It was smiles all around today as Queen Elizabeth II, the 86-year-old monarch of the United Kingdom, held out her gloved hand to shake hands with Martin McGuinness, former IRA commander and current deputy first minister in Northern Ireland.
The historic handshake, unthinkable even a year ago when jaws dropped as the Queen visited the Republic of Ireland, symbolized a final reaching out across the great divide that ripped Northern Ireland apart in a three-decades-long conflict known as ‘The Troubles.’ More than 3,500 people died as republicans (Catholics) and unionists (Protestants) struggled for political control in a bloody campaign of bombings and tit-for-tat shootings that shattered families and stunted the country’s economy.
Both of the Queen’s visits underscore the tremendous changes that have occurred here since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Members of Sinn Féin, considered the political arm of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), now share power with the unionists in Northern Ireland’s government. It’s an unusual compromise given the republicans want a united, independent Ireland, while the unionists want to retain a political relationship with England. As such, the ongoing peace process remains bumpy at times with sporadic outbreaks of violence but the larger peace, miraculously, has held.
Yet, 14 years later Belfast remains a city divided. Barb-wire topped walls, so-called peace lines, criss-cross the city providing a physical barrier between Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods. Colourful murals continue the propaganda war by exhorting Protestant and Catholic communities to never forget the lives lost by their sides in the conflict, while promoting the justness of their cause.
There may be peace but true integration — and trust — in Belfast and Northern Ireland has yet to occur.
Mother, did it need to be so high?
With a sound that married the sudden crack of gunfire with the distinctive tinkling of glass breaking, the ball bearings crashed into the asphalt running along Wall No. 1, an almost 14-metre-tall “peace line” that divides the infamous Falls (republican) and Shankill (unionist) roads in west Belfast, shattering the mid-morning quiet.
I had wandered down Cupar Street away from the rest of our tour group to get a closer look at the sturdy yellow gates that close off the wall, when the unseen culprit fired the projectiles over the imposing concrete barrier into the Shankill side.
Startled, I whirled around, sure the ball bearings had landed near my friend Alicia. It was only later when we were chatting over coffee that I found out they had landed very close to me. In all likelihood it was a bored teenage prankster rather than someone making a political statement. Luckily, no one was injured. Projectiles fired over these walls are not uncommon. In fact, houses that abut the wall on the Falls Road side have protective nets on their roofs to prevent damage.
It was our welcome to Belfast’s oldest peace line. Erected after a devastating riot in 1969, it has the dubious distinction of standing longer than the Berlin Wall. And it’s not the only one. Estimates on the number of these walls in the city varies widely from 20 to almost 100. Others are scattered throughout Northern Ireland. What’s surprising is that with the peace, local residents are in no hurry to tear them down.
Since the signing of the peace agreement in 1998, Wall No. 1 has become a canvas where visitors offer messages in support of peace and graffiti artists create thought-provoking works of art along its more than 800 metres. But not all the messages are peaceful.
Belfast is a city rich in visual codes warning Protestants or Catholics they’re not welcome in a particular neighbourhood or on the opposite side of the street. Along with the peace lines and murals, the presence of tricolour and Union Jack flags or simple painted roadside curbs (red and blue for Protestant areas, for example) are warnings best heeded.
In fact, some outright warn of violence if the boundary — often unseen by outsiders not privy to the ins and outs of the conflict — is crossed. One of the most obvious warnings is a huge mural on the side of a row house in the Sandy Row area in south Belfast. A painted masked gunman points his weapon directly at oncoming cars in the intersection.
Fear of crossing these lines remains palpable for the Irish. I travelled twice into Northern Ireland when I lived in Dublin last year — once with some young Irish university mates from the republic and the second with a tour company based in the republic.
In both cases, my Irish friends and the tour driver were visibly nervous travelling through the Protestant neighbourhoods of Dublin because of their licence plates. It was a dead giveaway they were from the republic and therefore, in all likelihood, Catholic.
We didn’t encounter any problems on my visits but the tour company once had one of their buses set on fire in Belfast (the driver swore it was because of the plate) and Irish families all seem to know someone who was hassled or had their vehicle vandalized while visiting the North for the same reason. It may all sound a bit ridiculous. It’s not when you’re riding in a vehicle with three grown men who are on the verge of panicking. It would make anyone nervous.
Visiting the Murals: Shankill Road
We jumped into the delightfully worn London-style black taxi around 4 p.m. on a cold January day in Belfast’s main shopping district for a tour of Belfast’s famous murals depicting ‘The Troubles.’ Our driver, who quickly pointed out he was a Protestant, wasn’t one of the official black cab guides the tourist books recommend but he would take me, my classmate Jess and her husband Matt wherever we wanted for less than £20 — a veritable steal. Other taxi companies can charge this much per person for the usual 90-minute tour.
The drive to the Shankill area as the day’s last light was slipping away was a sobering experience. Adding to the foreboding ambience was a heavy fog, thickened by the burning of coal and peat for warmth in the city’s crowded row houses.
The Shankill murals, which are some of Belfast’s most photographed, are largely in the middle of a housing development where children’s toys litter tiny lawns behind fences and dogs are let loose to do their business in the common green spaces. The brightly coloured gables recall historical battles fought by Protestants, including the 1809 Battle of Talavera in Spain, as well as historical figures such as Oliver Cromwell and King William III of Orange, who defeated the Catholic forces of King James at Ireland’s Battle of the Boyne in 1690.
The messages of the murals varies from those with a more peaceful tone to Cromwell’s, which offers this chilling quote, “. . . There will be no peace in Ireland until the Catholic Church is crushed.” They are part propaganda and part outdoor classroom. Given few Catholics would wander into this extremely unionist neighbourhood, it’s clear the messages of these murals is aimed at an internal audience. The message: Don’t forget the struggle and our sacrifices. Ever.
One of the most eye-catching murals is bright orange and depicts the notorious “H” blocks used to imprison convicted paramilitary members at Her Majesty’s Prison Maze from 1971 until it closed in 2000. However, the standout is the one that teaches viewers the differences between Protestant paramilitary groups. It looks like a page torn out of a creepy children’s colouring book. At the top of this mural is painted quite possibly the most famous of all the figures in the Belfast murals: the camouflaged and masked Ulster Freedom Fighter ( UFF) member looking through a gun scope.
This portrait of an Ulster Freedom Fighter is the Mona Lisa of the Irish murals — his eyes are said to follow you wherever you go.
Back out on the Shankill Road, our driver stopped what seemed like every few metres to point out memorials to Protestants killed in the tit-for-tat bombings that occurred in pubs, homes and businesses in the area in the 1970s. One of the most famous sites is that of the Bayardo Bar shooting and bombing by the IRA in 1975 that left five dead. Unionist paramilitary forces responded with deadly force in Belfast and other communities. The language of the memorial pulls no punches: “In memory of five innocent Protestants slaughtered here by a Republican murder gang.”
Our driver, who was a lovely patient man, clearly wanted to impress upon us the Protestant point of view of the ‘The Troubles,’ which The Lonely Planet guide for Ireland points out has been difficult for the unionists when dealing with tourists unfamiliar with Ireland’s complicated history. I appreciated his efforts, lives were indeed lost on both sides, but at times his clear bias was disturbing.
Visiting the Murals: The Falls Road
Visiting the Falls Road as dusk settles on Belfast with a skittish Protestant cabbie in tow is an experience I’m not likely to forget. As we wandered along the peace line and then onto the Falls Road proper he shadowed us in his black London taxi cab (a sign he warned us that he was a Protestant in a Catholic area. So many signs!). I was never sure he wouldn’t just drive off and leave us, anxious to escape back to his safe neighbourhood where I imagined his wife had a hot supper waiting for him.
There is a sadness walking past these murals and remembering all the lives lost on both sides of the divide. Along the Falls Road, the paintings rail against the horrible oppression of the Catholics in Ireland by their British overlords, while at the same time offering hope that the injustice cannot last.
This belief is expressed best in the mural of Bobby Sands that depicts the Catholic hero of The Troubles smiling as a dove breaks free of its chains. The 27-year-old, who was an Irish volunteer for the Provisional Irish Republican Army and Member of Parliament, died in 1981 while on hunger strike at the Maze prison. His mural promises that “our revenge will be the laughter of our children.” Sands was portrayed by actor Michael Fassbender in the 2008 film Hunger, just one of several award-winning films made in the last 20 years on the conflict in Northern Ireland.
In the summer of 1970, the Falls Road became a flash point in the nascent days of ‘The Troubles’ when a house-by-house search for weapons erupted into a gun battle between the British Army and republican forces in the working class Catholic area. The riot and shooting led the British Army to impose a curfew. Over the next 36 hours, four civilians were killed, dozens were wounded and hundreds were arrested. The incident is memorialized in a mural speaking to the bravery of the Catholic women in the area who stood up to the troops.
Placing the Irish conflict in a larger international context is the purpose of the Solidarity Wall along the Falls Road, which draws sympathetic attention to similar nationalistic struggles around the world, including the fight by the Palestinians and Basques for their own homelands. There is also a beautiful rendering of Picasso’s Guernica, which he created in response to the horrific aerial bombardment of the town during the Spanish Civil War.
When I visited the Falls Road area for the first time on that foggy January night, the road wasn’t terribly well-lit and its sidewalks were largely deserted. It was a different story when I visited during the day in March when several large double-decker buses brought tourists in to snap photos. It’s hard to say what people learn when they visit.
To me, the Irish are a bit like elephants — they never forget. It’s the only place I’ve ever been where a battle that happened more than 300 years ago is talked about like it just happened yesterday. History sometimes feels like a shroud here, smothering out a true peace where both communities freely intermingle with no threat of violent repercussions. But then again, I come from a country in danger of forgetting its history entirely.
Someday soon I hope the majority of the sectarian murals in Belfast will be painted over and the peace lines torn down.
If the Queen can meet with a former member of an organization that murdered her cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten, and Martin McGuiness can shake hands with the head of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, which he witnessed shooting to death 14 innocent citizens in Derry during a civil rights march, then maybe Northern Ireland can begin charting in earnest a vibrant path for its future that remembers that past but isn’t held hostage to it.∗
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