Northern Ireland

September 10, 2015

Northern Ireland viewed from the airplane from Edinburgh to Belfast.
My Belfast visit was fascinating but confusing about prospects for Northern Ireland.

Recap: Catholics (lead by the Irish Republican Army, the IRA) who felt oppressed in Protestant-dominated Northern Ireland fought to expel the British and join the Republic of Ireland (which claimed the whole island). British troops along with Protestant Unionists, loyal to the UK, responded forcefully. Violence, bombings, brutality during “The Troubles” surged in 1968, peaked in 1972, and continued until 1998's Good Friday Agreement on power sharing (and occasionally thereafter).

But divisions run deep and won’t vanish overnight. They still bewail or boast about Protestant King William III's victory over Catholic (deposed King) James II at the pivotal Battle of the Boyne – in 1690! Seriously.

Positive Signs

Often bombed Hotel Europa
is safe these days.
Some things were encouraging. You now walk in Belfast without fear of snipers or bombings. People were out enjoying the nice weather.

My convenient Hotel Europa (I learned after booking it) had been the most often bombed hotel in the world!

After decades of economic stagnation, investment is picking up and new buildings are finally being erected.


Multinationals are making big new investments and surely
would not erect tall glass buildings if bombings might reoccur.

Capitalizing on worldwide obsession with the Titanic (built in Belfast), this huge new Titanic complex has become of the city's top tourist attraction. (I skipped it; saw the movie.)
And of course one Asian restaurant in Belfast is named "Thai Tanic."

Despite periodic threats to its survival, the fragile power-sharing scheme
manages to continue here at Stormont, Northern Ireland's Parliament.

The beautiful old Lanyan Building is the centerpiece of Queen's University
(which certainly sounds like it ought to be a Unionist stronghold)
but the good news is that more and more kids from working-class Catholic
families are going to university. (In fact, they now even outnumber Protestants here).

Negative Signs

Despite the surface tranquility, to an outsider like me the veneer of peace in Belfast still seems awfully thin. Here are a few examples...

Called “peace lines,” barriers higher than the old Berlin Wall still separate many adjacent Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods. None have been torn down.

This high barrier separates Shankill, a Protestant area, from the Falls, a Catholic enclave.

Beyond the peace lines, barriers continue to seal off
certain streets at night and during sensitive holidays.

Each side continues to taunt the other side with numerous annual parades, invariably producing anti-parade protesters kept away by police. One day during my visit, I saw these and other long lines of vans filled with riot police in case the parade du jour got out of hand. It is still considered worth a story in the newspaper when a parade (and its counter-protests) are peaceful as this one was.

Police stations are still fortified as if IRA bombs might be thrown at any minute.

Unionists and Republicans may look the same, but their neighborhoods leave no doubt as to their identity. The British Union Jack often flies around loyalist areas, but the flag is a mild statement compared to the murals.

The real spin-chilling communal statements come in the form of big vivid murals proclaiming their historic victories or grievances, or honoring their paramilitary defenders.

Over 300 large (and well-maintained) murals assault you with their uncompromising anger, entitlement, and entrenchment.

First, three examples of murals in Protestant Unionist neighborhoods:
  • A salute to the paramilitary Ulster Volunteers who clearly mean business.
  • Veneration of King William's decisive victories over Catholic James in Derry in 1689 and the Boyne in 1690 (keeping this largely Protestant corner of Ireland out of Catholic control for the next three centuries) and telling Catholics repeatedly, "we won, you lost."

Murals in Catholic areas are also fierce and unrelenting. For example:
  • "Smash Stormont," seat of the power-sharing government, kick out the Brits, and join Ireland.
  • Memorial to Bobby Sands, the first IRA member to die on a hunger strike.
  • Lionizing the 1916 Easter Rebellion against British rule in Ireland.
And one last discouraging factoid:  Unless they later go on to an integrated college, nearly all Catholic kids still only go to Catholic schools; and nearly all Protestant kids attend Protestant schools. Probably not a good recipe for the future.

I certainly saw promising developments in Belfast. And I suppose it's also a weird kind of progress when buses drive tourists around to see the murals and barriers as curiosities. However, those murals are freshly repainted and the barriers are not coming down.

Catholics are well on their way to really outnumbering Protestants in Northern Ireland so you'd think hardcore Unionists would be smart enough to seek a deep reconciliation. And while this all seems more like a pure tribal conflict now – rather than about actual religion – it still seems ironic to me to me that Republicans' idealized "Catholic" promised land next door in the Republic of Ireland is not your father's parish anymore, as mass attendance declines and Irish vote to remove the special legal status of the Church, end the divorce ban, and allow gay marriage (and almost voted to allow abortions).

In any event, if you are headed to Dublin or London, add Belfast to your itinerary at least for a long weekend. It's an interesting place with sad legacies to overcome but certainly in far better shape now than just a few years ago.