What are The Troubles?
“The Troubles” is a conflict between the Irish Nationalists (those who want N. Ireland to become a part of Ireland) and the Northern Irish Unionists (those who want to remain a part of the United Kingdom). The conflict began in the 1960s and “officially” ended with the Belfast ‘Good Friday’ Agreement in 1998. But occasional violence still happens today. “The new glass wing of Victoria Square Shopping Center is kind of a big deal,” my friend told me while I was visiting her in Belfast. “Because we still have random bombings every now and then–” said nonchalantly– “building something out of glass is like putting our trust in the people here, that they won’t target it.”
But this is Ireland and the UK, not a Third-World Country
As modern Westerners, we tend to equate political and religious unrest with distant parts of the world. In this way, we remove ourselves from the violence. Well, that’s happening there because their government is unstable or their cultures/religions are not compatible. But in Northern Ireland, violent protests and religious targeting is still fresh. This is not a conflict fought by great-grandparents, but just one generation removed. One afternoon, my friend and I walked from her flat to a cafe. On the way, she spotted a black bag next to a brick wall. “Don’t look at it,” she said. “There’s always the possibility it could be something…dangerous. And even if it’s not, in this neighborhood, we don’t want to look like we have anything to do with it.”
The Peace Wall
Our bus tour of the city was led by a middle-aged female tour guide. “She’s obviously Catholic,” my friend said to me conspiratorially. “She’s glazing over all the bad parts.” We passed by a massive tower of wooden crates, explained away by the guide as a “bonfire celebration of Eleventh Night.” My friend told a different story. “We try to stay in doors during the bonfires. A lot of them involve burning the Irish flag and hateful activities. It can get very dangerous, even for those of us who identify as Protestant.”
The bus passed by a towering wall, topped by even taller security wires. The army-green walls are painted over with colorful murals. “It’s the Peace Wall,” my friend explained to me, talking over the guide. “It separates the Catholic side of town from the Protestant side.” As the bus glided through the gates into the Catholic side, the bus grew silent, reverent. My friend pointed out a fortified police station, that I had mistaken for a jail. “They’re all like that,” she whispered. “The police are targeted here. So they have to protect them behind big walls. Everybody thought I was crazy when I said I wanted to be a policewoman.”
Irish flags hung throughout the district, alongside icons of Mary and portraits of activists on the sides of buildings. Another girl who had come along for the ride–a friend of my friend–began explaining some of the Catholic symbols displayed throughout. My friend turned to her, “Wait, you’re Catholic?” she asked.
“You’re Protestant?” she replied.
There was a moment of silence. I shifted awkwardly in my seat. Then they both grinned at each other. “I never knew that about you.”