“It’s like you’ve left Ireland”
That was a quick trip! Just kidding, but that was what we heard when we entered an area of Belfast where Loyalist, Protestant families lived. Today, I learned just how deeply the segregation between Nationalist, Christians and Loyalist, Protestants is in Northern Ireland. In Belfast, the city is set up as if a checker’s board. Where different color squares are the homes of the two sides. Walls stand tall around the city separating the different people from political confrontation. I started the day off with two different tours (one where we talked to a Nationalist and the other by a Loyalist) where they explained the historical perspective of their side. While both perceived the Troubles extremely different, a couple messages were parallel. Both had suffered extreme loss of friends and family, both had lived through times of unimaginable violence, both called the land under their feet home, and both wanted the other side to not deny their story.
The daily details
This morning, I woke up ready to start the day. After meeting the group for breakfast, we discussing how everyone’s evenings went, the plans for the day, how incredible the food was (they had mini packs of Nutella!), and continued on to the first of four tours. In the first tour, we learned about a Nationalist person’s experience from the Troubles. In the second tour, we learned about the personal experiences of a Loyalist. During these tours, they both made sure to mention that they were telling us “their version of history”. This is an important concept for understanding the political atmosphere in Belfast. Both sides see the conflict very differently. Because of this, they have to clarify when telling their version because they know to acknowledge that the other side has a different one (which is a point of contention). On the Nationalist side, they see the Loyalist as people who were unjust to them and treated them as if they were lower in a social class. Their desire for equality was repeated over and over as we learned about how deeply the nationalist believed they were freedom fighters whose actions were done for the greater good. When acknowledging that many IRA members are considered terrorist, the reply was instead facts about the positive impact they made for the Nationalist community and the equality they continued to work to achieve. On the other side of the wall, we talked to a Loyalist. He had a very different perspective on the war. As soon as we walked into the Protestant area, England flags and murals of the England Queen could be seen as we walked down the streets (he was right, it certainly didn’t look like we were in Ireland). He then went on to explain the difference between the British Army and the Protestants living in Belfast, and how many Loyalist in Ireland were innocent people who were attacked by the IRA. He asked, “If they knew we would retaliate why did they do it (as in why would they attack knowing the Loyalist would defend themselves)? He then repeatedly mentioned that “the other guy probably told us (the visitors) __” and then continued to rebuttal the claims that made his community sound like a Tyranny and instead framed the picture of Loyalist are innocent people who were seeking justice for the violence the Nationalist started. Ultimately, both sides saw themselves as innocent and blamed the other side for beginning this conflict. One of the ways Northern Ireland is dealing with balancing these two viewpoints is by allowing both sides to publicly voice their side (for example giving these tours!). While both sides openly understood that the other tour would directly contradict the information they were exampling, they continued to share their views as a way of informing us on the history of Belfast. By allowing these two different forms of history to be listened to, both sides can speak their truth and the listener can judge the truth for themselves.
In addition to the overall difference in the two stories, the issue of inquiries had opposite emotions associated with them. On the Nationalist side, inquiries were a source of understanding and healing. They help families understand why their family member or friend was killed and was a source of closure. Additionally, injuries are seen as a source of truth in the matter of understanding the history of the Troubles. However, the emotions associated with inquiries for the Loyalist were negative. The Loyalist went on to explain that the Troubles was a Civil War, and therefore the inquiries were unnecessary. He said if someone participated in the war, then that should be enough explanation for why the other side killed them. He then went on to talk about how some of the people the Loyalist side killed were killed right before they would have killed someone else. He personally said he would be offended if his family ask for an inquiry (in a hypothetical situation where he died during the fighting) due to feeling like it was an unnecessary process. This was an interesting difference in perspectives since inquiries are seen as a form of truth recovery (and a method of helping improve justice). Ultimately, this example showed that what works to help one person is not always consistent across the board, that everyone heals and deals with conflicts differently and that there are fundamental differences among the two sides on how the rehabilitation of Northern Ireland should be handled.
In addition to these two tours, we went and observed the Milltown Cemetery, and went on a Black Taxi Tour of key sites of the Troubles in Belfast. These experiences showed us how different historical sites, homes, and murals stand as a form of culture. While seeing the Milltown Cemetery, the size and impact of the Troubles sunk in for me. As we drove by one side of the cemetery to the front side there was a moment when my heart dropped at the realization that we were still driving. What I mean by this is, we were driving by the cemetery for so long, passing tombstone after tombstone that I realized how huge of a death toll this conflict caused. This cemetery stands as a way of remembering those who gave their life to the conflict, and the goal their side had. It was open for families to visit in honor of lost loved ones and open to the public in order to understand the result of the conflict. The Black Taxi Tour continued to show the importance of visual representations in order to remember the Troubles as a part of the culture in Belfast. Murals were on walls in residential and commercial areas, as well as on homes of prominent people’s families. These murals stood as a way of stating different individuals stories and truths of the conflict publicly. This is a form of working towards understanding and respecting the past of Northern Ireland.
While driving back to the hotel, the taxi driver made a comment to us that he wishes he could tell other living in Northern Ireland.
“The past can be remembered, but stop living in it… what about better times?”