G E R R Y H E E R Y
Growing up in Belfast during the troubled 1960s and 70s, I knew nothing about social work, until my final year at school when I made a spur of the moment decision which ultimately decided my life’s work. A charity group visited my school to ask for volunteers to spend the summer helping ‘disadvantaged people’. That led to an eventful period building and running an adventure playground with children and young people in a socially deprived estate on the outskirts of Dundee. I was accommodated in a community residential unit providing support for adults with mental health difficulties. Both these experiences, the work and the accommodation, led to my first contact with social workers; as a result, a few weeks before I was due to start an Economics degree, I switched to Social Administration. Then I got up the courage to let my parents know!
I chose Crib because …
… it was made for me by a young person, Peter, I worked with early in my social work career. It is a plain and basic structure and Peter took great pride in his creation. It has stood the test of time, and the more I thought about it the more connections I could make with themes and memories from my life in social work.
Context is everything and growing up as a member of the Nationalist community in Northern Ireland during a period of communal violence has surely influenced my practice, some aspects of which I may never fully understand. Peter made the crib for me at a time when I was living in an area which had been subject to several murders and attacks on peoples’ homes, as it was a border area between the two main communities. I had to leave my family home, which has since been demolished and in its place is a large 30 foot wall, with the misnomer of ‘peace wall’. It is now covered in attractive trees and various other plants, but the fact that the wall still stands 30 years later, shows that divisions and tensions still remain, despite the progress that has been made.
Like all social workers in N Ireland I had to find ways to work with all sections of our society in this period of conflict. I was privileged to work with some colleagues in imaginative and creative ways seeking to contribute to peace and reconciliation. Hopefully someday their stories will be told – perhaps via their own Objects? At the same time, for many of us, rightly or wrongly, often the safest approach through these times was, in the words of our famous poet Seamus Heaney – ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’!
Beginning my social work career in a residential setting helped me appreciate just how important was the quality of the relationship and connection that I could make with the young people. There was no avoiding this and it is something that is not forgotten. For instance, recently, I met someone I’d worked with 35 years ago; he shook my hand and told me all about his family and the stories of other young people we’d both known.
On another occasion I was making my way back to my car with my wife through a poorly lit part of Belfast. The troubles were still going on and, as on most nights, not a lot of people around. Suddenly a bottle landed and smashed into many small pieces just by us and a group of young men ran towards us swearing and shouting abusively. Then one of them shouted, “I fucking know him, he’s OK”, and the group moved off. I recognized him from the centre where I’d worked some years before: probably one of the most timely and welcome pieces of feedback I’ve ever received!
The occupants of the original crib, over 2000 years ago in Palestine, were soon to become refugees. Today we are striving to respond to the most catastrophic refugee crisis since the Second World War. Whilst the young person, Peter, who made the crib for me was not experiencing such adverse circumstances, he was nevertheless, like so many of the other young people who are taken into care, from a socially disadvantaged background. Many came from situations of great poverty, where generations of their families had not had access to employment as a result of structural discrimination in N Ireland.
Although the political situation has significantly improved, various disadvantages have continued to mark the lives of the large majority of people social workers work with. In an era of austerity, cut backs and foodbanks, there is greater inequality in the distribution of income, wealth and power than there was when I started my social work.
The nature of the social work job requires us to look after ourselves. I have a photograph of myself with Peter and two other young men I was working with. (I was their Probation Officer in West Belfast). I had known all three for several years. Within 10 years they were all dead. One took his own life, another was shot in a paramilitary feud and the third, Peter, who made me the crib, died as a result of alcohol. Social work often entails working with the misery, the traumas and the tragedies of other people. It is crucial that we recognize the impact of such events and find ways to look after ourselves, too. My religious faith, reflected in my choice of the crib and which was also relevant to my decision to come into social work, has been a source of strength and hope to me get through some very difficult periods. All social workers need to find their own kinds of support.
N Ireland has moved forward in the last 30 years and there is much hope for the future. Similarly, the centre where I began my career and where the young man made me the crib, has moved on. It now houses several separate therapeutic units, each catering for a much smaller number of young people, male and female. It also includes the regional facility for young people from other countries who have been trafficked, separated or abandoned.
For me, these early experiences of the conflict in N Ireland and my time in the residential setting, followed by periods within the Probation and Youth Justice agencies have allowed me to specialize in working with situations of conflict and violence within relationships, families and communities. And currently I am part of a project with young parents serving sentences in a Young Offenders Centre. It is an example of cooperation between the statutory, voluntary and not for profit sectors, and within which social work has a pivotal role. It is making a real difference to people’s lives. The fact that one of the parents is the son of one the young people I worked with many years ago highlights the fundamental aim of the project in seeking to prevent the adversities of one generation passing onto the next.
This wonderful example of practice suggests one final metaphor for the crib:
Each Christmas, Peter’s bare and black crib is transformed into a beautiful centre-piece for our home. It comes to life. There are times when social work can really make a difference and transform lives for the better.
 In N Ireland, there are two main communities – Nationalist which looks towards an all-Ireland state and Unionist which values the union with Britain. The majority of Nationalists, but by no means all, are Catholic and similarly with Unionists the majority are Protestant. Within both groupings there are those who have used physical force to further their political aims. In addition, sectarian attitudes and behaviours have been problematic.