When I first began looking into Belfast and researching the city, I was overwhelmed by articles such as “Where Not To Go In Belfast”, and “Is It Safe To Visit Belfast?” I heard from friends who had traveled to the region before me that parts of the city were absolutely beautiful and worth seeing, but that the tensions were obvious and you had to watch your step.
Now, the history of Northern Ireland is a long, complicated, and bloody one with many intermingled branches, so my apologies for the extreme over-simplification. I am absolutely, without a doubt, not an expert on this subject.
The tensions I speak of refer to the “troubles” between the Catholic population and the Protestant population – dating from a civil rights march in Londonderry on October 5, 1968 to the Good Friday Agreement on April 10, 1998. However, it is important to note that the conflict in Belfast began centuries prior to this in the 1100’s when English (Protestant, Unionist) settlers were first brought to the north of Ireland and invaded the Irish (Catholic, Nationalist) territory. Way later the protestants won the territory, Northern Ireland was born as part of the UK, and revolts, reforms, rebellions, and revolutions followed. The violence runs deep.
Skip ahead to the 1960’s when the most recent round of “troubles” began. The troubles are not a religious issue per se, but rather a territorial one; one of national identity. The Protestant Unionists (majority) view Northern Ireland as United Kingdom territory, whereas the Catholic Nationalists (minority) view Northern Ireland as Irish territory. In 1968, the Unionist government attempted to amend the rift between the two groups and end the extreme discrimination that was imposed on the Catholic minority. This was met with anger from both sides of the argument (the changes were too slow for the Catholics, and too fast for the Protestants), and in 1969 the situation had become so grave that the British Government suspended the Northern Irish Government and put soldiers on the ground. The British Soldiers attempted to do this through imposing curfews and conducting house-to-house searches (which were no doubt conducted with violence).
This infiltration of Northern Ireland with British Soldiers really pissed off the IRA (Irish Republican Army, on the side of the Catholics) and they vowed to get rid of them through a war of attrition (AKA spilling blood). And spilling blood is just what they did.
From here I am going to skip ahead to 1994 when, after decades of war, the IRA demanded a cease-fire. The British army agreed to this, both parties citing that they believed the conflict could no longer be rectified through war. In 1996 the first real cross-party peace talks began and these negotiations concluded in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement – one in which both parties agreed to power-sharing and the “consent principle;” a principle where the unification of Ireland would only happen in the event of a popular vote on both sides of the border.
The peace walls in Northern Ireland were first erected in 1969 at the start of the “troubles.” The walls were only supposed to be temporary and stand for six months, however over time they have become more permanent, have multiplied, and have grown. Today, there are over 48 seperate peace walls, mostly located in Belfast, and they span over 34 Kilometers.
In 2012, a poll was conducted in which 69% of Belfast residents said they believed the walls were still necessary due to potential violence. In 2013, The Northern Ireland Executive committed to removing all peace walls through mutual consent by 2023.
Knowing of the conflict in Ireland and a desire to better understand the causes and effects of it is essentially what inspired me to book a Black Taxi Political Tour in Belfast. Our guide was incredible – having lived in Belfast all his life, he had first hand experience of the troubles and yet was able to give a balanced and objective view of what was currently happening and what had happened in the city. He had lost friends and family members to the violence, and he took us to various murals that were erected in honor of them. An incredibly emotional experience for all of us, we stopped in silence at many these murals to pay our respects.
Driving through Belfast, it is easy to spot whether you are in a protestant or catholic district. In the protestant neighborhoods, British flags are strung on every single house, lamp post, and mailbox. It seemed every square inch of space was covered in them in defiance of the Catholics. In many areas of both the Protestant and Catholic areas, poverty is rampant. While we were in town, a carnival was going on for Protestant children – as our guide told us that these children don’t see this type of fun very often. However, lining the streets near the carnival were police with machine guns, making sure nothing got out of hand.
Our guide took us past the IRA headquarters, where he warned us not to take pictures, much less smile, as there were distrusting armed guards and video cameras on the property at all times.
As it turned out, we picked a particularly interesting time to visit Belfast. We showed up on June 25th and stayed that day and the next. This is the time of year that the Protestants are gearing up to celebrate “The Twelfth” on July 12th; a day which celebrates the victory of Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne (1690). This battle was significant in that it sparked the beginning of Protestants moving to Northern Ireland. The celebration holds Catholic disgust at the epicenter, and thus is prone to violence.
Here’s what happened on “The Twelfth” 2015: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-33840428
Missiles, petrol bombs, water cannons…
To further demonstrate the anti-Catholic sentiment currently present in Belfast, take a look at the photo below. This is a giant bonfire that the protestants were going to light on The Twelfth. We stopped and had a chat with the people (teenagers and children) who were building it, and they told us they hoped to have the bonfire twice as high in time for the celebration.
Although the disparities between Catholics and Protestants in Belfast is extreme, it is important to note that many Belfast residents do not take part in such matters i.e. our tour guide. After centuries of violence, many Northern Irelanders just want to live their lives peacefully. But unfortunately like in so many violent and hateful situations, it’s not the peaceful people who stand out.