Normality Remains Elusive in Belfast

Billy Boyd sweeps the broken glass from his backyard each morning before letting out his pit bull puppy. Every day bottles and stones are hurled into his tiny backyard from the Catholic side of the 30-foot chain link fence that borders it. A few blades of grass sprout from the brick surface.

The 30-foot barrier separates his Protestant neighborhood from the Catholic neighborhood in this working-class district called the Short Strand near the center of Belfast. It is one of 47 fences that crisscross the city keeping Catholics and Protestants apart.

Identical row houses, marred by years of neglect, line the treeless streets. Intermittent rain, whipped by high winds, makes the already bleak scene grim.

Pat McCrory lives in a Catholic enclave surrounded on three sides by fences and Protestant neighborhoods. He stares at the fence in front of his house. A beefy man, he talks in staccato bursts about stones and fire bombs thrown over the fence from the Protestant side. “We live in an atmosphere of fear,” he says, “An atmosphere of waiting for something to happen. The stress is unbelievable.”

When this reporter was based here 31 years ago, bombings and tit-for-tat murders punctuated each day. The daily violence is gone now. British troops no longer edge up ghetto streets warily looking at roof tops for IRA snipers while frightened school children hurry past them. The military checkpoints on Belfast’s broad Great Victoria Street are gone. More than 3,600 people, most of them civilians, died during the sectarian strife that started in the early 1970’s.

All sides are pleased the violence is over, but normality remains elusive. The British have been trying to establish a government in which Catholics and Protestants share power in the six counties that have been part of the United Kingdom since 1920. Religious and cultural differences lead to protracted political deadlock. Unionists, who are mostly Protestant, want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. Nationalists, who are mostly Catholic, have traditionally favored union with Ireland and reject rule by London.

Belfast is more divided by religion than any European city, and its many fences — called “peace lines” — are evidence of the hatred that continues to fester and erupt. Michael McIllvean, a Catholic teenager, was beaten to death last month by a Protestant gang in the town of Ballymena. Five people are being held in connection with the murder. According to David McKittrick, a respected reporter for the Belfast Telegraph, “The fifteen year old victim was beaten to death when a loyalist (Protestant) gang attacked with their boots and a baseball bat. Ballymena is a largely Protestant town that has maintained a reputation for sectarianism.”

“The fact is that carloads of heavily armed Protestants routinely cruise the streets in search of Catholic victims,” states an editorial in “Daily Ireland,” a pro-Catholic newspaper. The editorial goes on to say that “the same sectarian animus which drove the killers of Michael McIllvean is unleashed on Catholics with ferocious regularity, and rather than abating as the peace process continues, it seems to be increasing as time goes by.”

Murals that often cover the entire side wall of buildings are a common sight in working class districts. They serve as territorial markers and badges of victory. In Catholic neighborhoods the murals salute the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Basque separatist movement as liberation movements that are depicted as akin to the Irish Republican Army’s bloody struggle for a unified Ireland free of British rule. In Protestant neighborhoods the crudely drawn murals vilify Catholics.

Few lessons have been learned from the violence of the 1970’s, observes Peter Shirlow, a university lecturer who is an expert on Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. The big, bushy-haired man is not optimistic about bridging the gap between the two communities. He speaks in the Northern Irish accent, a blend of Scottish and Irish pronunciations.

“There is talking about what kind of society we really want,” he says. “We should be talking about the segregation — the separate lives. Unfortunately, for most political leaders remaining apart is common sense. We have a high degree of separation and a desire to remain apart. There is no political leadership that will challenge that thinking.”

Paul Bew, a professor of Irish history at Queens University, bemoans the British government’s naiveté about a solution that would bring Catholics and Protestants together. “The British think all you have to do is get the Protestants and the Catholics to start talking to each other. In fact, the Catholic and Protestant political leaders work to mobilize ethnic rage against one another.”

Living apart heightens insularity and breeds prejudice in both communities.

The latest government census, taken in 2001, shows the severity of the segregation in most of Belfast. For example, the Catholic Ardoyne neighborhood is 1 percent Protestant, while the Protestant Shankill neighborhood is 3 percent Catholic.

The schools in Northern Ireland are also segregated. A university survey conducted in 2003 shows that only 6 percent of the 900 16-year-olds interviewed attend integrated schools. Nine out of 10 students go to schools that are overwhelmingly Protestant or Catholic.

Sidney Lowry, a professor emeritus at Belfast's Queens University, condemns school segregation, saying that “educational apartheid extends from the classroom into the community” and “deprives children of a fundamental right: the right to know each other.” He says that “if integration had been introduced in the schools when the present troubles began more than 25 years ago, the problem might have already begun to disappear. The fanatics emerging from their separatist ghettos would have been less likely to kill their classmates.”

Despite the religious animosities, there has been economic change for the better in Belfast. For example, several new restaurants offer cuisine comparable to some of their top-tier counterparts in New York. Cayenne is a relatively new restaurant on Shaftesbury Square, which used to be the city’s social center before bombings in the 1970’s and 1980’s gutted most of the buildings. Today, the Cayenne offers a delectable fusion mix using local seafood. British investors have opened several boutique hotels. The Europa Hotel, once called the “most bombed hotel in Europe,” is thriving again.

The Titanic’s abandoned slipway and the idle cranes and rusty railroad tracks look bleak as tufts of gray clouds drift in from the Irish Sea with the promise of more rain. Thirty-five thousand men worked here when it was one of the world’s greatest shipyards. Investors, led by a company in the Republic of Ireland, will spend $2.8 billion to redevelop this shipyard and build apartments.

Even with this boost in the economy, the political problems remain as insoluble as ever. London ordered the reconvening of the Northern Ireland Assembly last month and set a deadline of November 24 for the formation of a power-sharing coalition that would give Catholics and Protestants an equal say in the provincial government.

Projecting a conciliatory appearance, Sinn Fein, the Catholic minority party, proposed that the firebrand Protestant leader, Ian Paisley, head the new government. The Reverend Paisley, the head of the Assembly’s largest party, predictably rejected this proposal. Paisley bears great political antipathy toward Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army’s political wing. Both sides are again at loggerheads, engendering disillusion with the political process.

“We are war-weary and politically weary,” said Monsignor Tom Toner, a burly priest who ministers to residents of the Falls Road, one of the Catholic ghettos.

This reporter wrote an article 31 years ago from Belfast about the graffiti that marked the turf of the religious neighborhoods. “This is Protestant Belfast. Taigues (Catholics) keep out,” was the message in the Protestant neighborhoods. “Death to the Prods (Protestants),” said the graffiti in the Catholic neighborhoods.

These same venomous messages cover the walls of Belfast 31 years later.