While waiting on our cab driver on Chichester Street by the Belfast city hall to drive us to the peace walls, I was thinking back to how such a wonderful city dealt with years of terrorist bombings and shootings that became part of normal everyday life. It was Sunday at 9:45 in the morning when we arrived at the gate. We could not travel by car into this particular neighborhood because the gate did not open until ten. I thought that was strange that people that live in these neighborhoods, voluntarily accept that they did not have full freedom of movement. You can use the pedestrian gates at all hours, but you can only drive through the gates at certain hours. Think of the gang violence in Los Angelas and if the fix was to build 25-foot high walls between the rival gang neighborhoods to keep law and order in Compton. Along some of the walls, thorny bushes would be planted to deter factions from digging underneath. That is pretty much what happened in the city of Belfast between the unionist and nationalist paramilitary neighborhoods. There are more than 100 of these “peace walls” that separate the Catholic and Protestant Areas in Northern Ireland.
Our cab driver, Gerald (his name is changed to protect his identity) has lived in the city his whole life and participated in the some of the violence that occurred during the 30-year conflict known as the Troubles. He was quick to point out that it was not the religious protestant vs. Catholic conflict that is portrayed in the news media. He told us that this was a lie told by the British government. It was a conflict centered around whether or not Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and join the Republic of Ireland. There are paramilitary organizations on the other side that wish to remain part of the United Kingdom. The conflict between these two factions spilled over into everyday civilian life. Bombings were common. Police and the British army troops were targets of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Civilians were sometimes collateral damage. He served as a volunteer with the Irish Republican Army and did time in confinement in a British prison for a bombing of a government building. Fortunately, no one was killed. As he told us, everyone has a history. He spoke about how he was held in confinement by the British and not formally charged with a crime. A law in Northern Ireland allowed authorities to hold suspected wrongdoers for seven days without being charged before they had to release them if no charges were filed against them. He now drives a cab and earns extra money educating the tourists about the conflict in Northern Ireland. Much of what he told us, I was skeptical of. When I looked into what he told us, I was able to find some truth to what he was telling us. However, I also keep in mind that each side has their own story.
“History is written by the Victors” Winston Churchill
What was strange was he did not want to drive down some of the heavy Protestant neighborhoods. It was what the locals called Marching Season where factions loyal to the British celebrate the victory of the Battle of the Boyne. There is a bank holiday on the Twelfth of July celebrating when William of Orange won a crushing victory, which secured the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland for generations. Gerald and most other Irishmen that live in Northern Ireland do not take that day off. It just does not mean anything to him.
The Battle of the Boyne fought in 1690 remains a controversial topic today in Northern Ireland where some Protestants remember it as the great victory over Catholics that resulted in the sovereignty of Parlement and the Protestant monarchy. In recent decades, “The Twelfth” has often been marked by confrontations, as members of the Orange Order attempt to celebrate the date by marching past or through what they see as their traditional route. Some of these areas, however, now have a nationalist majority who object to marches passing through what they see as their areas. Each side thus dresses up the disputes in terms of the other’s alleged attempts to repress them; Nationalists still see Orange Order marches as provocative attempts to “show who is boss”, whilst Unionists insist that they have a right to “walk the Queen’s highway”. Since the start of The Troubles, the celebrations of the battle have been seen as playing a critical role in the awareness of those involved in the unionist/nationalist tensions in Northern Ireland.
Lenihan, Padraig (2003). 1690 Battle of the Boyne. Tempus.
Northumberland Street gate, while we were waiting for the gate to open up, Gerald would tell us how the riots started at the beginning of the conflict over a senior British official who was allegedly heard laughing at the poor conditions the nationalist were living in. This was the spark that lighted the powder keg that was building for years.
He would explain what the murals located at the gate meant. It was interesting to hear how they sympathized with the Palestinian movement in Isreal and how an alliance could have spread to the outside of the island of Ireland and why there was a mural of Fidel Castro in Belfast. It was no secret where the loyalties lay. The Cuban leader, Fidel Castrol spoke in support of the Irish Republican Army movement and on the Irish hunger strikes that took the life of Bobby Sands, which was one of the most heroic chapters in history. Those words were not lost on Gerald and people who aligned themselves with the IRA as he was one of the few world leaders that spoke in support of them. It was strange to see the glorification of a man that was responsible for the ruthless oppression of his own people.
When we would look at one mural on the Protestant side of a wall the separated two neighborhoods, he would only talk about the mural when we were back in the cab. The mural of Stephen McKeag located in the lower Shankill area is especially impressive. Anyone looking at this from the outside would think of this person as a hero. However, McKeag is linked to 14 murders including the murder of a hairdresser. Some Loyalist thinks of him as a hero and a soldier fighting against Republicans in his community. Republicans like Gerald think of him as a murderer, drug pusher, and drug dealer. McKeag died of a drug overdose in 2000. I can tell this mural hits a nerve with Gerald. Gerald would go on and tell us that he is nothing more than a druggie and a killer. McKeag is regarded as a sectarian killer to some and as a hero to others. I think what bothered Gerald was how he is depicted on the mural as a great freedom fighter while his side is fighting for unification between the north and the south.
Gerald drove us to a section of the wall, where people would place messages on the wall. Some of the messages were pointed at some of the situations happening in the United States with its immigration policy. In my research, this wall was twice as high as the Berlin Wall. It is a massive structure.
This is the area where it was too dangerous for public buses to operate so the Falls Road Taxi Service was formed to serve the Catholic areas of the city. Officially, Belfast’s government does not license these taxi services but instead prefers to let them operate on defunct bus routes. Protestant cab drivers did not operate in Catholic areas and catholic cab drives did not operate in Protestant areas. To do so would place their lives in danger.
I do not know why, but I thought back to the Death Star analogy mentioned in the movie “Clerks” where contractors of the second Death Star in the Return of the Jedi movie were killed when the rebels destroyed the second Death Star. While we drive to the other Catholic side, I asked him a question that was burning in my mind through the research and books I have read. Were the construction workers called in to rebuild buildings damaged by the bombings and other civilian workers working for the government really targets of the IRA? He responded that these people were collaborating with the enemy and they were targets just like the unionist paramilitary groups and the British Army were. It was chilling to know, an electrician or a plumber trying to support their family could be shot and killed just because of who hired him or her.
Gerald considers himself Irish. He says he now provides consolation to veterans of other conflicts. He holds a Republic of Ireland passport thanks to the Good Friday Agreement that was signed in 1998 and went into effect on December 2nd, 1999. One of the provisions was any resident living in Northern Ireland could choose if they were British or Irish and hold the passport either a British or Irish passport. Although most of the violence has calmed down, there are news reports of different factions intimidating people thought to be on the other side. This was explained to me at a pub in Belfast. I met a man who recently moved to Northern Ireland from England. He is protestant and his wife is Catholic. It was never an issue in England but while living in Belfast, it is an issue, and people look down on their marriage. It is still apparent more than twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement was signed, tensions are still present today although most of the fighting is in the political arena. The solution to this problem is far from being solved and the European Union is forcing the United Kingdom to come up with a solution to keep the Good Friday Agreement in place as the deadline for Brexit approaches.