The past two months in Belfast have definitely been an eye opener in terms of what it is like to live in a post conflict society— but it has been a subtle process as the city slowly reveals the peculiarities that seep into daily life and serve as reminders of a more troubled past.
Belfast is a hybrid city that is straddling a precarious divide between its status as a marginal city within the U.K. and its cultural affinity to the Republic of Ireland. BBC news reports with coverage of English and Welsh towns on the local television stations, British phone networks and the pound are all daily reminders that I actually live in the U.K. and not in Ireland. Yet, the presence of some Irish institutions, for instance Bank of Ireland, reinforces the link to the rest of the island. What is most striking about Belfast’s connection to Ireland though, is not explained in institutional terms, but in the mentality and culture of that part of the city’s population that consider themselves Irish and that imagine the Irish nation as a community that encompasses the entire island and all 32 counties. Perhaps the perception of Belfast as an Irish city is reinforced in my mind because many of the students in the MA program of Comparative Ethnic Conflict as well as the School of Politics in general have actually come to study at Queens from Donegal, Dublin, and other parts of the South. This has definitely allowed my sense of the city to be skewed so as to forget that there is a divide in Belfast between those who feel that the city is a quintessential part of Britain versus those who see it as a crucial part of the Irish nation.
As a result, there are some assumptions I have made in the past that I have realized weeks later were inaccurate views of the culture of the city. For instance, when a few weeks ago all the students I knew from my program filled the neighborhood pubs to watch a football match of Ireland vs. France, I assumed it was a phenomenon throughout the entire city. It was not until I went to lunch a few days later and my friends were talking about a group of Loyalists that came into the bar to cheer for France in order to counter the Catholics that were cheering for Ireland that I realized that virtually everyone I knew was an Irish Catholic and that this type of activity was not something that was a shared practice of the entire city, but of only one side.
Belfast is not only a hybrid city but also a city in transition. There is a definite feeling of dynamism in the city, a sense of optimism towards moving forward. The city centre is vibrant, fast paced and energetic with downtown shopping that caters to every amenity. The east end of the city has been revitalized with the building of the Odyssey Complex, which boasts a vast array of shops and restaurants, a cinema, a nightclub and a concert venue all under one roof. Even President Clinton spoke there during his visit to Belfast in December 2000, which allowed the people of Northern Ireland the chance to showcase this first class facility to the world. Along with the changes that have transformed the city in the past few years, an increasing number of people would like to put the past behind them. Yet, despite the fact that many Belfast residents speak of the Troubles in the past tense, the effects still resonate in subtle aspects of daily life.
Living in South Belfast definitely feels unreal compared to the rest of the city. The cosmopolitanism of the university area is in stark contrast to the divided reality of the rest of the city. Yet, even in the oasis of the prosperous university neighborhood, there are still markers of a more precarious situation. In the midst of an afternoon rush hour, one can spot the intimidating exterior of the “crime stopper” police trucks that resemble a UN tank from Kosovo rather than a typical police car. The local Spar convenience store stays open all night, but they take your order through a bullet proof window with a slot to make your transaction. The local fast food restaurant has two body guards that monitor the door at night to impede any potential problems. During a recent trip to the Odyssey, the reverie of an exciting high intensity night of dancing was shattered in a matter of seconds when fighting broke out and shards of glass flew all over the nightclub as people screamed and looked for cover from the aggression- minutes later I found myself sitting in a bathroom cleaning off the blood from the arm of a friend who had fairly deep scrapes all over her arm as a result of the violence. Despite the overwhelming sense of optimism and progress, there is also a more gritty side to the city.
Sometimes everything related to the Troubles seems to be part of a distant history of the city. For instance, I am told that a local pub near the University has been a UVF hangout in the past and that the Duke of York is a historic Belfast pub that Gerry Adams frequented, but today’s reality is not that far removed. Reportedly, shops and pubs within two minutes from the Queen’s campus pay royalties to Loyalist paramilitaries. There are also traditional Irish bars that Protestant friends of mine have openly acknowledged they would feel uncomfortable going to.
There is also a sense of unstated limitations about what can be said and done in public. Despite the fact that Belfast is generally becoming an open society, there is still a fair amount of things that would only be said in a whisper tone and the choice of wording in describing various groups of people is paramount and highly sensitive. Refraining from using in public such terms as Republican, paramilitary, UVF, IRA, etc. has become a standard practice, and I’ve come to realize that my Catholic friends will always lower their voice to a whisper when they are referring to Protestants. In a recent incident in which a young man who was wearing a Gaelic t-shirt was attacked by a group of Loyalists, all that my Irish Catholic friends could say is “he should’ve known better,” even though the incident did not occur in a sectarian neighborhood and there is no evidence of the young man inciting any aggression, aside from the shirt he was wearing. It is moments like those when I realize that there are clear boundaries that still exist in Belfast and that a fair amount of trust will need to be built in order to achieve any kind of cross-community reconciliation in the future. Hopefully the feeling of progress that has taken over Belfast will eventually lead to a more unified vision of the city.