I had no idea what to expect from Belfast. The usual reaction when telling American friends and relatives that I would spend a year in Northern Ireland’s largest city was often mild confusion at the very least. They may not have said it, but I think most people thought to themselves, ‘Why stop at Belfast? I hear that Baghdad is lovely in November.’ In spite of its reputation for division, I’ve come to love this exciting, sometimes turbulent, and rapidly changing city over the past month and a half.
I’m studying Comparative Ethnic Conflict, so coming to Belfast was a bit of a natural fit. The classroom experience at Queen’s has been challenging and stimulating, but as so often happens, I’ve learned as much about the reality of ethnic conflict in day to day interactions with the people of this city that has been the site of so much pain and violence. From cab drivers who worked through the worst of the Troubles, to pub owners who welcome increasingly international clientele, to classmates who grew up throughout Northern Ireland’s sectarian landscape, I’ve found the people of Belfast among the best teachers I’ve ever encountered. The walls and barbed wire between sectarian neighbourhoods make it painfully clear that deep division remains, but the growth and energy of City Centre hopefully indicate a more stable and prosperous future for this incredible place.
In addition to classroom studies, I’ve started to work with ECONI, a Christian NGO that works to coordinate the efforts of churches and the diplomatic process. The staff has been incredibly welcoming during my short tenure, and I look forward to contributing in some small way to their courageous work over the coming year. I’ll be monitoring the day-to-day turns of the diplomatic process in Northern Ireland, and also providing briefs on the politics of other conflict areas throughout the world into which ECONI is thinking about expanding its work. I just started last week, so more detailed updates to follow on this front.
For all my love of Belfast, some of my best memories so far have come far from the Lagan. The orientation in Ireland, from the heights of the Gravity Bar to the depths of humiliating defeat at the poker table, was among the best four days of my life. On another foray to Dublin, Mr. Hanley and I learned the hard way that even the youngest female members of Dublin society can have a wicked left hook. And just last night, Cindy, Ryan, Kesav and I discovered the indescribably fun event that is Derry on Halloween. I dare say that three men have never looked so good in dresses. The short time I’ve been here has given me enough incredible memories for a year. I can’t wait to see what’s still in store.