Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Troubles


The fights that tore Belfast apart from the late 1960s to late 1990s are so pervasive that they are simply referred to as "the troubles." I think it's a strange name. Calling a series of conflicts that last for decades "the troubles" seems to simultaneously deny people's roles in the conflicts (troubles are usually things that happen to you, not things you bring about), and cast these traumatic events in a minor light. I think of troubles to be things like losing your bank card or a miscommunication about what time to meet someone, not 30+ year-long conflicts in which around 3,700 people die.

In my last post, I didn't spend much time talking about what Belfast is most famous for in recent news.  The troubles would be surprisingly easy for visitors here to ignore. Unless you make an effort, you may not realize you are walking through a segregated city. Although it seems that the majority of people here now speak a rhetoric of resolution, there are still a lot of questions about how that rhetoric actually plays out. I met a new friend here last week, a Mitchell scholar studying human geography who's doing work mapping out the physical spaces in Belfast to see where (and who with) Catholics and Protestants spend their time. He's finding that the ideology of peace people believe in is often at odds with their daily life.

As everyone here seems to know, but few are willing to admit, the troubles are over, but they're really not over.

I am completely unqualified to give a history lesson on this, but I will say that these conflicts have affected this place in a far more profound way than I had realized before I arrived. Like many situations I've been in this year, I'm again in the position of unqualified, ignorant bystander and I'm in way over my head.

Money is tight, but I decided it was still worth it to go on one of Belfast's famous Black Taxi tours. I hit it off with Tom, the driver, and by the end of the afternoon he had talked to me about Irish names, taken me through dozens of pictures of his kids on his cell phone and agreed to drop me back home for free. Supposedly the black taxis were one of the only ways to get around conflict-areas of the city during the troubles and today many of the drivers of these tours are men who were heavily involved in the struggle. Tricia told me about one company that used to put you with a Catholic driver for the first half, and then switch to a Protestant driver, to be sure you got both sides of the story.

Tom and I started out in West Belfast, home to what is the most famous divide between The Falls Road (Catholic side) and Shankill Road (Protestant side). The tour revolved around the political murals painted on the peace lines around the city. We went to Bombay street, where some people believe the conflict began in 1969 when loyalists burned down houses of Irish Catholics. We looked at pictures of Bobby Sands, and murals in that area that were recently painted to support people other international struggles for statehood (Palestine) or the freeing of political prisoners (Cuba). 


Coming to the edge of Bombay street was the first time I realized exactly what we were dealing with. Confession: I had been in Belfast for two days and hadn't realized that when people talked about the peace lines, they were talking about actual walls. As in, huge barriers separating Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. As in, a supposed "peace" line, is actually a massive, physical division. (There are currently 99 peace walls, or "interfaces" still up in Belfast).

The people living by the peace lines to this day have metal cages around their back porches. Things still get thrown over the wall all the time and people are scared. None of these houses have gas or electric heating in case of petrol bombs coming over the wall.

The two photos above might show what I find to be the impossible irony of Belfast; the sign saying "never again" next to a gigantic wall keeping Protestants and Catholics separate. As in, "we are all dedicated to peace, but just in case people get angry, we're going to leave this barricade here. And by the way, we're still going to lock the gates between these communities at night." That still happens. Every night at 6pm.

Tom told me a lot of stories. It was really good it was raining and we were outside because I just about melted into a teary puddle. He told me about seeing his colleague shot before his eyes, he told me about a 26 year-old named Philomena Hanna, a woman who worked at a pharmacist's, and because people didn't like her delivering prescriptions to Protestant and Catholic homes on Falls & Shankill Road, she was shot in the face six times. There are so many terrible stories.

After hearing these stories, it was hard to visit Shankill Road where the murals are notoriously more violent.

The man above, Steve McKeag, killed thirty Catholics, including Philomena Hanna. The paramilitary man painted below is referred to by Protestants as "the protector", because they say his image will be there if the conflict ever starts again. It is really hard to imagine that there is so much hatred here--on both sides--a hatred that is so publicly celebrated. It's hard to believe that children play on the grass outside these murals, and that their parents must, at some point, explain why these men are heroes in their community. 

We came to peace mural part of the main interface and I added my name to Rihanna's and Bill Clinton's ( as Tom said, "I know you Americans got really upset about that whole I-did-not-have-sex-with-that-woman stuff, but we in Northern Ireland really like the man"). 


There's a lot of question about what to do with the interfaces. Some people worry that taking them down would lead to more conflict. Other people feel they should be torn down immediately so the next generation grows up without these barriers. Others argue that the walls are now important historical, political and artistic monuments that should be preserved. And still others (myself included), wonder if the walls coming down would actually change how divided the city is.

This didn't happen years and years ago. It is all scarily recent, and scarily ongoing. The Peace Agreement was signed in 1998, and episodes of violence still continue. Just last year, a Catholic police officer was killed by a Catholic paramilitary group who felt he was cooperating with the other side (traditionally, the police force here has been predominantly Protestant, a fact which, as you can imagine, has only hindered the peace process).

In the last nine months, I have been to quite a few places that have been very hurt by conflict.  But more often than not, it is a visible pain. You see poverty, and you see suffering, even if you don't want to look. What is scary to me about Belfast is that more often than not, all you see are luxury clothing stores and adorable coffee shops. You don't see anyone obviously hurting. People are holding it together, and their city is set up for them to exist in their separate communities. You can tell if someone is Catholic or Protestant because of the way they say the letter "h". It's a product of them going to separate schools, a product of the fact that even teachers train at separate schools depending on if they want to teach Catholic or Protestant children. It is scary to me that the troubles are so recent, and in some ways, so invisible. People are simply going about their daily lives, lives that are made up of these silent but  all-consuming divisions among them.

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