“Our revenge will be the laughter of our children”–Bobby Sands MP
When Bobby Sands MP said the above quote he was probably envisioning his children laughing in a united Ireland. History has of course played out differently thus far and in place of a united Ireland there is a healing Belfast.
When I first arrived at Belfast Central train station it was clear that I was no longer in Ireland. As my taxi driver took me to my hostel some police cars drove by. Normally this wouldn’t be worth mentioning except for the fact that all of Belfast’s police cars are armored trucks. Obviously Ireland and Northern Ireland are on the same island and have a mostly shared history, but the characteristics of Ireland that have come to dominate people’s perceptions of the island are no longer present in Belfast.
I spent my only full day in Belfast hanging out with two New Zealanders (the Aussies and Kiwis are literally all over this island) and one of them, Jarred, echoed my thoughts about Belfast being ‘british’ and said that it just didn’t feel like Ireland.
What I discovered about Belfast is that it is in reality two cities in one. West Belfast, long considered one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the World, still bares the scars of +30 years of religious hatred between the Republican Catholics and the Unionist Protestants. Jarred, Amanda and I hired a taxi driver Paddy to take us around West Belfast to tour the adjacent Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. In many ways this was the soul reason why I wanted to come to Belfast. Despite the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 that presumably ended the conflict, I had frequently heard on the BBC upon arriving in London that tension still existed and occasional violent demonstrations were still common. In fact as I walked around last night in search of a decent dinner I had to alter my course as riot police were carefully monitoring some angry Protestants. 3 days ago the City Council of Belfast, now predominately Catholic, had voted to remove the Union Jack from the top of City Hall. This obviously upset the Protestant community and they were making their voices heard. The tensions may have simmered down but they are no doubt still there. Paddy explained that the school district in Belfast is still largely segregated by religion. In fact it is law in Northern Ireland that on official ID you must declare whether you are Protestant or Catholic.
As Paddy narrated the events of West Belfast’s past it became pretty clear that he himself was Catholic and had a pretty dim view of Protestants. Though he did say that he often went over to the Protestant neighborhood when he was younger because “the girls were much easier”. He explained to the three of us the history of conflict as well as what each mural commemorated. Murals in West Belfast are incredibly common and no longer remember just the Troubles but also support various political causes. For me the most moving moment of the our tour was when Paddy took us to a Catholic memorial garden where on several plagues were the names of people who were killed by the Ulster Volunteer Force (the Protestant counterpart to the Catholic IRA) some of them as young as 5 years old.
The Peace Wall snakes its way through West Belfast dividing the Catholic and Protestant communities and is a painful reminder of the violence of the past. Houses that are near the wall have a wire cages protecting their decks and backyards from petrol bombs that have been known to fly over the fence from the other side.
Paddy then took us to the Protestant side of the Peace Line and we saw all of the many murals honoring the members of the UVF who carried out terrorist attacks and random murders against the Catholic community. Though Paddy was obviously a proud Catholic he did acknowledge that both sides had innocent blood on their hands but he lay most of the blame on the Protestants who he claimed first demanded that an Irish home remove the Irish tricolour from its windows.
The City Center of Belfast is not far from West Belfast but it might as well be on another planet. Here ultra modern office buildings and shopping malls shine across the city and are reminiscent of virtually every other major European city. Central Belfast reflects the progress that has been made over the last 15 years to rebuild “the Terrorism Capital of Europe” and refurbish the city’s image. One surprisingly true fact that characterizes the irony of Belfast is that statistically Belfast is the safest city in all of Europe. You read that correctly.
I wish I could have spent more time in Northern Ireland. I am by nature pretty optimistic about political situations where peace and reconciliation are the goals and I’ll admit that it’s probably a naïve outlook and empirically incorrect. But Belfast has shown significant signs of progress and there seems to be a genuine desire for peace. Despite the legacy of violence and hatred, such phrases as “kill all Huns” and “kick out the Taigs” are virtually invisible from the city’s graffiti. Paddy explained that schools were beginning to be more integrated and for the first time in the history of Northern Ireland Protestant and Catholic children were growing up together in classrooms and discovering they’re not that different.
“kids are meeting kids from the other side of the wall and realizing ‘hey, he doesn’t have two heads!’”
If Belfast can continue its march towards peace, after a history of intense violence and hatred, then maybe it’s possible in other troubled parts of the World.