We think of ourselves as relatively well-informed about world events, and we follow the news about Ireland as best we can
at home, but we were unaware of the extent of ill feelings and segregation that still exist between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.
At the suggestion of the Rick Steves office – with whom we had a counseling session as part of the planning for this trip – we took a special taxi tour of the “troubled” areas in Belfast. Our taxi-driver-tour-guide, Al, was scrupulously even-handed; I still can’t tell you want side he is on. He was pretty down on both. We saw the murals in the Unionist area of Belfast, as well as the preparations for the July 16 bonfires. (This is a remembrance of how they warned the next village that the army was approaching in the 17th Century – by setting fires.) And we also toured the Catholic – or Republican — areas and “peace” wall. The wall is studded with good wishes but still can’t come down because of fear that battles would break out again between the residents on each side. It was a
surprise to Pat and me that there still would be neighborhoods that are so strictly segregated that no one from the other side would or could move in.
Of course there are areas of Belfast that are not segregated. And there is no open conflict. Politicians are working on various plans to bring the two sides together. But even as recently as last month, Catholic leader Gerry Adams was arrested and held for three days in connection with an inquiry into a murder 30 years ago.
At one point, Belfast was 80 percent Protestant; now it is about 50-50. According to Al, the Catholics believe demographics are on their side and that one day they will be able to vote to unite Ireland. The Protestants – or at least the most retrogressive of them – would like things to go back to the way they used to be.
A day later we were in Derry – of Londonderry if you are a Unionist – and learned that while they tell the story differently, the divisions continue.
The Bogside Catholic area is still very extensive, and there is a small enclave of Protestant housing that remains on the west side of the River Foyle. Most Protestants moved to the other side of the river, and that area is now quite open to residents from either faith. But in the Bogside, and in the few blocks of Unionist housing, it would not be safe in either area for one from the other side to move in – even if they wanted to. Note in the photos the orange and green paint on the curbstones where the Republicans live, and the red, white and blue paint for the Unionists.
The “peace wall” in Derry is much different. As you can see from the photograph, it is not a solid wall and there are no posters. Still, they are not ready to take the chance of taking it down – just in case it might be needed.
I do not mean to imply that most of the folks here believe this way, or even many of them. We have not been here long enough to gauge this well. And the various people we spoke to are living their lives, avoiding trouble and optimistic – but the troubles are a constant reminder and – as they say in the car’s rear view mirror – objects may be larger than they appear.