Note: This is the second of two posts recounting Eye on the East’s recent visit to Northern Ireland. The first post can be found here.
Where does one begin to talk about the bloodshed? Where does one begin to describe the hatred? How does one begin to believe in hope?
Even though I knew what drew me to Belfast, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Would I catch a glimpse of the stereotypical scenes of violence portrayed in the evening news or be taken back by the fear and anxiety of being in the crossfire of a foreign land? Would I see a city of insanity and contrasts, similar to the city I call my own, or was it that there was nothing like Beirut in the world, with all its idiosyncrasies, its deep-seated divisions and long-running hatreds?
It isn’t for nothing that numerous parallels have been drawn between Belfast and Beirut in recent years. Whether being for its shared sectarian tensions or the mere fact that its most heated times of conflict are referred to as “The Troubles” (Lebanon’s equivalent being “the events”/”الأحداث” in reference to the civil war), an underestimated description, as if dismissing the true nature and depth of the conflict. Or for being a city of living contrasts, where nonchalance lives side by side to readiness to fight for all the wrong and twisted reasons. In this sense, and quite sadly, there was somewhere like Beirut in the world after all, with perhaps even more division and sectarian tension (or so I thought)…and it doesn’t take much to discover it.
Once out of the bustling Belfast city center, out to the periphery of the city where the heart of “the Troubles” still seems to rage, all of what Northern Ireland is notoriously known for comes to the fore. I didn’t witness violence unfolding in front of my eyes, but I saw it and felt it in almost every corner of almost every neighborhood, whether Unionist/Protestant or Republican/Catholic. Belfast’s amazing murals tell the story of “the Troubles” and lives lost on both sides, but are a constant reminder of the conflict and the mutual hatred. They stand as a powerful history of what occurred (“In proud memory of our fallen comrades. We forget them not. At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them” noted one mural signed by the pro-Britain Ulster Freedom Fighters), of the intensity of sentiments that still remain (“SpringHill WestRock Massacre. Belfast’s Bloody Sunday. On Sunday the 9th of July 1972, the British Army murdered 5 Irish citizens and severely wounded 2 others. It’s time for the truth.”) and an utter defiance of both sides in facing the future (masked gunmen portrayed on walls on both sides of the divide, if only as an insinuation of what may always come). I didn’t feel afraid approaching areas where Protestant and Catholic areas meet (so-called urban interface areas), but felt an indescribable unease as the iron gates separating some of these areas prepared to close down at sunset. And then there was the wall…because peace in Northern Ireland, no matter how tenuous, can still not be guaranteed without a physical separation between brothers and sisters.
The Peace Walls, an oxymoron erected by both sides, which some believe to have inspired Israel’s wall in the West Bank, stand as the tallest testament to the difficulty in achieving genuine reconciliation anytime soon. The fact that the wall has risen in recent years (built first as a short wall, to which an extension was added, above which yet another layer of wire was added) only adds to the difficulty. “Some people believe the walls and gates are a good thing,” a Belfast resident noted, “to avoid any random incident that could easily escalate and become bloody. It will take years for all the tension to subside.”
And while the hearts and minds of many, whether in Ireland or Northern Ireland, understand the need to put an end to the conflict, few believe it will be resolved anytime soon. When asked, one Irish noted “who am I to say whether this should come to an end, as tensions are so high, both sides have wronged and have lost what is near and dear to them,” as if to say that it was hard to force peace upon those who still seek justice for the loss of loved ones. On the more practical side of things, interlocutors also highlighted the economic dimension of the conflict, whereby even if Northern Ireland’s unification with the Republic of Ireland were a possibility, the financial burden on the Republic may discourage Irish support for unification. “Northern Ireland is effectively a failed state on its own,” more than one person told me, “and currently depends entirely on British financial assistance to stay afloat.” The politics of economics have never appeared so real…
As I wondered the streets of Belfast and tried to make sense of the intensity of the murals and walls in and around interface areas, Beirut seemed to fare better in comparison. Part of me wanted to believe that, and part of me knew better not to. But nothing quite resonated than what I heard a professor and specialist on Northern Ireland say on the future of the conflict. “There is no will on the ground to solve the issue,” he said, and therefore no campaigns, virtual or otherwise, would be of any help. There was a certain momentum after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, but that has long disappeared, he declared.
And then I saw all the parallels, regardless of the murals and walls, seeming all too close to home. And I wondered for how long, from Belfast to Beirut, we’d sing a song of senseless sectarianism and blood shed in vain. And I still wonder where and how one begins to believe in hope…