Across the Troubles in Northern Ireland: the Borders Are In Men’s Minds

This is the last in a series of five articles about Northern Ireland on the eve of Brexit, which threatens to put a “hard border” between the six counties of the North and the Republic of Ireland, a member of the European Union. This is part V.

Belfast, Northern Ireland – Wall between the Falls Road and Shankill. Photo by the author.

The ‘Peacelines’ In Face-lifted Belfast

The drive from Derry to Belfast took less than two hours. As we got closer to Belfast, what struck me from the highway was how transformed it was from the late 1990s, when it had the stale air of Wheeling, West Virginia. On Great Britain’s balance sheet, the city now had the look of an asset, not a liability.

Even the docksides (where they built the Titanic) seemed transformed with condominiums, museums, and office buildings—many of the glass and steel variety. Downtown there were a number of high-rise modern hotels and fashionable restaurants, and billboards for concerts, museums, and theater. I don’t want to imply that Belfast is now in the fashionable league of Barcelona or Munich, but it did strike me as vibrant and modern, and a fun place in which to spend a long weekend.

Although I suspect my rooming house with the single light bulb at the center of the room is long gone, I did remember enough of Belfast’s geography to guide us toward the Falls, one of the Catholic neighborhoods which saw considerable violence during the Troubles.

Once we turned onto Falls Road, I was surprised to come across a district of well-tended storefronts and modern apartments. In 1990, the Falls might well have been one of those black-and-white photographs of industrial decay. Now it has had a facelift.

We parked the car near a sign for the Eileen Hickey Irish Republican History Museum, and followed directions to the Conway Mill Complex, a renovated woolen mill with bars and restaurants. It turned out the museum was closed. All we could see through the locked gates was a replica of a prison used for IRA women prisoners. The bleak cells spoke of a political system from another century (about the sixteenth, to judge by the brutality of the holding pens).

I had booked a guide and taxi to take us around the contours of the Troubles, but in the end we decided we would see more on foot than in a black cab.

On Falls Road we began by looking at many of the murals that have been painted on the sides of shops and houses, including a famous one of Bobby Sands, who starved himself to death in May 1981 in the English-run Maze Prison, which became synonymous with internment and British oppression.

Sands’ imprisonment and hunger strike went on long enough for him, in the meantime, to be elected a member of parliament (needless to say, he never took his seat), and for a number of his prison writings to be published. Ever since he has been one of the patron saints of Irish Republicanism, with his image now adorning mugs, china, CDs, biographies, and documentary films. On Falls Road we even came across what felt like a Bobby Sands gift shop.

After Sands died, the Grateful Dead, playing at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island (in New York), dedicated “He’s Gone” to Bobby. By then he was synonymous with the cause of the IRA, and his agonizing death recruited many volunteers to the republican cause.

Unfortunately, the mural on the Falls Road (“Bobby Sands MP – Poet, Gaeilgeoir, Revolutionary, IRA Volunteer”) is painted in a style that, with his long flowing locks, makes him look more like a suburban housewife on Let’s Make A Deal than as a “provo” whose biggest attack in the Troubles was a bomb set off at furniture showroom, taking out a number of lounge suites.

When I asked Kevin the importance of the word “Gaeilgeoir,” he explained but then wrote to me:

Gaeilgeoir (Irish speaker, proponent of speaking Irish)… don’t forget that the IRA used Irish as a means of communication, almost like the Navajos in World War II.  You are not considered genuine IRA unless you can speak Irish to some extent. At least to communicate tactical considerations and to foil would-be informants (see John Ford’s The Informerstarring Victor McLaglen) In addition, the “glamour” of the IRA, its leftist revolutionary allure, is what probably saved the language from extinction. That and Sinead O’Connor and Enya and other hip leftie pop stars who encoded messages in Irish in their music.

From the Sands mural, Kevin and I wandered through the back streets of the Falls, often finding ourselves in housing estates or on dead end roads. Clearly the redesign of the neighborhood was undertaken with the goal of turning many streets into cul-de-sacs, perhaps so that would-be bombers and terrorists would be easier to round up. (Baron Haussmann laid out Paris in the nineteenth century with the goal of making it impossible for revolutionaries to throw up barricades along the leafy boulevards.)

In one neighborhood not far from the Falls Road, we came upon one of the many towering walls that have been built to separate Catholic from Protestant districts. The barrier was of Berlin proportions, with concrete, metal, and fencing giving it the air of a maximum security prison, as if much of Belfast is still part of the Maze.

Into The Bastion of Protestant Belfast

It took us a while to figure out how we could go through or around the wall (Fenway Park’s Green Monster came to mind), but finally we found a gate. A local resident warned us that it would be closed at 6 p.m. and after that witching hour we would have a hard time getting back to our car.

Walking between the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods, I was reminded of a video that I had watched about Belfast today, in which the correspondent says: “You might not see them, but all over Belfast there are invisible barriers.” Here, anyway, the “peacelines” (as they are sometimes called) are very visible.

Parts of the wall are covered with murals and political posters, although in other sections the graffiti reminded me of the New York City subway in the 1970s.

To walk into the Protestant neighborhood, that adjoining Shankill Road, we first had to cross a broad strip of no-man’s land. Maybe someday it will become an elegant city park, with benches and chess tables. For the moment, however, it’s an ideological junk yard, a long divide that is strewn with garbage.

If the Falls has the feel of an Irish-American neighborhood in New York’s borough of Queens, Shankill Road struck me as a military revetment—I thought of Lawrence’s Bovington Camp, near Clouds Hill—such were the number of British flags flying from the well-tended row houses and given the number of war memorials that are scattered around the subdivision’s streets (many of which have names such as Passchendaele Court).

Shankill might have been on the front lines of the Troubles—the reason now for the wall running through many of its backyards—but the fighting that remains most vivid there is that of World War I, in which hundreds of local boys were lost in the offensives along the River Somme. The words “Lest We Forget” and the initials U.V.F. (Ulster Volunteer Force) are painted on many street corners.

Some 32,186 men served on the Somme with the 36th (Ulster) Division, and in its July 1, 1916, attacks against Thiepval, in the center of the British lines, the division suffered appalling losses. Of the 20,000 British men killed on the first day of the Somme offensive, about 2,000 were from the Ulster regiments.

One marker in Shankill makes the point that 760 men from the neighborhood served at the Somme, but that only 70 came home. Images about the losses on the Somme, on posters and billboards, are juxtaposed with slogans about the Troubles (“We Will Not Have Home Rule – The Lions of Ulster”) to make the point that Northern Ireland bled for England, and now England needs, if necessary, to bleed for Ulster.

In his history of the Great War, the novelist and historian John Buchan (of The Thirty-Nine Steps) writes about the valor of the Ulster regiments:

North of Thiepval the Ulster Division broke through the enemy trenches, passed the crest of the ridge, and reached the point called the Crucifix, in the rear of the first German position. For a little while they held the strong Schwaben Redoubt (where), enfiladed on three sides, they went on through successive German lines, and only a remnant came back to tell the tale. Nothing finer was done in the war. The splendid troops drawn from those Volunteers who had banded themselves together for another cause, now shed their blood like water for the liberty of the world.

Similar passages are engraved in stone along Shankill Road, which is something of a parade ground for Unionism. Kevin and I strolled up and down the thoroughfare, stopping to read monuments and inscriptions, which are everywhere. Even the murals outside pubs looking like Great War recruiting posters, just in case some London politician decides to sell Northern Ireland down the River Lagan (which divides Belfast).

In our drives around Belfast, Kevin and I went through many neighborhoods that seemed to lack an ideological fervor. A few even had halal butchers and muslim supermarkets. But Shankill still has the aura of an armed encampment, with its fluttering Union jacks and words of sacrifice on many corners.

In my travels, I had often heard the consoling words, “there’s only one future for this part of the world, and that’s a shared future.” As best I could tell, Shankill has yet to embrace such a borderless world, and if you want to see a “hard border,” have a look at the wall between the Falls and Shankill roads.

Making Sense of Peace in Belfast

I said good-bye to Kevin at the Belfast train station, although not the one where I had first arrived in 1990. This station had the air of a shopping mall, and in no time I got lost among the convenience stores in my search for an airport bus. (It turned out the bus left from behind the Europa Hotel, but I only discovered that after a long walk about the central business district, which at rush hour had the air of a Christmas shopping sale.)

Kevin was headed to friends in Dublin while I was flying to Edinburgh. But before leaving—and wanting to understand more about why Northern Ireland is now at peace—I bought a copy of Making Sense of the Troubles by David McKittrick and David McVea, both of whom have studied and reported on the Troubles for the last thirty years.

The easy-to-read history begins with Irish independence and the 1921 partition. They write: “The defining feature of the new entity [Northern Ireland] was its demographics: it was two-thirds Protestant and one-third Catholic, the guiding concept in deciding its borders having been that it should have a decisive Protestant majority.”

They also make the point that the Protestant majority, now including the nervous coalition partners in the Democratic Unionist Party, have never felt completely comfortable with the terms of engagement. They write of the majority: “They lived in a state of political nervousness, constantly fearing British policy might move to support a united Ireland.” (At the outbreak of World War I, even Churchill entertained the idea of swapping Irish independence or home rule for a military alliance against the Germans.)

The authors attribute many reasons for the Troubles but tend to focus on the inequality of the local political system, which turned Northern Ireland into a religiously segregated country, where the Catholic enclaves have few more rights than some South African bantustan during apartheid.

Nor, they point out, did residents in Northern Ireland find much love from either Dublin or London. The government of the Irish Republic viewed rebels in the North, according to the authors, as a “nuisance,” while London often found the Protestant parties around Belfast too extreme for its taste. One British minister in the 1970s, after touring around Belfast, is reported to have said: “What a bloody awful country. For God’s sake bring me a large Scotch.”

It was the issue of internment, when mixed with demands for greater civil rights, that turned local unrest into an armed conflict, which lasted from the 1960s until 1998, killing and wounding hundreds of residents and fracturing the North.

The authors quote one British ambassador who said of this rendition: “Internment attacked the Catholic community as a whole. What was worse, it was directed solely against the Catholics, although there were many Protestants who provided just as strong grounds for internment.”

Added into that mix was the cycle of violence, in which both Catholics and Protestants used bombs and guns against each other, and the arrival of well-armed British soldiers, who patrolled the streets in armored vehicles. For all sides, Bloody Sunday was a declaration of war.

The authors write: “Nonetheless, three events taken together — the introduction of internment, Bloody Sunday and the fall of Stormont [the political assembly in Northern Ireland] — served to trigger the worst violence ever seen in Northern Ireland.”

Through the 1970s and into the 1980s the IRA continued to target such high-profile politicians as Lord Mountbatten and even Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was attacked in Brighton during her party conference, when a bomb went off at her hotel.

As well, the IRA blew up buildings in London and targeted civilians around the United Kingdom. Hunger strikers in the Maze, led by the example of Bobby Sands, gave the impression that Britain was yet again colonizing a forlorn people. Nothing could have resonated more in the Republic of Ireland than a hunger strike waged against the haughty British empire.

About Sands, the authors write:

In propaganda terms Sands benefited from the fact that he developed an aura of victimhood and self-sacrifice. He was a convicted member of the IRA yet his personal image was highly media friendly. He had been jailed for having a gun rather than murder, and the photograph of him which appeared thousands of times in newspapers and on television projected a good-looking young man with long hair, sporting a fetching grin. The fact that he looked more like a drummer in a rock band than a ruthless terrorist was important in the propaganda battle that raged around the world.

The irony of the peace process, which was signed in 1998, is that right until that accord there was considerable violence in Northern Ireland. But then the bombs and gunfire fell silent. Occasionally, now, there is an incident, but nothing so far that has sent old rivals back to the barricades. Sadly, I guess it helps that parts of Belfast are locked down after 6 p.m.

The Good Friday Agreement rewrote the articles of confederation at the level of the Northern Ireland Assembly, so that no longer would Catholics feel excluded from political decisions. I assume they still feel aggrieved, but less so. That said, no Catholic parliamentarian has ever taken his or her seat at parliament in Westminster.

The agreement also spelled out how the devolved local parliament would work with London and Dublin. And, in subsequent years, it helped that military checkpoints came down between the North and the Republic of Ireland, much the way that goods can now move freely across the open border.

McKittrick and McVea credit the Good Friday Agreement for establishing a framework for peaceful reconciliation. They write:

The idea was to convince everyone that a level playing field was being provided as the new basis on which Northern Ireland politics and Anglo-Irish relations would be conducted in the future…. A battery of safeguards was built into the assembly’s rules to ensure that important decisions had to be taken on a cross-community basis, which meant they needed the support of both Unionist and nationalist members.

It has also helped that England and Ireland have improved their ties. Ireland has seen the benefits of its EU membership, at the same time that it has profited from London’s expansion as a global capital market. As Ireland has expanded economically, it has also shed some of its more tribal politics and religious dependencies (see the vote legalizing abortion), which, when applied to Northern Ireland, have diminished sectarian differences. Who thirty years ago would have thought that Sinn Féin would now be campaigning for gay rights?

Northern Ireland: The Borders Are In Men’s Minds

Do I think that the peace accords in Northern Ireland can survive Britain’s decision to leave the European Union?

When I am feeling glum about the British decision to leave Europe, I fear that Brexit will, once again, divide the United Kingdom from Ireland, and that a “hard Brexit” will force London to re-establish checkpoints along what is now an open frontier.

With the border existing mostly “in men’s minds,” local residents in Derry and Belfast especially, even if they don’t much care for the opposite interest group (Catholic or Protestant), can think of themselves as English or Irish, notwithstanding where they actually reside. It’s the magic of the European Union that in many zones of conflict it has blurred some of the rough edges.

I would like to think that, just for peace in Northern Ireland, the British would rethink their decision to leave the European Union, and come up with a structure within the EU that would keep open the fragile borders in the North. In some ways that is the Theresa May Brexit plan with backstops, which, however, is failing and threatening to bring down the British government.

At the same time, I also realize, that many of these issues go back to the battles at the Boyne and in Aughrim, and that to some locals (raised on dark myths), only wars can change men’s minds. Maybe, like Yeats’ horsemen, they will “pass by.”

To read other parts of this series, please click here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.