I have been quite reluctant to write anything about my recent trip to Belfast. I have had to process pretty much the whole week there, deciding whether anything written would add or negate anything that happened there over the years.
Why was I reluctant? I come from a complicated background. My mum was a Roman Catholic from Glasgow brought up in a setting that was quite sympathetic to Irish nationalism and to some extent also sympathetic to the methods used as well. She had never set foot in Eire or Northern Ireland, but she spoke of the whole subject as if she had been there from the days of William of Orange and Oliver Cromwell with a real venom. My dad was the complete opposite, he wasn’t religious in any way, and often blamed religion for most of the horror that has happened in the world.
When I was about to leave school I wanted to join the Royal Engineers, but when I mentioned it, I was confronted with a clear lack of support from my parents for a variety of reasons. My dad had been in the Artillery during WWII, and he very rarely spoke about the whole time he experienced. He was a man who tried to avoid conflict from that point onwards I suspect. He told me quite clearly that only people who join the army are people from broken homes, people were running away from something or criminals. I wasn’t any of them. The antagonism from my mum who thought I was joining the enemy and would have to go to N.Ireland obviously had an influence on my decision making. I never did join the Royal Signals, but I secretly went through the selection process for the RAF and told my parents what I was doing two days before leaving to start my training in aerial photography. I always thought my dad was silently proud of me, my mother was very silent in a negative way towards me and that didn’t change really from then onwards.
So, I shall now jump from 1980 to a few weeks ago in the year 2012. What did I think of Belfast?
Much water has flowed under the bridge, especially from around 2006. During that time we have had Ian Paisley actually sharing a table with the opposition and the peace process has shown that despite history, things can move on to a great degree. Things are far from dealt with though… it is ongoing.
My eldest has been in Belfast for the last 5 years. He did his MA and Phd there, and his area of expertise is contemporary Irish political history, which of course covers the whole time period of the 1960’s to the present day. He was the ideal tourist guide for our stay and we walked around certain parts of Belfast, did the tour bus and also spent a day at (Londonderry) Derry where the tensions were at there most noticeable.
Lets start with my thoughts on the parts of Belfast that I saw and learned of. I hope I am not too sweeping in what I say here. Belfast itself is an amazing city! We stayed in a rather middle class part (just around the corner from Ian Paisley’s church) and walked into Belfast city centre and around Queen’s University itself. The most obvious thing is that it is still a very segregated city. There are blocks of streets that are clearly nationalist and others which are clearly loyalist. You feel the tension, especially when passing through to get to somewhere else. Student land tends to be a segregated situation usually, there is always somewhere that can be identified as ‘student land’, but here is is sub-divided as each side feels safer in numbers. You can still see wall paintings of either side of the political/religious divide.
The city centre itself is just like any other city centre, and there is a culture that now clearly enjoys the freedom without a ring of steel or vehicle bans in force. The people are genuinely friendly and warm and I was actually felt pretty relaxed whilst there.
Above, a picture of Ian Paisley’s church. On the outside it reminds me very much of a Roman Catholic church. The style and architecture was rather surprising. The gates were closed and chain locked, In the whole week I didn’t see anybody walking in or out of the building. Below is the noticeboard which I had to photograph. Both my wife and I are church ministers, so we had more than a few comments about it… ‘Only the Authorised Version of the Holy Scriptures used in our Services’.
Whilst on the subject of churches, a few yards along the same road is the strangest named funeral directors I have ever seen:
This had us totally bewildered as to what it portrays to people in relation to being a Christian and the idea of new life that is transforming and transformed.
On one particular day we did the Belfast tour. We boarded an open-top bus and were taken to some key locations. Whilst on the trip we were taken through some Roman Catholic areas, and they were quite often literally divided by walls or high fences to protect one side from the other. We saw many Berlin walls in Belfast.
We were fortunate to avoid the week of the 12th July when the Orange Order march through the streets of Belfast. It is a time when the sensible people go away from Belfast for a holiday. In preparation for this, the Loyalist’s ( The term loyalist was first used in Irish politics in the 1790s, to refer to British settlers in Ireland who opposed Catholic Emancipation. the extension of the franchise of the Irish Parliament and greater independence for Ireland from Britain. Prominent loyalists included John Foster, John Fitzgibbon and John Beresford. In the subsequent Irish Rebellion of 1798, ultra loyalists were those most opposed to the United Irishmen, who wanted an independent Irish Republic. Loyalists founded the Orange Order in 1795 and served in the Yeomanry militia, which helped put down the rebellion. Some loyalists, such as Richard Musgrave, considered the rebellion a Catholic plot to drive British colonists out of Ireland) build huge bonfires with pallets, and they are often guarded continuously. Many of the streets can be seen flying various flags on the street lam posts etc. of the UVF or others. The union flag is flown in the other areas, but strangely enough the English are not welcome particularly. You can also see flags of Israel and Palestine flying. This may seem strange, but the groups have associated themselves with those causes. The Israeli flag represents for the Loyalists a nation in situ and being persecuted for their right to remain there and to remain separate from the surrounding land and inhabitants. On the other hand the Palestinian flag is flown by the nationalists as a sign of solidarity with the people who have been forces out of where they originally came from and therefore the victim. Good examples of hijacking causes to suit distorted views on both sides.
Throughout the bus tour we could see examples of the violence and rhetoric painted on the many walls and houses, clearly marking out territory. We were taken past various locations where loyalists had been murdered by bombs and shootings – these were certainly spoken of on the tour without any reference to similar acts being carried out on the republicans. The commentary along the tour was interesting in bias in some places, but far more reasonable than expected.
Above are some examples of the past and still the present in Belfast.
We also went to Derry (Londonderry) and walked around some of this small city and it’s castle walls which are complete and never have been breached. For a better history of Derry follow: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derry.
We left the bus station and walked up a steep hill onto the city walls. Whilst doing this, you could clearly tell that this is not a particularly affluent city compared to Belfast. Concerns have been raised by both communities over the increasingly divided nature of the city. It is estimated that during the course of the Troubles, as many as 15,000 Protestants moved from the city side. Fewer than 500 Protestants now live on the west bank of the River Foyle, compared to 18,000 in 1969, with most on the Fountain Estate and it is feared that the city could become permanently divided. Below is a walking photo-shoot along the wall…
Immediately above is how Derry looks from the walled city out to the infamous Bogside area of the city. An area which has been very high profile due to many incidents including ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’.
We left the city walls and walked down into the Bogside towards the ‘Free Derry Museum’, which is an archive focussing on the civil rights era of the 1960s and the Free Derry/early troubles era of the 1970s.
Here we have an example of identification and solidarity, Che Guevara on the Bogside.
Despite what you can see above, there are big glimpses of hope. You can clearly see that Derry doesn’t attract or get the same investment as Belfast does, and it times like today, poverty only seems to breed extremists. Recently the Peace Bridge has been constructed and opened. Many thought that it would be a white elephant (surely nobody will cross from the Protestant area to a Catholic area!) but is has proven them wrong. Again the people seemed very warm and welcoming, and maybe that bridge is the right kind of move to bring a divided people increasingly together. I have learned never to say never, and who would have thought that the likes of Gerry Adams add Martin McGuinness would have been sharing a room together wit Ian Paisley….. I for one didn’t think so.
My visit to N.Ireland was refreshing as well as infuriating. My wife found the visit to the Bogside depressing, especially when we went around the Free Derry Museum. But then again, it is so easy to think that everything is wonderful when it clearly isn’t. Time is a great healer, the peace process is a very delicate thing but it must keep moving forward. To move forward some things may have to be put to one side for the greater good… and that can be difficult when there are still open wounds from decades of conflict. It has to continue though, as does an increase in financial investment in these times of austerity, especially if we are to prevent the kind of breeding ground for anger and violence that we have seen all too often, and too many have experienced for themselves. I look forward to a return trip to N.Ireland.