoing, courageous work of this nature.
Eileen had only turned 16 when she briefly joined the UDA, a period she recounts in INCORE’s ‘Accounts of the Conflict’. However, a short time after that she withdrew her associations with the loyalist paramilitary group and pursued full-time employment in women’s equality and fair employment matters.
After being made redundant in the late 1990s, Eileen facilitated black taxi tours of the Shankill area for tourists and international visitors.
It was during this time that she first volunteered with Shankill Women’s Centre, a decision that would lead to years of dedication to women in the area, bringing them together to explore differing beliefs and identities while ensuring that their largely underrepresented voices in relation to the Belfast Agreement and the Northern Ireland peace process were heard.
Co-ordinator of the Greater North Belfast Women’s Network and closely involved in cross-border programmes with Glencree Centre for Peace, Eileen also worked with early release prisoners under the Good Friday Agreement to develop and deliver programmes to support the former prisoners, many of which had been incarcerated for over a decade, to integrate back into society, secure employment and adapt to family life.
Upon receiving her award, Eileen said: “I’m incredibly humbled. As an outreach worker based at the Shankill Women’s Centre, I’ve dedicated my career to community relations in north and west Belfast and to similar work throughout greater Belfast. Over the years I’ve seen many ups and downs, but I work every day on the ground on with all our local communities. We’re beyond the traditional divide of Catholic and Protestant and our communities encompass so much more diversity.
“Every day more residents and volunteers are stepping up to the mark to promote good relations. It’s encouraging for the future of Northern Ireland and for the profound positive impact it has on our local community. I’m extremely proud to have played my part in nurturing such an environment and I’m honoured to receive this award from the Community Relations Council.”
Peter Osborne, Chair of the Community Relations Council, said: “Eileen’s journey, her courage and remarkable achievements deserve this recognition from the Community Relations Council. She is living proof of how peace is built from the grassroots. Central to her work in recent decades has been giving voice to the voiceless and excluded, challenging gatekeepers and making sure all who can contribute positively are given the opportunity.
“For almost three decades, Eileen has been at the fore of crucial cross-community work in the Shankill area, work that has had a profound impact on its community.
“The narrative during the conflict in Northern Ireland was a largely male one – the narrative of peace building must include everyone. Eileen is a powerful advocate for an inclusive, empowering approach.”
The award was presented at the David Stevens Memorial Lecture where Dr Johnston McMaster delivered a lecture on the topic of ‘Public Theology: A New Model for Public Engagement’.
The lecture has been organised over the last five years in memory of David Stevens, a founding member of the Community Relations Council and a leader of the Corrymeela Community, who died in 2010.