This September, Brook Northern Ireland was 21 years old. We celebrated the event on the roof top garden of a local hotel with staff, management committee and invited guests. Simon has asked me to share with you some of the story of what started out as Brook Belfast, so here goes!
Since 1992, Brook Belfast has experienced financial difficulties, a hostile environment, abuse, intimidation and threats. Pickets of up to 300 were not unusual in the early days, followed in the late 90s by candlelit vigils, white baby coffins, and protestors in mantillas. We have a collection of rosary beads, holy pictures and medals that have been given to us. We have been prayed for more than any other organisation in Northern Ireland!
Young people were escorted in and out by staff, committee members, and on bad days, police officers. In 1999 every house in my street received a letter stating that I was sending 70 young people a week to England for abortions. Dr Caroline Hunter and I had our names on placards saying we murdered babies. The police advised me on security for my home and alternative routes to and from work. We were constantly on the radio, local television and once on Newsnight.
We started out running two weekly clinic sessions. Much of my time was spent dealing with the shutter being superglued, the answering machine being blocked, suppliers refusing our business (we were taking supplies out of the boots of drug reps’ cars) and an anonymous caller pretending to carry out research on our behalf. This person spent a year making ‘dirty calls’ to unsuspecting women. As a result I had to deal with distressed women and their partners shouting down the phone. After a year the police found the culprit in an office above our then Chair.
To give some political context, when Brook Belfast first opened NI was ruled directly from Westminster with a Health Minister spending 20 minutes per week on all health issues relating to NI. During this time Brook Belfast with its high profile was invited to speak about our work at the House of Commons and two Labour Party fringe meetings. It was not until 1998, with the Good Friday Agreement, that a devolved government was installed and with it a completely new way of working.
All NGOs in NI had to operate in either a democratic deficit or with an Assembly where ‘orange and green’ issues dominated. Policy and implementation tended to be left to senior civil servants. Brook Belfast devoted considerable time to building personal relationships with relevant civil servants to ensure that sexual health was on the public health agenda.
Within NI either you were in favour of Brook services or you were opposed, with no middle ground. We operated an open door policy, inviting both our supporters and detractors to visit the service. We employed staff for specific sessions to spread the word into statutory services of what we provided for young people, dispelling myths. Some staff felt unable to tell some of their family and friends that they were employed by Brook due to the intense strength of feeling the service generated.
Our impact on sexual health policy developments in the North has meant that we have developed the range of clinic services available to young people:
- Through the ‘90s we added two more sessions
- Although in 2000 we had to drop the age to under 19s for young women, over the next three years we opened a boys and young men’s clinic, two more sessions.
- In November 2003, we finally had our seventh (Sunday) clinic established. We also became a regional organisation in 2003.
- In September 2007 Brook Coleraine opened two clinics a week
- January 2012 marked the start of a dedicated STI session in Belfast.
The relationships that had been developed in the early days ensured that funding followed as we set up new clinics and developed outreach work.
Other major milestones included financial support for over 10 years from Caroline Woodroofe, the GlaxoSmithKline Award in 2004, $1million support from Atlantic Philanthropies in 2005, the EllaOne trial in 2008, Innovation Award March 2011 and RQIA registration in December 2011.
Since we moved premises in April 2010 the pickets have rarely been seen, and we at last lost a picket who has been with us every Friday afternoon for 17 years.
At our birthday party, Dr Gabriel Scally, who had been the Director of Public Health in 1992 (he received a death threat as a result of inviting Brook to open in Belfast), laid out the amazing social history context. He recalled the enthusiasm of Margaret Jones, then Brook National’s Chief Executive, for the challenge of setting up a service in Northern Ireland. Dr Michael McBride (Chief Medical Officer) commended the tenacity of Brook to not only keep sexual health at the forefront of public health, but also the part Brook NI has played in reducing teenage pregnancies since 1992.
The management committee members over the years have given freely of their time to ensure the excellent governance and strategic direction of Brook NI.
Leaving the best to last, it was the staff of Brook NI who were the stars at our event in the same way they are the stars at every clinic session. Providing the service in the early days was difficult, especially for the young people who had to pass pickets jeering and shouting at them but once they came into the building staff put their needs first. That same attitude applies today.
It has been the calibre of staff, as well as their commitment and dedication to young people, that has made Brook NI what it is today both in terms of clinic service, training and advocacy. Thank you!
Mary Crawford, Director, Brook NI.