THE SDLP has petitioned the Assembly to help save a youth club which was once a refuge for children during the Troubles.
The petition, with 3,000 signatures, was tabled yesterday by SDLP MLA Alban Maginness in a bid to stop the closure of Artillery Youth Centre in the New Lodge, north Belfast.
The barrister said he was “honoured” to represent the club in its hour of need as Belfast Education and Library threaten to shut its doors for good by the end of the year.
“The centre has served the community since 1969. Since then, it has been dedicated as a youth club. It has been at the heart of the community since it opened its doors just before the Troubles broke out,” Mr Maginness told the Assembly.
“Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Artillery Youth Centre was a refuge for children and young people from the area.
“Since 1997, the centre has been operated by the Artillery Steering Group, which is a voluntary group of parents, former members of the youth centre and, indeed, young people themselves. It has received next to no money from the Belfast Education and Library Board.
“Towards the end of August 2012, out of the blue, the Belfast Education and Library Board served notice on the centre to close its doors and vacate the premises.
“That was done without giving any notice whatsoever to the club. Since that happened, because of the public reaction, its closure has been deferred until 31 December.
“Of course, that is to be welcomed. However, it should not be the final state of affairs. The centre must go on. It has served the community in an outstanding fashion.
“In appreciation of the work that the centre has done, an evaluation was carried out by KPMG on behalf of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.
“KPMG found the centre to have ‘inspirational, dedicated, dynamic, suitably qualified and experienced Youth Workers who are cognisant of the issues facing the local community.”
“The report added: ‘The commitment of both staff and volunteers was apparent.”
Mr Maginness said: “That says a lot about that youth centre and the value that it gives to the whole community. Artillery Youth Centre is a rare example of youth-led practice.
“It is a service that is valued highly by families in the area and by children and young adults right across north Belfast.
“That is evidenced by the petition that is being presented, which has over 3,000 names, including those of 500 children and young people.
The threat of closure remains over the premises. I believe that the petition is a fair and just call to the Assembly and, in particular, to the Minister of Education and the Minister for Social Development to support the continued work of the centre.
The Speaker Willie Hay said he would forward copies of the petition to Education Minister John O’Down and the chairman of the Education Committee.