First impressions of Belfast

My most mind-blowing sight in Belfast was a 25-foot Peace Wall separating Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants. There’s severe tension between Protestants and Catholics in Belfast — tension that’s erupted into beatings, riots and killings over the past few decades*.

My study abroad class has been staying at a hotel in Dublin, where we’ve been doing the bulk of our reporting. We visited Belfast for a day trip on Saturday, a two-hour bus ride between the two countries**.

Belfast is strictly segregated between different neighborhoods. One of our guides said it’s not uncommon for a resident to never leave his or her side of the neighborhood.

What separates the neighborhoods? Think of the barriers separating zombies from humans in a movie like 28 Weeks Later. This is what a Peace Wall looks like:

Photo credit: mine

These 25-foot walls have heavy-security gates that close at night. For the most part, Protestant neighborhoods want nothing to do with Catholic neighborhoods, and vice versa. We were told this separation results in twin economies, since money doesn’t flow between different neighborhoods. That’s a big deal financially, and our guides claimed that it costs Northern Ireland’s communities billions of dollars (I haven’t confirmed that yet on Google).

For background: Irish Catholics tend to identify as Nationalist/Republican, meaning they want Ireland to be a separate Republic. Irish Protestants are mostly Unionist/Loyalist — they support Northern Ireland as a “constituent country” of the UK.

It’s referred to as “self-imposed apartheid.” In 2004, more than 90 percent of public housing in Northern Ireland was divided among religious lines. And in Belfast, it was 98 percent.

A police car in Belfast. It’s riot-proof:

I shot this on a Catholic side of town.

But there are plenty of signs of encouragement. On Saturday, we visited the Belfast Community Circus, which provides non-segregated instruction to children, teens and young adults. Protestant and Catholic children alike learn skills like gymnastics, juggling and circus arts in a friendly community, and one that’s exceptionally popular: hundreds of children are on the waiting list, and the Belfast circus seems to be growing. It’s centrally located, so the four main sections of Belfast (East/West/North/South) have similar access.

Two of the students on our trip are producing a multimedia package on the circus, which I’ll link to here once it’s online.

There are other organizations that encourage friendly interaction between Protestant and Catholic youth. When I was in high school, I heard from a founder of Playing for Peace, (now PeacePlayers International), which encourages peace through basketball. Think Irish Protestant children playing Irish Catholic children on the court. The founder told us an anecdote about a time when the organization had first started in Northern Ireland. Organization leaders once figuratively turned their backs on the Catholic and Protestant kids they had brought together to play basketball. When they turned back around, the kids were fistfighting.

Since then, Peace Players has grown internationally and even operates in the Middle East, where they’ve actually had Palestinian and Israeli kids play basketball with each other. See this ESPN article for more.

Tomorrow I’ll be visiting the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, a nonprofit devoted to peacebuilding in Ireland and beyond. I’m excited to hear from them, and hopefully do a story (I’m working on several others at the moment). With so much religious conflict, many Irish authorities, officials and academics have become experts in, as the center’s name suggests, peace and reconciliation.

*Wikipedia has a bit of a tarnished name brand, but I’m linking to their articles because it’s the fastest way to read up.

**For anyone not familiar with Ireland: I’m staying in Dublin, the capital of Ireland. Belfast is the capital of Northern Ireland, an entirely different country that’s part of the United Kingdom.

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