As part of our ongoing 40th Anniversary Blog series, we sat down with Bernie Burns, a long-time resident and very active member of the Brownlow community in Craigavon to learn more about the estate and how it has changed over the years as a result of community participation.
Even now, a year after her retirement from her role at Drumellan’s Community Association, Bernie can often be found at the Family Learning Complex, where she continues to give her time to a variety of activities and events in the busy community centre. We asked her to tell us about what it was like when she first moved to the area in the late 1970s.
What was it like when you first moved in? What sort of issues did the area have?
“Our main issue was our heating. We had the district heating system which was paid with your rent. In the main, it was a good enough system, you had plenty of heat but at the end of the year the meters were read and some people found it very difficult and were in arrears. A lot of people started moving out of the area which led to empty houses and anti-social behaviour. That was the ‘bad old’ days.”
It quickly became apparent that spiralling heating costs combined with the loss of a big local employer were having a detrimental effect on the community and action was urgently needed. Bernie and a few others started meeting as a group to ask the Housing Executive what they could do about the heating and the increasing social problems in the area.
“You couldn’t have faulted anybody for moving out, but those of us that did stay, we got more involved in the community. It was very hard in the beginning. Very, very hard. The powers that be, they were up here, and we were just people down on the ground. Through time they had to learn to listen to us, to realise that we knew what was needed and they were going to learn to deal with it!”
It was a steep learning curve for all concerned. At the time tenants’ ideas weren’t really considered. Despite many knock-backs, the community successfully negotiated a change in the heating system that was to make a huge difference for the residents.
How did you get involved with Supporting Communities which was NITAP at the time?
“NITAP was involved in the (Housing Executive’s) Area Estate Strategy at the time and became a friend to the new community group. They would have directed you what way to go. A friendship was built up in the early days.”
“We started to go to interagency meetings held in Marlborough House. A lot of people from the different organisations would have attended. I can remember coming out of one meeting and I said I’ll never go back for I did not understand one word!”
Bernie recalled some key advice from NITAP’s Director at that point that really changed things for her: “If you don’t understand something, stop them and tell them to speak in layman’s terms.”
This simple advice and support gave her the confidence boost she needed to assert her right to be included in the conversation.
“At the beginning, people felt very ignorant. You’d have felt like you couldn’t say anything in a meeting. Thankfully, that has changed!”
“There was less direct involvement then”, she explained, “but NITAP was there to help. I could phone and ask, ‘what did that mean’ and ‘what have we to do now?’ We had a contact and support was there when we needed it.”
Bernie went on to become a stalwart member of the community group and even when things were extremely difficult in the 1990s, Bernie's determination to improve the living conditions and environment never waned. Edenbeg, as it was known then, was subjected to a prolonged period of serious antisocial behaviour that led to mass dereliction and frequent arson attacks. The estate looked more like a war zone than a community, with row after row of boarded-up properties. Putting your head above the parapet at the time was a dangerous occupation, but this only strengthened Bernie's resolve to continue.
Bernie and her committee worked hard to command respect from the statutory bodies and they eventually collaborated with the Housing Executive to develop an Estate Based Strategy to address the area’s problems. As a result, about 160 burnt out homes were demolished, improvement schemes were introduced, and the estate was renamed beginning a complete turnaround for the area. Now, Drumellan is a lovely, stable estate with few turnovers and a healthy waiting list.
How has your relationship with Supporting Communities changed over the years?
“When the liaison officers came about, it was like giving us another arm! You got somebody that was on the ground. They were approachable. Through the years all the LO’s that have come through our doors have been fantastic. Their support has been invaluable. Their friendship as well. There’s a special kind of a bond with Supporting Communities.”
What’s next for Drumellan and Supporting Communities?
“Drumellan has been very lucky with Supporting Communities because you have a base here. I would like that to stay and that level of support to continue. It’s lovely to have somebody here that is so knowledgeable, and you can just ask ‘what does that mean’.”
“I would like to see Supporting Communities continue in the way they’re doing, expand in the areas they are working in and to continue employing special people! Not just anybody can come in and do this job.”
Thank you, Bernie! We think not just anybody can do your job either!
Bernie’s humble yet fierce determination and a highly charged sense of social justice has made her a true community champion. The results are clearly evident in the success of the estate today.