Three weeks ago we made our way up to Belfast for the spring Mitchell weekend and a chance to learn a bit about Northern Ireland. I was looking forward to seeing part of the island I hadn’t gotten to yet, as well as to re-visiting Giant’s Causeway—as a little girl I’d thought the hexagonal slabs of basalt there were about the coolest thing I’d ever seen. I have to admit, however, that I was also a bit ambivalent about heading north. Surprisingly few Irish people my own age seem to have been across the border, and I’ve often heard people express some version of “We’re just not interested.” Part of this is simply an economic reluctance, no doubt—a country that is just emerging from a financial crisis is unlikely to be particularly interested in a neighbor with a budget deficit of ten million pounds a year. But I’ve also gotten a sense of something bordering on embarrassment, a feeling that the Republic has moved more quickly beyond religious and class tensions than Northern Ireland has, and doesn’t wish to be burdened with the bloodier past and tenser present of the north. I’m sure this is a more complex feeling than I know or understand, but I think I subconsciously took onboard some of this reluctance.
I also wasn’t really sure to what degree I wanted to tease out what exactly my own political views in NI might be. I didn’t want to do the linguistic tip-toeing of a name like “Derry/Londonderry,” but I also didn’t feel like it was quite my ground to stake. I didn’t feel capable of the impartiality of an observer, but I was doubtful of the right of anyone who hasn’t lived in the reality of conflict to have an opinion on the best way forward.
Once we were in Belfast, though, I found it fascinating. It both felt and didn’t feel like the Ireland I’ve been getting to know. I brought my passport in case I needed it on the train, but then almost forgot to withdraw pounds when I arrived. Above all, I felt like I was missing the subtext behind a great deal of what was said and written. In many ways it felt like much of public life was phrased in a code that, without having grown up with the key, I only had clues to decipher. My favorite poet, the late Seamus Heaney, expresses this beautifully, calling Northern Ireland “land of password, handgrip, wink and nod.” The cost of getting the winks and nods wrong now is thankfully far lower, but so much about life in Northern Ireland still feels governed by a complex network of symbols and signs. It’s why efforts like the 2013 Haass Talks to regulate symbolic acts like parading and flag-flying elicit such visceral graffiti as “Stuff Haass up your ass.” It’s why, as Dom Bryan explained on our mural tour, you can sometimes find swastikas and Israeli flags side-by-side without it seeming at all strange to those who put them up. You could spend a lifetime trying to tease out exactly what everything means, and I found myself wanting to try.
I also had a powerful sense of possibility. There seemed to be a definite consensus on the importance of a number of social issues, as well as a lot of energy about to address them. For instance, I read several of the Minister for Education’s speeches online before our meeting with him. In every one I was struck by the detail, the local nature, and the intense engagement with the nitty-gritty of how to effect change. I know Northern Ireland is not that large a place, but it’s hard to imagine the top education authority in Nebraska or West Virginia (states with comparable population) discussing changes in enrollment in small neighborhoods or the amalgamation of individual schools. I can’t help but think that in a place with a history like Northern Ireland’s, this commitment to giving real weight to local concerns is the only way forward. It left me both interested in and hopeful about Northern Ireland’s future, and wanting to come back.