Belfast - East and West - The Troubles’ may have officially ended but if you look closely...
you can see that in many ways the community is still divided...
As visitors in the city, we can see on the surface that Belfast is a city that is undergoing a renaissance; there are many new buildings, the warehouses in the Cathedral Quarter are being developed into trendy bars, shops and cafes; the docks area in the Titanic Quarter is being regenerated into a desirable residential neighbourhood with education and tourism amenities; there are an increasing number of apolitical murals replacing the political ones in the city, and there is a thriving film industry that brings people and revenue to the country. But...
Just under the surface and outside the central business district we could also see a divided city - obvious things such as the peace walls, the fluttering Union Jack flags and Irish flags (although fewer in number than the Union Jacks), the bonfires and marches to commemorate the Battle of the Boyne and the political murals.
To give this division some context I have attempted to very briefly explain my understanding of the history behind the continued discord in Ireland today.
Often understood as a sectarian argument – between Protestants and Catholics – the division mostly seems to stem from the politics of land and territory. It’s about whether Northern Ireland should be a part of the United Kingdom or a part of the Republic of Ireland. The Republic of Ireland (the majority of whom are Catholics) want the land returned to them so that it is one island county - a united Ireland. Many in Northern Ireland (the majority of who are Protestants) want to remain as part of Britain. When you consider how the English came to Ireland with their Protestant religion and displaced the Irish (predominantly Catholic in faith) people from their land to enable their own settlement, you can understand why the argument is often thought to be sectarian.
When it began...
England first started to assert control over the island of Ireland with the Norman invasion in the late 12th Century which marked the beginning of over 700 years of oppression of and rebellion by the Catholics.
The English Crown asserted full control of Ireland in 1541 when the Irish Parliament bestowed the title of King of Ireland on Henry VIII after an uprising by the Earl of Kildare threatened regal hegemony.
Wars in the middle and end of the 17th Century cemented the Protestant ascendancy, with William of Orange's victory over James II in the Battle of Boyne in 1690. This victory is both celebrated and mourned to this day (you can read about the battle here). The Protestants celebrate with bonfires and marches on and around the 12th of July every year and we witnessed these this year.- (more on this and images below)
From the mid 1600’s until about 1690, England colonised Ireland with thousands of Protestant settlers from England and Scotland. These settlers displaced many of the existing Catholic landholders and sowed the seeds for centuries of on-off sectarian and military conflict.
In 1801, the Act of Union (read about this here) made Ireland a part of the United Kingdom. The Catholics were suppressed through discriminatory laws and regulations that imposed severe political and economic hardships, which led to several uprisings that were swiftly crushed by the Police and the British Army.
The conflict continued...
until an agreement was reached with England about Irish independence in 1921. The only condition was that the six counties in the north (Ulster) were to remain in the union with Great Britain and thus Northern Ireland was ‘born'. This was done because the majority of the population in the north were Protestant and they wanted to keep the bond with Britain. In Ireland this decision stirred strong feelings and disagreement that threw the country into a civil war. Many Irish felt that giving up the North would mean to betray that region. The civil war did not change the decision, Ireland was liberated, but divided in two. Conflict continued...
Fast forward to the late 1960s, when in Northern Ireland and especially in Derry and Belfast, the Catholics began to peacefully demonstrate against their oppression and for civil rights and equal treatment with the Protestants. The Protestants, however, saw this action as a provocation against them as a group and the situation got out of control and escalated into violent conflict. British soldiers came in 1969 to bring order to society, but unfortunately they took sides and the discrimination against Catholics continued. Terrorism and murder were carried out both by extreme Catholics and extreme Protestants. Many civilians were hurt or killed. People suspected of being terrorists could be kept in internment (in practice the same as jail) for years without a trial. Most people who were arrested were Catholics. The British soldiers’ presence in Northern Ireland was extremely provoking to the Catholics.
This conflict continued... for three decades and is now referred to here by the simple and non-inflammatory term ‘The Troubles’. The impact of ‘The Troubles' was devastating with over 3,500 lives lost (of which about half of those deaths were in Belfast) and the widespread destruction of property.
'The Troubles’ ended with the signing of the Good Friday Peace Agreement in 1998 by the most important political leaders on both sides at the time, giving them a power-sharing leadership in the Government of Northern Ireland and paving the way for the withdrawal of British troops and the disbanding of paramilitary groups.
But many believe that the political situation that gave rise to the conflicts (that Northern Ireland should become part of the Republic of Ireland) is still unresolved and that means that the division between the two groups still exists.
Bonfires, Orange Men and the Marching Season
Every year on the 12th of July, the Orange Order and the Protestant flute bands take to the streets and march to mark the victory of King William at the Battle of the Boyne. In 2020 we were there although the Covid pandemic meant that there were fewer spectators than normal.
The Orange Order was Founded in County Armagh in 1795, during a period of Protestant-Catholic conflict, as a Masonic-style fraternity sworn to maintain the Protestant ascendancy. (read more about the Orange Order here) The Order is named after William of Orange, the Protestant Dutch king who claimed the thrones of the Catholic King James II in England in 1698. In Ireland Prince William (informally known as “King Billy” in Ireland and Scotland) clashed with and defeated James II again in 1690 at Drogheda, near Dublin, in what became known as the Battle of the Boyne.
On the eve of the marches, massive bonfires (constructed from wooden pellets) are lit across the country supposedly in celebration of the victory but often they are also used for displays of sectarian hatred by burning Republican flags and images of prominent Catholic leaders. This year some banners targeted veteran Republican Bobby Storey who had died several weeks earlier. The Orange Order claim that they do not organise the bonfires but they are organised by local community groups.
A bonfire in East Belfast - the Union Jack came down before it was lit and the Irish Republic flag was placed on the top of the bonfire. The banner was to remind people about social distancing.
The wall behind the bonfire showing the marching band and highlighting that the march is a cultural tradition.
Anne asking the locals when the bonfire would be lit
Getting the fire ready to light - the lads at the top appeared to be inebriated (they were very unsteady up there) - we didn’t see them come down but assume that they did. EU flag and Irish republican flag now up - very provocative - most Catholics stay away
6. One lad scaling the pellets
7. A small bonfire at Cluan Place right next to the ‘peace wall''
8. This boy wanted me to take his photo by the Loyalist banner - ’No one likes us - we don’t
9-11 The bonfire from image 1 now well and truly alight
12-15 The Orange men marching and a flute band (images courtesy of the Belfast Telegraph and The Guardian) . We didn't go to see the marchers as the message was to stay away or view from your garden so that you were social distancing.
Separate Communities - The Peace Walls and Flags
The streets may be quiet these days, the sounds of gunshots or bombs from 'The Troubles' silenced, but many of the streets are still divided physically - by walls - walls known as 'peace walls'. They are called peace walls not because they are a symbol of peace, but because they are there to keep the peace.
The first one went up at the beginning of ’The Troubles’ and then more were constructed by the British Government throughout the 1970s in an attempt to control the violence. The majority of peace walls are in Belfast but there also some in other parts of Northern Ireland including Derry. Currently there are approximately 59 in Belfast and they stretch over 21 miles (34 kilometres).
The walls still help to calm tensions and decrease attacks between the two communities and many residents who live along these walls want them to remain. Reasons for keeping the walls vary and it is interesting to hear what each community thinks motivates the other community to retain the walls.
The Catholic Republicans think that the Protestants want the walls to remain because the Protestants are insecure – that they need the wall to help them keep their foothold in Ireland.
The Protestant Loyalists say that the Catholics want to squash the Protestant Culture and that the government and the police support the Catholics; they think that the Catholics have got their own way since the cease fire – that the govt gives in to them all the time – and they accuse the government of supporting murderers and jailbirds (i.e. the IRA).
The Peace walls come in many forms – there are concrete walls, metal fences and even gates that are still locked at night. Several have been built since the Good Friday agreement, while other concrete walls have since been extended up with fencing, and some are topped with razor wire.
In 2013, Northern Ireland’s government set up an initiative to remove all of the walls by 2023 but the walls have actually increased in both height and number, and approximately 116 barriers remain across Northern Ireland as visible symbols of community segregation and division. Catholics on one side, Protestants on the other, the children go to school on their own side of the wall - Protestants to state schools and Catholics to church run schools.
The walls illustrate division and mistrust; the communities don’t mix – not necessarily because of the walls, the division was happening before the walls, but the walls now seem to feed into it and have actually increased the level of segregation.
The walls are both a reminder of the past violence and a symbol of the present – the violence may have pretty much stopped but the emotions that fuelled it are harder to assuage.
Of course there are many people who support the removal of the Walls and I will look at efforts being made to heal the sectarian divide in my next post.
1-2 Peace Wall East Belfast in July
3-6 Peace wall West Belfast - Shankill Road and Falls Road
7 Peace Wall East Belfast
8-10 Winter time in West Belfast
11-15 Gates in the walls - still closed at night
16-19 Various views of the wall between Shankill Road and Falls Road showing elaborate graffiti - many people also leave a message on the wall as a gesture of solidarity with the peace movement.
You can identify what neighbourhood you are in by the type of flag that is flying. The Unionists seemed to have more flags flying but that may have been because of the time of year that we were there. We saw more of the Republic of Ireland flags in murals and on memorials.
1 Irish Flag
2-3 Murals with the Irish flag as a background
4-5 Irish flag over a memorial of Ballymurphy and Turf Lodge communities in West Belfast who gave their lives for Irish freedom.
6-8 British flags in East Belfast - out for the 12th of July celebrations
9-10 A typical day in August on Shankill Road in West Belfast
Coming up in my next post - political murals as another example of division and evidence that some people want the walls to come down, the conflict to end and for there to be peace in Belfast and Northern Ireland.