Many southern Irish still feel trepidation about going to Northern Ireland. The border checkpoints may be long gone, the mountain-top watchtowers dismantled, yet you still know you’re still stepping into a very different country.
I lived in Belfast from 1996 until 2000, leaving my home in Dundalk to study English and History at Queen’s University. Returning to the city after a four year absence last year, my first impression was that little had changed. From the train window, I watched the same old scene go by – the countless redbrick terraced houses, most of which have seen better days, the litter piled thickly against wire fencing and “IRA out” daubed along walls.
But other parts of the city had changed dramatically. Where there had only been one “skyscraper” downtown – the Europa Hotel (once known as the most bombed hotel in Europe) – the area was now dotted with new office buildings, hotels and concert halls. Peace had clearly brought an economic boom to the city. Since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, efforts have been made to clean up the streets. Even one of the most deprived and violent neighborhoods in the past, the Shankill, recently won a UK environment award for removing sectarian murals from the walls and painting over Union Jack curbstones.
Island of Safety
When I first moved to Belfast in ’96, I had little sense of fear. I’d grown up hearing about the car bombs, paramilitary assassinations and more, but only on the 9 o'clock news. Perhaps, like many southerners, I was desensitized to it, feeling sympathy for the victims of “the troubles,” but at the same time wondering "why can't you all just get along?"
When I was deposited at the door of Sir Rowland Wright Hall of Residence and my tearful parents had waved me off, I was eager for my university life to begin. Queen’s University, over 100 years old with turrets and leaded windows surrounded by statuesque oaks, is situated in a leafy Victorian suburb of south Belfast. Apart from the shabby rows of terraced student houses, it’s an affluent-looking area, where politics and sectarianism seem far away.
As a student, I initially felt just as insulated from the realities of Northern Ireland as I’d been back in Dundalk. Students, both Catholic and Protestant, were generally more concerned with how to scrape together enough cash for a bottle of cider and entrance to a disco than with local politics. It wasn’t simple callousness. Many of my school friends had grown up in the North, and were trying to enjoy their first escape from a life under constant threat of violence.
My first army patrol
I was quite surprised when I first encountered an army squadron patrolling outside the Halls of Residence. Stumbling home from the student union one inky night, bleary-eyed and fixated on the mountain of toast I planned to wolf down on getting home, I was alerted to their presence by the sudden crackle of their radio. Unused to seeing an army traipse through my neighborhood, the sight of ten soldiers aged 18 or 19, dressed in full combat fatigues, AK 47s cocked, was intimidating. Up until then, I think I’d been naïve enough to think my student card excused me from the reality of a city torn by 30 years of violence.
I gradually became aware that hailing from the South, or "Mexico," as many Northerners call it, could be a liability. Bordering the student area were two grim Protestant ghettos – Sandy Row and a district known as "The Village." These were no-go areas for anyone with an Irish brogue, as a southern lilt would cause Protestants there to make immediate assumptions about one's religion and political leanings. My friends from Belfast taught me which pubs and nightclubs I needed to be careful of my accent in. In Belfast, a southern accent might cost you a black eye, and a good deal of money as well. The mammoth black taxis would wait by the train station, eager to catch an unsuspecting traveler fresh off the Dublin train and fleece him. I learned that a taxi ride could cost almost twice as much if I did the talking, instead of my boyfriend from Derry
These these problems seemed like minor inconveniences, though. The only thing that truly frightened me was what I encountered amid the prickling heat of July 12th each year. The 12th is when Protestants commemorate King William of Orange's victory over the Irish at the Battle of the Boyne. The celebration stirs up so much fervor – and violence - that most Catholics choose to leave the province. Shops, restaurants and pubs all close early in the afternoon, barracade their windows and wait for the marches, bonfires and fighting to pass. On my first 12th, I was living in a student house near the edge of The Village. Sent home early from my summer waitressing job, there was nothing to do but watch TV reports on the running battles between bottle-throwing mobs and the police that were taking place just around the corner. At one point, the cabin fever became too great, and I decided to stretch my legs outside. I was quickly sent running back inside by the sight of thick black smoke spewing from a torched police Land Rover in the middle of my street. Back in Town
Prejudice both ways
This March, I returned to Belfast to work as a reporter for the Unionist News Letter, and then for the Nationalist Irish News. Although the city is certainly more peaceful, I found that old divisions still run deep. While covering a story for the Unionist about how schools from both sides had joined together in an initiative to improve community relations, I was told to interview only the Protestant school children involved. Apparently, the Unionist’s readers don't like to see Catholic names in the paper. Similarly, the Irish News was always extremely sensitive about how their readers would react to the term “Ulster,” because officially, it covers nine counties in the north – three of which are part of the Republic of Ireland. Editors felt the term would offend their readership, and reporters were told that only the term “Northern Ireland” should be used. Two way street
Another friend from my University told me how sectarianism still crops up – sometimes in very strange ways. A Protestant from the picturesque seaside town of Bangor outside of Belfast, she recently attended a party at the home of a friend from the south of Ireland. Other guests, almost all from the south, recognized here distinctive Bangor accent, and excluded her from the conversation. It seems as though it’s not only northerners who need to re-evaluate their sectarian beliefs. Southerners are capable of the same prejudices.
Hopefully, if I return to Belfast another five years from now, it will be further down the road it seems to be on now. A friend from my University days, Helen, expressed the very guarded sense of optimism in the city today: “There’s still a long way to go, but we have to start somewhere. It’ll be this generation of younger people that will make the big leap.”
Breda Heffernan is a writer in Dublin.