Note: Prior to studying abroad in London, I spent 10 days in Ireland and Northern Ireland as part of the prequel class “The Pale and Beyond.” We spent five days in Dublin and then five days in Belfast learning about Irish culture and identity. For more about my time in Ireland, check the Ireland category tag on the right.
Today, it became abundantly clear how divided this small country still is. As a bit of background, the island of Ireland was split after the southern 26 counties gained independence from England in 1921. The northern six counties are still part of Great Britain.
But obviously, not everyone in Northern Ireland agrees with result of the split and we spent most of the day learning about the deep divisions and painful history between the Nationalist Catholic population and the Unionist Protestant population.
Probably the most important thing I learned about this conflict is that for the most part, all this conflict isn’t about religion. For many outsiders, including myself, it’s easy to look at the conflict in purely religious terms and wonder why the two sides could disagree on so much when their religions are so similar. But it’s really not about that. Pretty much all Catholics are nationalists (want to unite with the Republic of Ireland) and pretty much all Protestants are unionists (want to stay united with Great Britain), so identifying yourself as a Catholic or Protestant is as much a political statement as a religious one.
Almost all the working class men over about 40 or 50 years old that we met had participated in “the Troubles” in one way or another. The peace treaty between the the Protestant and Catholic paramilitary groups was only signed in 1998, just about 15 years ago, so a lot people still remember the violence and are struggling to move on. Many of the people who spoke with us had served significant time as political prisoners, some joining paramilitary groups as young as 15.
After a brief introduction to the conflict, we split into groups to take walking tours of some of the surrounding Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods. My group walked through the Shankill Road area, a protestant area, first. The Protestant and Catholic areas of Belfast are kept apart by a long high cement wall. There are a lot of murals and public art in the Shankill road area that both celebrate Irish history and discuss peace. The Shankill area is also filled with Union Jacks, almost every house has a flag outside and there are apparently more flags flying here than is London.
We had lunch and then walked around the Catholic area of Falls Road, which has a lot less public art and almost no murals on the peace wall. You can see that it’s a lot more cohesive than the Protestant area though, which has to incorporate a lot of different strains of Protestant faith instead of just one Catholic faith. We also walked through an IRA memorial garden and visited a giant mural of Bobbi Sands.
The last part of the day was a discussion between two Unionists and a Nationalist. I thought they would disagree on a lot more issues but they were in agreement on many of the questions they were asked. Although both sides concede that the peace walls are still necessary, the threat of violence here is much less than it was in the past. Generations are aging and many kids now will grow up without ever experiencing the violence.
The country still faces many challenges though including education, healthcare, equal rights, and assimilating political prisoners back into society. But the greatest challenge may simply be returning to a normal state of community relations. It is still almost unheard of for a Catholic to walk into a Protestant area and vice versa. But, at least from the people we talked to, there seems to be a general desire to get along. And both sides have come a long way. Just 20 years ago, both groups were killing each other on sight. Now, they have settled into an uneasy peace, which will hopefully endure for many years.