Belfast, Northern Ireland. For many people outside the British Isles, that name evokes images of shootings, bomb explosions, terrified schoolchildren, and bitter sectarian conflict between the city’s Catholic and Protestant communities. Despite having a grandmother who was a Belfast native, my own exposure to the Northern Ireland conflict—and I suspect most Americans’ as well—was limited to U2 lyrics and the occasional passing news story about yet another IRA bombing. So it was with this relative ignorance of the whole situation that I arrived in Belfast in the fall of 2007 to begin a master’s program at Queen’s University.
The first word that comes to mind on visiting Belfast in 2008, ten years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement that brokered a cease-fire between the various paramilitary groups and brought an end to the thirty-year period of sectarian violence commonly known as “The Troubles,” is change . In July 2007, the British Army officially announced the termination of its Northern Ireland mission and withdrew its troops from the region, with this news coming on the heels of a landmark power-sharing agreement between the Republican Sinn Féin and Loyalist Democratic Unionist party. This year, the omnipresent Reverend Ian Paisley, notorious for his longtime refusal even to so much as shake hands with a Catholic, is stepping down as the head of the Democratic Unionist party, bringing an end to a long chapter in the history of religious and political tension in Northern Ireland. This announcement came after Paisley’s having formed a political friendship with Martin McGuiness, head of the Northern Ireland Parliament’s Sinn Féin delegation. This odd pairing has given the duo the nickname “Chuckle Brothers” for their apparent propensity for laughing and smiling together in public.
Change is visible in other ways, too: The ongoing development of the old Titanic Quarter (named for the eponymous ship built in Belfast’s shipyards) as a nightlife and entertainment area and the recent opening of an expensive new downtown shopping center both bear the mark of a city eager to shed its reputation as a war zone.
But elsewhere in the city, memories of the Troubles, with the alphabet soup of terrorist and paramilitary group acronyms, are still fresh in the minds of many Belfast residents. Some of the more enthusiastic members of both communities have expressed their political sympathies through public art, in the form of elaborate wall murals in Republican and Loyalist neighborhoods scattered throughout the city of Belfast. A drive through the Loyalist Shankill neighborhood and the nearby Republican Falls neighborhood quickly jolts the visitor into the not-so-recent past. In these and other highly partisan areas, the murals forcefully remind passersby of the affiliation of the residents, often with the intention of intimidating those on the other side of Belfast’s political and religious divide.
Unionist murals frequently feature menacing images of paramilitary members clad in black masks and carrying assault rifles. The overriding theme in Shankill and other Loyalist enclaves is defiance ; defiance toward those who would see British control of Northern Ireland end and defiance toward the prospect of Catholic dominance of Ireland. A mural admiringly depicting Oliver Cromwell, whose invasion of Ireland during the English Civil War began a period of brutal repression of the Catholic population, speaks to the deep historical roots of Northern Ireland’s religious conflict. Protestant street art commemorates the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, wherein the Catholic King James II was defeated by William of Orange’s Protestant armies which has invaded England. To the more extreme Ulster Protestants, remembrance of this event emboldens them in two convictions: that Britain would never have a Catholic monarch and that Britain would never relinquish control of Ireland. Down the street, another mural puts it more succinctly: “ULSTER WILL REMAIN BRITISH—NEVER SURRENDER.”
In the heavily Republican Falls neighborhood, murals commemorate such events as the Easter uprising of 1916 and the 1981 hunger strike, which claimed the life of Member of Parliament and IRA operative Bobby Sands and several of his compatriots. The theme on this side of the Peace Line is freedom, with the Irish Republican cause portrayed in terms of a civil rights struggle not unlike that of the United States in the 1960s; in fact, the civil rights march in the city of Derry in 1968 that triggered the sectarian violence of the Troubles was inspired by the American civil rights movement and appropriated much of its language and tactics. Pictures of Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglass honor the two African Americans as ideological allies of Irish Republicanism. Despite this seemingly more sympathetic image, however, it must be stressed that both sides share responsibility for the lives of more than three thousand people that were taken during the thirty-five-year period of violence.
But as eye-opening as the politically charged murals are, a deeper understanding of the Northern Ireland conflict comes from talking with the inhabitants of Belfast themselves, who know firsthand the complexities and realities of living in a such a politically charged atmosphere. One of the most surprising aspects of the Troubles was, for an outsider such as myself, the range and spectrum of experience and opinion found in both “communities.” These ranged from the young woman from Falls Road whose parents sent her to live with a family in Belgium every summer, to the Republican-sympathizing Protestants from just outside Belfast, to the students who lived in rural areas and to whom the nationalist-loyalist connotations of either Catholic or Protestant affiliation were as bewildering to them as they were to the non-Irish among us.
Hence my surprise upon hearing from a Protestant student that the Catholics were identifiable based on their last names, their pronunciation of certain words, if they said “Derry” instead of “Londonderry,” enthusiasm for the Irish language, or even what type of football jerseys they would wear. After listening to that explanation, one could almost be forgiven for thinking that being Catholic meant attending Mass and professing submission to the authority of the pope. It would be unimaginable in some parts of Belfast that a loyal British subject could be Catholic, or that an ethnically Celtic Irishman could be a Protestant, so inseparable were the political and religious affiliations. But this is indicative of how insular the two groups had become due to centuries of mutual hostility and myriad injustices towards the indigenous Catholic population of Ireland.
It is this very conflation of “Catholic-Republican” and “Protestant-Loyalist” identities that leads some Catholics in Belfast to regard Sinn Féin and Republicanism with disdain. “I tell Catholics not to vote for Sinn Féin. It’s basically a Marxist-socialist party, and their positions are very often against the Catholic Church,” the Catholic chaplain at Queen’s University told me. “I came from a very rural, very Catholic though not Republican small town where we were not terribly affected by what was going on in Belfast.”
These Catholics, though they certainly have no love lost for the Unionists, saw much of the violence in the Troubles as arising partly from the tendency of many Northern Irish Catholics to submerge their Catholic identity into the ideology of Irish Republicanism. This is illustrated in a perplexing mural on the Falls Road commemorating Irish participation in the (very anti-Catholic) Republican army during the Spanish Civil War.
Several others were likewise very quick to impress upon me that Catholic and Republican were not the same thing. When I expressed my surprise at having seen pictures of Che Guevara lumped in with those of Bobby Sands at a Republican pub, a lifelong Catholic Belfast resident answered: “Simplistic, isn’t it? Anyone who presents themselves as ‘freedom fighters’ will get these people’s praise.” He went on to tell me: “Yes, there was discrimination. Yes, things were difficult for many Catholics for a long time. But the Sinn Féin was always more concerned for their Marxist agenda than for Catholics and their families. I would sooner vote Unionist than any of these people. And my father was in the IRA, so that is saying a lot.”
Some Catholic students were less vehement but still decidedly unenthusiastic about Sinn Féin. “I’m not a nationalist,” a Catholic student friend of mine told me. “I just don’t see what we stand to gain at this point from a united Ireland. And seeing as how the South has become very secular in recent decades, I doubt it would even be a good thing at all.” This encapsulates the type of thinking among many younger people in Northern Ireland, both Protestant and Catholic: After a while, the “causes” that each side had been fighting for had lost their meaning, and dwelling on such things had become pointless or even counterproductive. In addition, the dramatic economic expansion of Ireland over the past fifteen years (dubbed the “Celtic Tiger”) and its accompanying prosperity have allowed young people in Northern Ireland to travel and acquire a broader perspective on the world, thus diminishing the appeal of sectarianism. Floods of immigrants from other parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa have also had the effect of moving Ireland away from the political and religious conflicts of previous years.
Despite lingering tensions in some quarters, Belfast on the whole is a much different city than it was even as recently as the signing of the Good Friday Agreement ten years ago, as anyone there will be quick to point out. One can now safely walk through neighborhoods that until recently had been battlefields for paramilitary and terrorist groups. Gone are the days when you couldn’t even go into shopping malls without having to pass through security checkpoints with fully armed soldiers. In many previously dangerous areas, the barbed wire is being torn down and new houses are being built. Driving between the North of Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is about as eventful as crossing state lines in the United States.
That said, the Church in Ireland still has some formidable challenges, many of which it shares with the rest of the Western world—stemming the tide of secularization, indifferentism, and materialism; resisting recent efforts to legalize abortion in Ireland, and so forth. But for now it looks as though Northern Ireland is finally starting to put these sectarian divisions where they belong: in the past.
Sandra Czelusniak is an M.A. student at Queen’s University Belfast and a 2007 Publius Fellow with the Claremont Institute.