Belfast, United Kingdom
Left to my own devices in Belfast, I decided to dive head long into where my real interest lay and take myself on a walking tour of the infamous murals.
I have no intention of giving a full rundown of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland other than to say to call it “The Troubles” is a beautiful Irish understatement of a political conflict that has raged over decades, infamous for it’s violence and terrorist style campaigns, leading to loss of life and the division of communities between Catholics and Protestants. This divide is most prominent in the ‘interface’ areas where (ironically named) ‘peace walls’ separate the sides. The most notorious of these areas is the parallel communities of The Falls Road (Catholic) and The Shankhill (Protestant). It was here that the “The Troubles” officially began in the late 1960’s and although a cease fire has been called and a peace agreement was signed in 1998, new murals continue to appear, a new ‘peace wall’ has been erected and riots still occur around the Orange Marching season. In fact, I have arrived amid the rioting though have witnessed none first hand, only the aftermath.
Of course what is largely advertised as a religious divide is nothing of the sort – churches on both sides shy away from the conflict and encourage the peace process. It is entirely political and has it’s basis in the fact that Northern Ireland is considered to be part of the United Kingdom, keeping it divided from the rest of Ireland which is a Republic in its own right. The Nationalists (Catholic) believe Northern Ireland should be returned to the Republic for a unified Ireland whilst the Loyalists/Unionists (Protestants) believe it should remain separate and under the dominion of the United Kingdom.
Right, so I’ve tried to be as apolitical as I could there with my brief summary but if today showed me anything its how absolutely, hopelessly, irrefutably partisan I am. Holy Moly am I aligned! I mean, come on, it’s IRELAND!!! Of course it should belong to Ireland! If you love England so much – move there! It’s really close!!! But let Ireland be Ireland!
I started my excursion up the Falls Road which for all intents and purposes, is just another road. To see the occasional Tricolour (Irish Flag) flapping about barely registered with me until I considered that its not officially the flag of Northern Ireland, the Union Jack is (boo, hiss!) so to have it flying is something of a controversy but a fairly established one by this stage.
The murals along the Falls Road are perhaps best typified by the alliances and comparisons they draw to political conflicts around the world – Cuba, Palestine, South Africa – always taking the left side and the side you’ll always find me on. The other category of murals are very pro-Irish culture – language, music, sports. Further up the road is the most photographed mural in the world apparently – one of Bobby Sands, a political prisoner who became an MP whilst in prison while leading a hunger strike to have his (and his cohorts) political status recognised. Sadly, he died in prison from starvation making him a martyr to the cause (for more on the Bobby Sands story, I highly recommend the movie Hunger). Margaret Thatcher responded by making it illegal for a prisoner to become and MP (more boo, hiss!).
Feeling all righteous and riled, it was time to cross to the other side! As mentioned, its only about a week until the marching season and preparations are in full swing – the minute I set foot on the Shankhill, there was no mistaking it. The entire street was criss crossed with Union Jack bunting and royal regalia.
Although it was quite pretty, here’s the strange thing, I found it absolutely intimidating! All the more so as I took in the murals which were almost exclusively terrifying with paramilitary images of men in black balaclavas holding aimed rifles that seem to follow you as you walk along. I felt conspicuous and out of place and yet, just as The Falls Road, it was for all intents and purposes, just another road.
By the time I came to the end and back into the city centre, I was surprised by my own reactions – not that I felt political alignment, that’s already a well established matter of public record – but that I should feel it so viscerally. Today there was no violence or threats, just people going about their business. That the sights of the Union Jack should intimidate me is laughable. I should clarify that I am not anti-British. I love England, I love London, many of my dearest friends can’t help but be British. I even like the Union Jack … as a symbol of England… in England… just not in the top left hand corner of my own flag… or as it turns out, in Northern Ireland.
The other point I want to make is that whilst I’m entitled to my opinion, I recognise that this is not my conflict to judge, my opinion is relatively ill-informed and I have never had to live this reality. I’m grateful that I was able to grow up with the freedom of political expression, where I was encouraged to learn and participate without fear of consequence. I might not have been so fortunate had I been born in Northern Ireland or may not have survived the power of my political convictions. It would be too easy and trite of me to look at the situation here and judge – instead, I’ve chosen to look inward and reflect on what it has shown me about myself…
… and that is this: I would make an excellent Ruler of the Universe so when the day comes: Vote Naomi #1!