When I think about Northern Ireland, I think about the first time I landed in Belfast International Airport. A sign welcomed me to the home of the Titanic and to Westeros. I think about the jaw-dropping expanse of green, green, green; the long road I walk along every day to Queen’s University Belfast campus; and the stunning sight of the ocean on the north coast.
The North Coast
Belfast, for many, is not synonymous with beauty—it’s a reminder of bombs, bullets and balaclavas. Instead of the deep greens and blues of the north coast, Northern Ireland is the black and white of photos of the Troubles — the thirty-year conflict described as “somewhere between a full-blown civil war and a wee bit of a bother.” For many, Northern Ireland was army checkpoints at shopping malls, bombed-out buildings, paramilitaries kneecappings, and sectarian war.
Troubles related mural in Belfast
I think that many people who have not been to Belfast have difficulty imagining what it’s like to live in a community that has experienced conflict. When I tell other Marshall Scholars about the recent paramilitary kneecappings in Belfast they’re often a bit shocked. “There are paramilitaries?” they ask in hushed tones, “Is that scary for you?” I can tell they’re visualizing a landscape more akin to Raqqa orIraq than Belfast, Northern Ireland.
People in Northern Ireland will tell you that the conflict did not end in 1998—it is ongoing, with the two communities divided by over 100 peace walls, segregated schools, and the continued (albeit reduced) presence of paramilitaries. This is besides systemic poverty; the most impoverished areas in Northern Ireland during the Troubles remain some of the most deprived in Western Europe, twenty years after the peace agreement. There have now been more deaths from Troubles-related suicides than there were during the entire Troubles.
The politics of Northern Ireland baffle most people (myself often included). As soon as things begin to make sense (Catholic nationalists support Ireland’s football team, whereas Protestant unionists support Northern Ireland), something emerges to confuse it all again (everyone in Northern Ireland supports Ireland’s rugby team). As a mural in Belfast once cheekily declared, “If you are not confused, then you do not understand.”
Peace wall in Belfast, separating the two communities
But even though I am often confused, I feel like Northern Ireland has made me learn and consider so many things. Being on the messy edge of two nation-states, I can see more clearly now how the centers of power structure our lives—both in Westminster and Dublin, but also back home in the US. Belfast is at one part of the modern world, but also a tight-knit community that is so involved in itself and local politics. Even though this makes for a complicated past, I think it is also something that can turned into something positive.
There are people here who are doing amazing work every day to overcome the legacy of conflict. The best part, for me, has been getting to be part of the Northern Slant team here in Belfast. Northern Slant is a publication dedicated to presenting an alternative and more positive view of Northern Ireland—and they’re one of the reasons I’m filled with a lot of hope about this place.
This year was the 20th anniversary of the peace agreement in Northern Ireland. Senator George Mitchell and President Bill Clinton were here speaking about the past. (I even got to take pictures with them!) But I was really struck by something Seamus Mallon, one of the negotiators of the Good Friday Agreement, said at Tuesday’s commemoration event:
“There was a man shot dead on his tractor by paramilitaries, on land that his family had farmed for 400 years, because he was a member of the British occupiers. When his blood dripped down into the soil—was that land Irish or British? I don’t care, as long as it’s home.”
For many people, me included, it doesn’t matter what Belfast is as long as it’s home.
Alina with Senator George Mitchell