I would be fooling no one if I said that I knew a lot about the conflict that has left Catholic and Protestant blood on the soil of Ireland for hundreds of years. Most Americans’ knowledge of European history is probably limited to one or two classes in high school; I’m an atypical American in the sense that I was actually fascinated by European history and took additional classes in university. I could tell you what Bloody Sunday was or what IRA stands for, but I couldn’t really tell you why or how this part of the world came to be so entrenched in partisanship and sectarian violence. My couchsurfing host John has lived here for most of his life, and he has shown me a bizarre and unsettling side to the city I will be calling home for the next week.
Yesterday I left Dublin early in the morning and arrived in Belfast’s city center by bus, not too far from their city hall. It’s hard to see, but the Union Jack flying from the City Hall was up for the first time in quite a while. Last year, the Belfast City Council voted to limit the number of days in which the British flag flew over City Hall to 18, the minimum as stipulated under British law. Yesterday was Remembrance Day in the UK, so in honor of British soldiers killed in the line of duty, the flag flew. In the city center, some people wore red poppies on their coats in remembrance–and in allegiance–and some did not.
After taking me by his apartment to drop off my bag, John took me out of the city center to a neighborhood called Ardoyne. It was here that I saw a group of about fifty men dressed in suits, bowler hats and orange sashes sing hymns and then march down the road. However, this was no ordinary parade; this group of men was surrounded on one side by dozens of heavily armed police. After the Orangemen marched down the street, the police cordon broke off and John and I crossed a road into the Catholic side of Ardoyne.
As we walked by where the Orangemen had been standing, we passed numerous banners erected by the Unionists. Many of them had Scottish or English place names on them; there were Rangers FC banners—Rangers are the famous Glasgow club associated with Protestants, while their archrival Celtic are associated with Catholics—as well as flags with acronyms for several different Unionist political parties and military groups, such as the Ulster Defense Regiment.
Literally the next street over from the marching Orangemen was this mural, and on a cul-de-sac nearby were several children, some kicking a football, others jumping rope. It is a strange sight to see such innocence and tranquility only steps away from red-blooded nationalism. If not for the police force blocking entry to this street, the Orangemen would attempt to march through this part of Ardyone. On past occasions where this has happened, widespread rioting has engulfed the neighborhood.
John and I walked further down the street, John clearly more relaxed now that we were in a Catholic neighborhood. We stopped beneath this mural, which to me epitomizes the blindness of sectarian conflict. Each side views itself as irrevocably the stronger, the morally right, the just, the victor. Each side views the other as the tyrant, the murderer, the aggressor, the loser.
Over the years there have been countless accords, treaties, and agreements meant to put an end to the sectarian violence between the two sides. And after the initial calm that greets each ceasefire, tensions boil over and inevitably blood is spilled again. In the middle of the night, a car screeches to a halt and men toss a can of paint across a mural. A flag tied to a pole the day before is ripped off and left lying in the street. A parade of people who speak in the same accented tongue wish to walk down the street of a people who look the same and speak the same language, and the menace of needless death and destruction looms. And one street over, children play, oblivious to the senseless hatred that festers beneath the surface, a hatred that threatens to mar the fragile peace that sways back and forth beneath partisan winds.
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