I went to Belfast, Northern Ireland over the weekend. I won’t pretend to be an expert on Irish history or politics in this post, I promise. (Listening to Irish peoples sometimes overbearing take on American politics has been quite exhausting, so I do not want to do the same.) But, in case you aren’t familiar with the topic, the north of Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, using British money. The Republic of Ireland is part of the European Union, and uses Euros. The Republic of Ireland is mainly a catholic country, whereas Northern Ireland is Protestant.
The Irish Republican Army, or the IRA is/was a Catholic affiliated group that promoted (with terrorism…) that Ireland be united as one country, not divided between the north and the south. The Protestants up north however, wanted to remain a part of the UK, who they identified religiously and historically with. And from what I understand of the “troubles” in the 1960’s and 70’s there was a shit ton of bombings, murders, terrorist attacks, and arson out of anger between the protestants and the Catholics.
My program director, who showed us around the city is from Belfast, and was also raised catholic. He told us stories about his brothers involvement in the IRA, the police arresting him and asking him to be the spy, and other horror stories about growing up in such a turbulent time and place. He told us that the city is peaceful now, but I can rarely remember feeling so anxious and nervous as I was in West Belfast. I felt less creeped out in Juarez, Mexico.
I would not define Belfast as a peaceful city. There is a HUGE wall dividing the catholic and protestant neighborhoods. And there is NO movement for it to be taken down. In fact, the last addition to the wall was 8 MONTHS ago. The schools are completely segregated. The hospitals are completely segregated. Catholic pubs are totally gated off with cameras outside, so you can’t get in unless you are recognized. The old “joke” goes is that they would check you for a gun at the door, and if you didn’t have one they would lend you one.
I wasn’t expecting to see a wall like this. I mean, I remember my parents telling me about the Berlin wall and growing up hearing about that. I know that there is a lot of segregation in the world, but I wasn’t expecting to see such stark division here. I have been living in Ireland for about a month now and overall it is pretty comparable to the US. It was just so sad and depressing to hear about the violence and segregation caused by religion. I hate violence. I find it detestable. I don’t subscribe to a world view that everyone in the world should get along and be friends, or that we will ever be without conflict. But I don’t find believing in a slightly different religion to be a good enough reason to bomb and kill each other.
On the walls separating the city was some graffiti that said “a good argument for atheism”, and I could not agree more. It’s so ironic that these walls are sometimes referred to as “Peace walls”. Peace is not closing gates to the catholic area between 10pm and 7am. Peace is not terrorism. Peace is not celebrating “heros” of the IRA or the Volunteers who murdered innocent people. Religion ruins everything. I would recommend the film Shadow Dancer–it is an Irish political thriller focusing on the IRA and the Troubles. I would also recommend reading God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. He talks a bit about the political atmosphere in Belfast in the book.
On a side note, the most frustrating part of the trip was when some fellow students h started taking funny pictures next to the walls. I was nearly moved to tears, realizing that I was on a street that was once burned down because of religious conflict and here these girls stood–making fun of Asians eyes in front of a modern day tragedy. I have some dignity, and some hope that I can be even a very small part of a world that moves towards peace and rationality.