Friday, 1 November 2019

Belfast October 2019

Every year I accompany a couple of busloads of Americans and Canadians to Ireland to explore the history, politics, and music of the island.

At least every second year I make sure we visit Belfast, Ireland’s most interesting city. The changes have been remarkable since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and in particular over the last 10 years.

It’s as if a cloud has lifted and the sun is now revealing the city’s promise and possibilities.

And yet you can never forget that awful things happened and that deep wounds lie just below the surface.

Part of my purpose in visiting Belfast is to introduce North Americans to the Protestant/Unionist parts of the city and to the various points of view found there.

Music has always provided a great bridge between communities and the obvious place to begin is the East Belfast of Van Morrison. 

Any lover of Van’s music knows that there is a treasure trove of local references to be found in his early lyrics from the leafy lawns of Cyprus Avenue to the less salubrious environs “down the Hollow” in Brown Eyed Girl.

The Union Jacks flowing in the breeze can be worrisome to those who experienced the Troubles; but on the whole people are going about their business and happy to show off new projects like the Connswater Community Greenway or CS Lewis Square where the local author’s Narnia is celebrated.

Still, it’s hard not to notice an underlying unease over Brexit and what it might portend.

This came to the fore during a tour of the Shankill and Falls Road where we were guided by Loyalist and Republican ex-combatants.

Both sides have traveled great distances in the last 20 years, yet there’s an unmistakable fear that insensitive British politicians could help resurrect the conflict.

Concern is more pointed on the Loyalist side. Republicans are well used to “British perfidy” – it’s been a constant theme in nationalist history.

Loyalists have little faith in Boris Johnson and his lip service to the Union between Britain and Northern Ireland; they fear, and rightly so given the British Prime Minister’s recent agreement with the Republic and the EU, that they’ve become a disposable pawn in a game played out on the chessboards of London, Dublin, and Brussels.

Will there be a renewal of conflict - definitely not on the scale witnessed during the Troubles. A new outward looking generation has emerged – they were bred on the internet, they travel and are familiar with the ways and doings of the world’s capitals.

They’re invested in the bustling prosperous Belfast that struts around downtown at night. They have no interest in returning to the tragic thirty or more years of insurrection and sectarian killings.

But then you visit the Peace Wall and realize that it’s been standing now for half a century, and that many on both sides prefer that it remain, at least in the short term.

In some ways Ireland is already united. The steady stream of trucks and traffic flowing both ways between Belfast and Dublin shows how impossible it would have been to reinstate a hard border. Those days are long gone.

But in Belfast you can almost touch the psychological and social walls that still separate the communities.

And yet people of good will are reaching out on both sides. Take Turas – the word means journey or pilgrimage in both Irish and Scottish Gaelic. It’s a flourishing cross-community project in East Belfast formed by Linda Ervine, wife of Brian Ervine the PUP leader.

One of the goals of Turas is to connect people from Protestant communities to their own history with the Irish language – Catholics, of course, are welcome.

Let’s face it – Brexit has always contained seeds of disaster. From the start it has been fueled by lies and exaggerations – some spun by Boris Johnson himself.

Unfortunately, Brexit chickens are more likely to come home to roost in Belfast, not in London where they belong.

As we head into a winter of discontent let’s wish Belfast the very best, and that any problems raised by Mr. Johnson and his Brexit conundrum can be worked out across the negotiating table rather than in the brooding shadow of the Peace Wall.

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