The savvier of you will know by the title that this might be about Northern Ireland, but what you may not know is that it is also the name of a good Irish folk song. Just thought I’d point out my creative genius in creating a title, now with the article.
On a frosty November morning I landed at George Best airport in Belfast. It is a very peculiar airport, from the outside it more resembles a cheap motel that you’d check into to have sex with your mistress whilst telling your wife that you are doing late night work in the office (no experience in this department I should say). Named after the footballer that Northern Ireland is so proud of, it is their claim to fame as well as their brand new Titanic exhibition. Unfortunately for them it is for another reason that Northern Ireland is famous, or should I say infamous, for it is also known for a period of time creatively named “the troubles”. It was for this reason that I went to Belfast to see how far Northern Ireland has come since that time and to investigate through a series of interviews whether the conflict is still alive today. I should say however that by no means am I a professional investigative journalist (yet), in fact far from it, I study conflict and religion and this was a research visit, research that often was conducted in many of Belfast’s fine pubs.
Belfast is a strange world torn between different worlds. Catholics against Protestants, Loyalists against Republicans, Past against modernity. Irish (Paddies) against the British (Arseholes). And finally Taxi drivers against everyone. One only needs to take a walk on the streets of Belfast to realise how divided the city remains, the murals that you can mistake for graffiti are a stark reminder of who owns what street. In protestant areas one can see the words K.A.T still etched into the walls, which is easy to ignore but actually has a very sinister meaning, Kill all Taigs (Kill all Catholics). In Catholic areas such as the Falls Road you can still see the words “Brits Out” (fair enough) and PSNI or People should not inform. It is easy to be intimidated by such aggression on the streets but the question remains whether this is now the history of Northern Ireland or a live conflict which still goes on.
One of my first meetings was with a former member of the IRA who used to be on a loyalist death list and spent two years in the Maze prison (5 stars on TripAdvisor). To him he felt that Northern Ireland has moved on a long way since the violence of the troubles when bombs and gunfire was daily life. However, he himself was still uncomfortable to enter loyalist areas in the city, as well as making sure his children grew up in Catholic only areas. The sense of pride for the time he had served at her majesties pleasure was apparent and whilst he believed in the peace process in Northern Ireland he regretted nothing, proudly drinking and telling stories with fellow IRA prisoners in a pub that only people who have been in a British prison could enter. From his point of view the biggest danger still to Northern Ireland was the Loyalist gangs (surprise surprise) which are still alive today and control drugs and people trafficking in the north. In visiting the city of Londonderry (or Derry to the Irish) also known as stroke city, the legacy of bloody Sunday (the name is fairly self-explanatory) lives on. It was there I met Republicans who had relatives killed by the British army on that fateful day and showed me the exact place where they fell. Whilst believing in a peaceful resolution to the conflict, they felt bitterness that it has taken two inquires and the soldiers responsible had not only not be prosecuted but promoted and given medals (as well as tea and cake with the queen). On the other side many of the Loyalists I spoke to had similar stories in their past, one person who I spoke to saw his six month year old baby cousin accidentally shot by the IRA when attempting to assassinate someone. The feeling amongst loyalists that they must continue to fight for their right to exist is still strong and that they are completely different to anyone who is Catholic.
This issue was also raised in a discussion with Dr. Gainel at Belfast Queens University. In her opinion the divisions in many ways have been worsened in recent years. Whilst the peace has held between the now disarmed Irish Republican Army and Ulster Defence Force, the divisions amongst the Northern Irish youth have grown wide. It is still a fact that if you are Catholic or Protestant you will most likely go to a school that is of your faith and will marry a member of your own faith. In fact the so called “peace walls” that divide Catholic and Protestant communities have not only remained but more have been built. The residents still feel that they don’t want anything to do with their neighbours who are of different faiths and political ideologies. Dr. Gainel also acknowledged that the lack of a truth commission has meant that in Northern Ireland the wounds have not fully healed and that the old tensions remain under the surface of a progressive Northern Ireland.
Brexit has also been the latest source of tension in Northern Ireland since the region voted overwhelmingly to remain within the European Union. The EU has provided huge amounts of funding to Northern Ireland to lift it out of economic disparity and provide funds for peace building initiatives. With the UK (England) decision to leave the EU the future of the region remains uncertain, the open borders with the Republic of Ireland has significantly eased tensions over the years, the return of a border patrolled by the British army is certain to provoke elements of the old IRA. The problem of the Loyalist gangs is also a point of tension that is currently being discussed in Northern Ireland. Whilst they have become gangsters rather than ‘freedom fighters’ they are still seen as heroes in many of the loyalist neighbourhoods. In fact despite being gangs of drug dealers they are often running local community centres and youth groups (providing nice sociable heroin). One former member of the UDF said that they are peacekeepers and provide a lot the community, despite being criminals. With their vow never to let Northern Ireland become part of the republic and republicans still longing for a day of unification in EU Ireland, it is a possibility that tensions could break out once more.
The divisions are still everywhere in Northern Ireland, whether that be in a school, in a pub or on the streets. Sadly the shadow of violence still lingers waiting for a spark to ignite a new cycle conflict. I was left thinking on the plane back to Amsterdam with a quote from the Northern Irish politician David Ervine:
“This society believed it was looking towards a new future, yet we consistently find ourselves being dragged backwards”