I begin this post on the defensive. Despite having some understanding that air travel is contributing disproportionately to climate change, I have just flown to Belfast for a short break. My excuse is that, just like most people I know, I see myself as lacking time. In reality it is weakness, convenience and price that lead me to fly. I am also concious that the post will ramble and waffle as I try and write about issues of which I know too little.
With 3 days to spare between a teaching during a Summer School, marking resits, writing and clearing, I wanted somewhere interesting that I had not visited before and Belfast fitted the bill. I have nothing against reading books while lying on beaches in hot climates but I find a sense of relaxation in exploring cities. I dislike the feeling of being a prying tourist but it is learning from the experience of wandering around that I find satisfying and cities offer plenty to see. If at all possible, I avoid tour guides as I do not want experience to be mediated. I’m sure I miss plenty through not going on guided tours but I enjoy discovering things for myself. I have two methods. First is to walk until I’m lost and then find my way again. The second is to use public transport. I find getting to a tourist attraction often more enjoyable than going inside.
I stayed in a cheap hostel just because I can’t justify the expense on hotel rooms. If I could I would go for luxury but I can’t so it’s not something I worry about. I stopped at the International Hostel in Belfast which was great for my needs. The room was basic but the cafe and lobby were wonderful.
Belfast proved a great place for a break. Tourists are warmly welcomed everywhere, partly I suspect, because they represent normality in a city that desperately wants to show a world that times have changed. There was plenty of evidence of a thriving city centre but it was the warmth of people that made the experience different to other cities. Walking around was a pleasure. There was plenty to see to keep it interesting.
The warmth of people stood in contrast to the division still evident on the housing estates. You don’t need to go searching for evidence, it would be obvious without the many miles of “peace walls”. A short visit leaves me with no claim to understanding or expertise but the following struck me. A significant proportion of one community has not moved on very far whilst a lot of people from all communities have. There are still more Union flags (220000 I was told) flying in Belfast than the rest of the UK combined. In loyalist communities, every house, every lamppost is adorned. In the lower Shankill, poor quality terraced housing is slowly being replaced by smart new semis but as the population is rehoused the flags go with them to be hung from new flagpoles. The famous loyalist murals remain and are still repainted to tell of a violent struggle to survive. In nationalist areas, the only flags I saw were Palestinian and the murals tell of other peoples’ struggle for freedom – Mandela, Rosa Parkes, Palestinians, Kurds. As a Catholic, I have to be aware of my own prejudices but the contrast between a fearful defence of the status quo and solidarity with others striving for change would be obvious to anyone.
Identity is always complex. All world religions teach peace but every religion gives an identity that is used at times as a justification for war. The cause of war is always the same: land ownership and the power/resources that come with land. In Belfast the loyalist community appear to maintain a longstanding fear of losing power and influence to the nationalist community. The nationalist community appear to maintain an identity around a struggle for equality that ties them in with people around the world. Some within the nationalist community still see violence as the only response to the perceived injustices of their own community. This sounds like the same impression given over many years of seeing news reports but there is evidence of change. Younger people do not have religion as a defining part of their identity. Over time this is reducing the difference and complexity between identities leaving only that which is national. That is not to underplay how difficult reconciliation between national groups can be but the Northern Irish are providing a useful example of making progress and keeping the majority of the community on board.
Nationalism itself appears to me to be changing in both Scotland and Ireland. The rise of Sinn Fein and the Scottish nationalists is because nationalist politics is no longer about separatism but rather a rejection of economic policy associated with London. The Catholic population of Scotland concentrated around the Clyde lost some of their religious identity at the same time as the SNP lost some its sectarian bigotry. These two processes made possible the sudden switch of Catholic votes from Labour to SNP. Many of the nationalists in West Belfast appear to be defining themselves as opponents of austerity in much the same way as the SNP. Only time will tell how the politics of this will play out especially if Scotland breaks away. One would suspect that the banks would treat any country wishing to break from austerity in much the same way as they acted in relation to Greece- it’s our way or no way.
Back to Belfast. The city appears to be developing and changing rapidly. The giant Harland and Wolff cranes may no longer be used and the focus of shipbuilding maybe small level maintenance and the Titanic museum but on the waterfront the apartment blocks and tree lined avenues speak of increasing prosperity for some. The city centre has a strong sense of developing culture alongside sufficient places to eat and a good transport system. Education is moving to integrated schools and the number of cross community projects increases each year. Only a short time after the height of the troubles, Belfast is a positive and welcoming place to visit.