Reflections on Northern Ireland

I arrived in Belfast sleep deprived and dazed. Frantic packing and an overnight flight had me in need of a home-cooked meal, coffee, and a warm smile or two.  Luckily, the Irish island is filled with all three.

I spent that first day with the professor I am doing research with.  Generous and gregarious, he gave me a tour of Belfast and introduced me to his family. I spent the day eating ribs, downing gallons of caffeinated beverages, and discussing Northern Ireland politics and culture.

The spirit with which my professor received me has marked most of my interactions here.  From the Starbucks cashiers who shoot me winks and free cups of coffee to the academics who have shared their time and expertise with me, the people of Northern Ireland have proven welcoming and kind-hearted.

Unlike my personal experience here, Northern Ireland’s recent history is neither heartwarming nor peaceful.  Less than 15 years ago, Belfast was, to many observers, a war zone.  Paramilitary groups divided along ethno-national and religious lines fought in the decades-long Troubles.  The economic activity, social advancement, and geographic mobility of Northern Ireland’s citizens — Protestant and Catholic, Unionist and Nationalist, Loyalist and Republican — was stunted.  Now, after 13 years of peace, a new generation and a new mindset have emerged.
My research at Queen’s University Belfast aims to understand that new generation.  People in Northern Ireland in their early to mid-20s are too young to remember much of the Troubles.  Many have grown up with only stories of that period and relatively few direct experiences of extreme ethno-national animosity.  As society becomes more mixed and the Troubles’ violence has less of an impact on day-to-day activities, the attitudes of young folk begin to diverge from those of older generations.  The point is this: the generation now taking ownership of Belfast and Northern Ireland has an opportunity to drastically shift the state’s long-held political boundaries.  And they just might do it.
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