In a region still healing from political conflict, shared spaces for culture and education promote reconciliation and opportunity.
The sectarian violence known as the Troubles, which plagued Northern Ireland throughout the 1970s and 1980s, deeply upset Chuck Feeney, Atlantic’s founder, who is of Irish descent.
Mr. Feeney played an important role in the process that led to the historic Belfast Agreement of 1998, which brought peace and a fragile political resolution to a region deeply scarred by social and cultural divides that permeated nearly all aspects of life: He was instrumental in bringing about the White House’s involvement in the nascent Northern Irish peace process.
The political situation set the stage for the work that Atlantic has supported in Northern Ireland ever since—in particular, strengthening universities and restorative justice processes, pioneering early integrated and shared education initiatives, and backing community-based peace-building initiatives.
Building a Post-Conflict Society
Capital projects have played an important role in Atlantic’s strategy. Over 23 years, Atlantic has invested £105.5 million ($166.4 million) in Northern Ireland in more than 30 capital projects, ranging from multiple buildings at Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Ulster and preschool facilities for integrated education to a new cultural center in Derry/Londonderry and shared spaces for reconciliation, regeneration, healing and business development. Each building has, in addition to its primary function, also contributed to conflict resolution.
“Chuck understood that he wasn’t building buildings, but that he was building facilities that were going to empower people who had ambitions to do something bold for themselves, their institutions and for the betterment of society.”
— Patrick Johnston, President and Vice-Chancellor, Queen’s University Belfast
Creating a City of Culture
“Derry/Londonderry is the second largest city in Northern Ireland and was dramatically affected by the conflict,” says Martin O’Brien, Atlantic’s former senior vice president of programs and a veteran human rights activist. “It often played second fiddle to Belfast and so hadn’t been as fairly treated in terms of the allocation of resources and facilities.”
A £3.5 million ($5.7 million) grant from Atlantic helped change that by contributing to the construction of the Millennium Forum Theatre and Conference Centre, one of the largest purpose-built theaters on the island of Ireland, offering a wide array of events from theater to music to dance performances.
The facility, located in the recovering city center, also provides residents with a shared cultural space and hosts the School of Speech and Drama. The school’s ethos is to promote self-confidence and effective communication through the medium of speech and theater.
The project, says Mr. O’Brien, was a huge statement of confidence and “an investment in the city and its future and culture and people and that probably paid off quite significantly” — including by Derry/Londonderry being named the 2013 United Kingdom City of Culture.
Modernizing a Library
At Queen’s University Belfast, the McClay Library, which opened in 2009, is another award-winning building sparked by an Atlantic investment: A £11.3 million ($17.5 million) grant from Atlantic leveraged another £38.7 million ($59.9 million) from other sources, including government and private donors.
The building helped consolidate and modernize the library facilities at Queen’s, which now houses 1.2 million volumes, 2,200 reader spaces, a language center, a computer help desk and specialists in media production.
What is particularly significant about Atlantic, says Mr. O’Brien, is that Mr. Feeney was willing to take a chance on Northern Ireland, a region often overlooked because of its political challenges.
“Chuck often has invested in places where others might not,” he says. “That gives people a boost. A core element of Atlantic’s work in Northern Ireland has been about helping society to transition, to move forward, to deal with the past and transcend that, and to open up new opportunities.”
Top photo: Shay McAleer waiting for class to start at the School of Speech and Drama, a program that takes place at the Millenium Forum, Derry/Londonderry.