Visions of Belfast
Last week I saw the Peaceline in Belfast for the first time. I was struck by the irony of the name given to this gigantic wall built between the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. Unlike other walls that separate groups in other parts of the world, this wall was erected with the approval of the local residents on both sides, perhaps as an affirmation of the adage “high fences make good neighbors”.
I was too young to have heard about the Troubles while the major violence haunted Northern Ireland. Before coming here, I considered the conflict to be a closed chapter in the region’s history. Somehow, I had conceived that I would be studying in a “post-conflict” environment (as in, “one where residents had forgotten about their differences”). Though I was of course exceptionally naïve in thinking this, I have found a great deal of confidence in the future among some of my friends here. It is refreshing to hear their optimism and their pride in the city.
Since early October, I have settled in to my graduate program at Queen’s University. In the beginning, I did not notice anything that would characterize this city as different from any other in the United Kingdom or the Republic. It is easy to study at Queen’s without leaving the idyllic campus or the bustling downtown area, where signs of tension are safely hidden by new development projects. A visitor would not find clear signs of conflict there.
A hundred yards off the main street, however, the unknowing tourist enters one of the strongest Protestant neighborhoods in the city. One cannot ignore the fact that new murals are being painted – and not all of them are peaceful. As I have traveled through the patchwork quilt of sectarian neighborhoods, I have thought about what it might be like to wake up each morning to a paramilitary mural outside your bedroom window. Surely, the murals have an impact on the children who pass them each day on the way to school. Or perhaps those children acquire their understanding of the rule of law by catching a glimpse of the heavily fortified police station that looks to me, with my sheltered American upbringing, more like a maximum security prison than the neighborhood law enforcement office.
A week after first seeing the Peaceline I attended a debate at the University among politicians from the major political parties. Much to my surprise, the atmosphere in the lecture hall immediately changed from one usually insulated from the conflict to a hostile, divided one. The “Peaceline” had found its way onto the University campus. The polarization of the student body in that small setting made me doubt my prior assumption that students at Queen’s were generally less fixated on the ideological differences between their neighborhoods and families – a reminder that the murals are only a few blocks away.
I know I have a lot to learn about this beautiful place – and it is quite beautiful! I love waking up every morning to the green hills that surround the city or spending the evening watching the gorgeous sunset. The information I seek cannot be found in textbooks or academic journals. I most enjoy talking with my friends from the local area. The ladies at the soup kitchen where I volunteer keep me laughing; my hairdresser keeps me informed about all the local gossip; and my co-workers keep me guessing as to what they’re saying with their strongly rural accents! I want to learn from all of them what they are feeling about the past, present and future of this region. After all, I chose to study in Belfast in part because I wanted to immerse myself in this unique and complex setting. I am so grateful to the Alliance to have this opportunity to discover more about the work of Senator Mitchell on a firsthand basis.
There are so many dynamics to life in Northern Ireland that I look forward to exploring in more depth. I intend to dive in full force over the next several months in order to soak it all up!