For almost four decades, Northern Ireland was synonymous with a bloody religious conflict that cost the lives of more than 3500 people. Not anymore - Northern Ireland is cool, or so the advertising campaigns carefully crafted from slick montages of wild countryside, gourmet restaurants and shiny shopping centres would have you believe. A quick visit to the Visit Belfast website will tell you that “Orangefest”, as the Twelfth of July has been rebranded, “showcases aspects of Ulster's rich heritage & culture such as Orange Lodges, marching bands, fife & drums, flute music & the resonant sound of Ulster's unique Lambeg drum.”
What the Northern Irish Tourist board won’t tell you is that the 2013 marching season was the most violent in ten years, with 56 police officers injured in one night alone in August. They probably won’t quote Barack Obama’s recent description of Northern Ireland as a place where “there are still wounds that haven't healed, and communities where tension and mistrust hangs in the air” . They also won’t tell you that the 2013 “Orangefest” descended into rioting across Belfast, resulting in seven injured police officers, one injured MP and water cannon and rubber bullets being used on the rioters- hardly “a magnificent spectacle of tradition, colour and music that can be enjoyed by all locals and visitors alike.”
The irony is that this violence occurred mere weeks after Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness announced plans to have the infamous Peace Walls pulled down in the next ten years. The Northern Irish government’s opinion was that fifteen years after the Good Friday agreement, it was time to bring communities together “in an inclusive and integrated way”, with McGuinness saying “… it is ridiculous that we have become a successful peace process yet those issues have not yet been resolved." However, in a recent Sky 1 documentary (Ross Kemp, Extreme World series, aired 05/02/2014, Sky 1) , locals expressed their concerns at this idea, claiming they wouldn’t feel safe without the peace walls in place.
Is there real peace in Northern Ireland?
Are the locals justified in not feeling safe? According to the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland), in 2013 there were 73 bombing incidents (which don’t include petrol bombs), 50 shootings, 26 casualties from paramilitary style shootings and 161 arrests under Section 41 of the Terrorism Act, of which 35 were charged. In addition to the ‘normal’ violence associated with Northern Ireland, the Belfast City Hall flag protests were a constant source of violence during 2013, costing local businesses an estimated £50 million.
It was perhaps the City Hall flag protests that broke through the glossy veneer of Titanic-themed tourism and cutting-edge architecture to expose the grim truth beneath - this “successful” peace process is filled with tension and mistrust. This tension pops up in the most innocuous of places - trying to get a taxi home from a nightclub in Belfast can be a political minefield, with “Unionist” taxi companies refusing to bring customers to “Nationalist” areas of the city and vice versa. Children walking to school can find themselves used as pawns in protests by clashing Unionists and Nationalists. Even looking at the health services, one can see proof of both recent and past troubles: 9% of the population have post-traumatic stress (the highest rate out of the 30 countries surveyed) and the Northern Irish health system spends twice as much per capita for antidepressants as the English health system.
Is the tide turning?
However, there is cause for optimism - with the exception of bombing incidents, the other incidents were decreases on the previous year’s occurrences. More members of the Protestant communities are learning Irish - with one Protestant teacher of Irish saying she first learned Irish through a cross-community project, proving these projects can work. In addition, Belfast has one of the fastest growing Irish-speaking populations on the island of Ireland, showing that the language is becoming disassociated from Republicanism. There are over 60 integrated schools across the North, a sign that a growing percentage of the population want their children to grow up assimilated with the ‘others’. On my last trip to Belfast, my friend (a Northern Irish Catholic) and I (a Southerner) walked through Sandy Row, a Loyalist area in the city centre, something we would not have been comfortable doing twenty years ago. Southerners are crossing the border in droves for cheap shopping and medical treatment, which only the brave would have done during the Troubles.
This optimism may have been helped by the plethora of cross-community peacebuilding initiatives. There is a certain honesty and openness when it comes to the Troubles: tourists can take a Black Taxi tour which will bring you to the peace walls and flashpoint areas. However, locals are also getting involved: there are several organisations dedicated to peacebuilding and reconciliation, with one group, the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland, running several programmes, including ones for ex-prisoners, excluded communities and women. One housing estate in the programme described how they turned the Twelfth of July into a shared community event by getting local young people to build a 20 foot rocket which was then burned in place of the traditional bonfire. Another village set up a music club for locals to learn how to play music - the first cross-community organisation in the village.
So is there a successful peace process in Northern Ireland? To a certain degree, yes. Having endured thirty years of strife and conflict, it would have been miraculous for the violence to stop instantly. The healing process is a long one and there will continue to be flare-ups for the foreseeable future. However, the success of the cross-community organisations shows that the vast majority of ordinary citizens are willing to engage with former opponents; it is this willingness that will hopefully lead to a truly successful conclusion to the peace process of Northern Ireland.
Avril Ní Shéamus is a MA International Relations graduate who specialised in the Middle East and has worked in the West Bank. She will be returning to Israel this year to work for a human rights NGO.
Source picture: http://www.flickr.com/photos/genvessel/149267945/
Written by Avril Ní Shéamus and published on 01-March-2014