Guest Post from Noel
A comparison raised by my learned countryman Paul a few days ago, between the current situation in several US cities and West Belfast in the 1980’s, brought to mind my last visit to the latter, not without a certain embarrassment as the trip is now more than half a year ago and I still haven’t reported on it. Seimi, our host for the two days, will forgive my procrastinations.
I’d travelled with a companion who’d just held a symposium (or whatever they call it) on, appropriately enough, community involvement in politics in Glasgow university. (I only attended one afternoon where I was fortunate enough to hear the indomitable Darren – Loki – McGarvey. Anyone know him?)
You used to hear from various figures in the British military and media, and among most Dublin4 chatterers, that the people of Northern Ireland, and Belfast in particular, are somehow incorrigibly fanatic and by nature violent and quarrelsome. Some of us were aware that exactly the same things were being said by more intelligent observers about the people of Tipperary and North Cork, infamous for their lawlessness, a century earlier. Now, you hear and sense similar sentiment regarding black ghettos in the US. Other waves of immigrants – Italians, Vietnamese, Iranians, even Irish and Mexicans – arrive and eventually move up the ladder of respectability, but for some reason the blacks always stay at the bottom of the pile under which anger burns.
Well, as regards southern Ireland, the British finally had enough of this wanton destruction and departed and left those violent folks to form probably the most settled and peaceful part of the country, whose boring tranquillity is disturbed at most once a year when Cork faces Tipp in the Munster Senior Hurling.
I got a similar respect for good political work and bold decision-making when I saw Belfast this time. When I first visited North and West Belfast as a young lad in the late seventies and early 80’s, it was unmistakeably a community at war. The people and place impressed me, but you’d really want to have a taste for revolutionary ambience to enjoy it. So much of the place was smashed up or burned out, scruffy kids chased a scruffy dog across the road, and the presence of armoured cars dashing through the streets, tense young soldiers with disproportionally large rifles squatting at every corner while scores of tough young men leisurely stood around jeering at them, all just heightened the tension.
This time, parts of West and East Belfast could have been the Netherlands. There was a wholly new neatness and relaxation to be experienced. You could feel the new hope; now the only thing burning was the pride that people obviously felt in their neighbourhoods.
You know when you’ve experienced something so special that you don’t want to tell others of it, for fear of it all becoming too overused and thus somehow spoiled? Well, that’s the way I feel about the Belfast that was shown to us. The people were all so great that I’d hate if more people went there gawking at them like we did.
If all politics is local, then Seimi is ATW’s only politician. He knows every corner of every street like the back of his hand, yet has the unusual gift for someone so rooted in a place of being able to see it objectively and in broader geographical, historic and cultural contexts.
Our tour took us from the depths of West Belfast, across the Peace Wall and past some of the worst killing fields of the Troubles, where even Seimi’s chat and humour couldn’t dispel the sense of tragedy and loss, then back on to the bustling and optimistic Falls and through its own modern Gaeltacht (quotation marks would be unfair) to a relaxed café where Sinn Fein leaders and former icons of the Republican movement pop in for a chat. There’s a fantastic new museum there that for anyone interested in modern Irish history would alone have been worth the trip. My lack of Irish – after 12 years of Gaeilge with the Nuns and the Brothers – was at this stage getting painful. But worse was to come.
I was sort of aware of the progress being made in the Irish language movement in the North, of which Seimi is a leading light. But nothing prepared me for the culture shock of the Turas language centre in the heart of Loyalist East Belfast! Do you have to be Irish to appreciate fully the courage of a Gaeilge school being set up by the sister-in-law and wife of prominent members of a Loyalist paramilitary organisation in the area where it once did a lot of its sectarian killings? You go with Seimi to that Methodist centre and talk with people whose thorough human decency and commitment to reconciliation are humbling indeed.
The white field in the Tricolour has been a bit problematic, I always thought – the aspiration for peace between the Orange and Green, the white of surrender to despair at continuing sectarianism, maybe a thick visual Peace Wall between the two traditions? When my companion asked Seimi when he believed the big sectarian divide would finally be overcome, he impressed us both by saying with the resignation of the true expert that it would not happen in his lifetime, but that his children would see it. Still the effort is being made.
People like that aren’t really the type who shout on blogs; they are out in the field actually doing something to make a miracle happen. It occurred to me that the people of West and East Belfast that I met are giving a new meaning to that White field: a fresh space to sketch out new possibilities, a new sheet being turned over and an empty page where an entirely new narrative of what it is to be Irish can be written.
There is no political divide totally intractable after Belfast. If they can make it there, they can make it anywhere: the racial divisions in US cities, Israeli-Palestinian, Kosovo, you name it.