Upon first impression, Belfast looks like any European city, with the usual high-street stores and Caffé Nero outlets. But the past hovers.
“Come to the city center after 6 p.m., and everything is closed,” says Paul Donnelly, a former conflict mediator who leads walking tours about how the Troubles—which claimed over 3,600 lives in Northern Ireland between 1968 and 1998—affected ordinary civilians. What he calls a “dead center” is a hangover from that time, when the city’s core was barricaded by a “ring of steel” built by the British Army. After 6 p.m., no one was allowed to enter. “We haven’t emerged completely from the patterns of behavior the Troubles produced. Even now, some of us will never sit with our backs to the door in a pub or restaurant. That’s classic Belfast.”
Unlike the city’s divided neighborhoods, cut through by so-called peace walls and claimed by rival Union Jack and Tricolor flags, memorials, and murals, the city center has always been a shared space, kept neutral to avoid offence. The Abercorn restaurant, bombed in 1972 at the height of the conflict, is a shiny Liverpool FC store, with nothing to remember the two young women killed there, or the 130 injured. The street murals steer clear of politics and embrace less contested aspects of identity, like Belfast’s shipbuilding heritage and its distinction as C. S. Lewis’s birthplace. “We still can’t agree on how to deal with the legacies of the past. We can’t even agree on who constitutes a victim. There’s so much unresolved trauma,” Donnelly says.
Since the Troubles ended, loyalist and republican paramilitaries once at war with one another have sat in the same room to share their experiences. They’ve met with victims in the name of truth and reconciliation. They’ve given talks to students and led wide-eyed tourists on Troubles-themed tours—something of a cottage industry here—as ambassadors of peace of a kind, so that what happened will not happen again.
But all the talking, Donnelly says, hasn’t always been productive. “Sometimes, people are revisiting old anger, and you think, Do we keep having the same conversation over and over?”
A man searches the names on Belfast’s most symbolic peace wall and finds his: LARGiE. But Noel Large is about five-four. “You’re not very big, are you?” his teachers used to say. His voice is a pinched brogue. He’s sixty-one, slightly hobbled by a knee injury that ended his teenage dreams of playing pro football.
“There was a time when I was the hardest man where I come from,” he says, cocking an imaginary gun. A tattoo peeks from his windbreaker’s sleeve. His eyes dart like a bird’s in his gaunt face, missing nothing. During the Troubles, Large was an “operator” for the Ulster Volunteer Force, a loyalist paramilitary unit which essentially existed to fight the Irish Republican Army in a “tit-for-tat” war. “I was involved in murders, attempted murders, armed robberies, stuff like that. I pleaded guilty to all counts and was given four life sentences and 357 years in prison.”
He looks away, doesn’t elaborate. After serving sixteen years, he was controversially freed with more than 400 paramilitary prisoners under the Good Friday peace agreement. They can still be tried on new charges for Troubles-era crimes, and who knows what secrets they carry, but many are now politicians, cab drivers, community workers. Some, like Large, guide tourists like me through west Belfast, a historical flashpoint of sectarian violence.
I scrawl my name onto the wall along Cupar Way, one of a cluster in this working-class area that separates two religious communities with irreconcilable national aspirations. It’s 800 meters long and 13.5 meters tall, blast-proof concrete topped with metal sheet and mesh. On one side: Shankill Road, home to Protestant unionists and loyalists who want to remain in the United Kingdom. On the other: Falls Road, home to Catholic nationalists and Republicans who want a united Ireland. It’s a divide with roots that date beyond Ireland’s partition, to the takeover of Irish lands by British plantations in the seventeenth century.
“I was forty before I set foot on the Falls in peace. Before, I would only go late at night and always when I was up to no good.” Large spots a message on the wall that makes him smile: Peace, love and Georgie Best.
Along Falls Road, I spot a Royal Mail postbox gone rogue, its red coat crudely painted over in green. Robert McClenaghan grew up around here. He was eleven when the Troubles broke out. “This is where I enter Irish history,” he says, with a joviality that belies what he’s about to tell us.
Over two days in August, 1969, the two communities in west Belfast burned each other out of their homes, displacing 1,800 families—disproportionately Catholic—and reinforcing patterns of segregation. “When the police come, we think they’re going to stop the violence, but they start firing their machine guns on the Divis flats.” Two died in the volley: a nine-year-old boy and a Catholic British soldier home on leave. Near the boundary with Shankill Road, fifteen-year-old Gerald McAuley was shot by a loyalist paramilitary while salvaging furniture from a house. He and Robert had played football together, had wasted time on street corners, that sort of thing.
Catholics felt that the Irish Republican Army had failed them. The walls said as much: I RAN AWAY. And though they first welcomed British soldiers as peacekeepers, they saw them as the enemy after July 1970, when 3,000 soldiers wrecked their homes and killed four men in an extensive search for arms. “The rape of the Falls,” some Republicans call it. “They didn’t come to protect us from loyalists or the police,” McClenaghan says. “They came to protect the state”—which, to Catholics, was controlled by a Protestant majority that wouldn’t give them fair play in voting, housing, and jobs. As the IRA split and the militant Provisionals became dominant, more men joined. The conflict escalated. Divis Tower became a battleground. The soldiers commandeered the top two floors, moving in and out by helicopter as IRA snipers shot at them.
“After Gerald’s death, my wee head started to change. I just wanted to join something,” McClenaghan says. McAuley had been a member of the IRA’s youth wing, and McClenaghan followed his friend’s example when he turned fourteen. Later, he joined the ranks of the IRA itself, was convicted of carrying weapons and explosives, and served twelve years in jail. “Of my graduating class at school, twenty out of thirty ended up dead or in prison. I was one of the lucky ones.”
The most striking mural on Falls Road is on the side of Sinn Fein’s headquarters: a grinning, shaggy-haired Bobby Sands—the IRA volunteer famously portrayed by Michael Fassbender in Hunger.
While serving time in prison, he led a series of hunger strikes that ultimately claimed his life and nine others’ before the British government made limited concessions and let IRA prisoners wear their own clothes instead of prison uniforms.
“We were political activists and guerilla fighters. We weren’t criminals. People tend to overlook the realities of the time that created the conditions for armed struggle,” says Peadar Whelan, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1978 for trying to kill a policeman.
Whelan served sixteen years at the Long Kesh prison, where Sands was also interned. “We called it the university of revolution. It’s where we developed our political struggle”—propelled further by Sands’s election as a member of Parliament before he died in 1981, precipitating Sinn Fein’s rise at the ballot box. Whelan didn’t go on a hunger strike, but he went on the “No Wash” protest. “We would be beaten every time we left our cells. So we refused to leave, even to piss. Eventually, we spread our shit onto the walls. We were using the conditions we were in—the only means we had—to undermine the system. I mean, the screws would force us to squat over a mirror while they inserted their fingers into our anuses to search us.” In retaliation, the IRA on the outside targeted prison officers. More than twenty were killed.
Originally from Derry—never Londonderry for Republicans—Whelan came of age during the civil rights movement there, which preceded the Troubles in Belfast, and was politicized by events like Bloody Sunday. “Unionism and loyalism were defined by sectarianism, but for us, the conflict was an anti-imperialist struggle,” he says. He sees Northern Ireland as an illegitimate state, a view that’s reflected in a litany of murals on Falls Road that claim solidarity with liberation struggles around the world: Palestine, Catalonia, Kurdistan. For him, Ireland was Britain’s first colony. And still is.
“Growing up, I had Ian Paisley way up here,” Noel Large says, referring to the incendiary preacher who rode to popularity on anti-Catholic rhetoric, and who later headed Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government with ex-Irish Republican Army commander Martin McGuinness. “He told you it was a waste of time joining the security forces if you wanted to fight the IRA because the British were secretly talking to them. The message was clear. I knew I had to join a group that would go outside the law.”
Then: Bloody Friday, a clear summer’s day. The IRA ignited nineteen bombs across Belfast in eighty minutes, killing nine, including Large’s school chum William Crothers, who had started a summer job as a parcel boy in the city. “On the news, you could see firemen collecting parts of bodies into black plastic bags. And I knew parts of my friend were going into those bags.”
The murals on Shankill Road strike a more strident tone than those on Falls Road. Outlawed loyalist paramilitaries still loom large as “defenders of the community.” On one wall, men of the Ulster Volunteer Force wield guns and wear smiles. Poppy crosses hang on shopfronts as signs of tragedy. A memorial dedicated to the victims of the Bayardo Bar bombing—mostly civilians—features a montage of atrocities committed by the IRA, including the bombing of a furniture shop that killed two babies. A poster reads: ira—sinn fein—isis: no difference.
“The IRA will sit in the same room with me today while we talk to students and say that Bayardo wasn’t sectarian. I’ll say, How was it not? It was nakedly sectarian, just as I was nakedly sectarian. But I’m saying: That was me. It was wrong.”
During a police interrogation, Large is noted to have laughed as he confessed to shooting a man in the head. It’s hard to square that chilling portrait with the man who stands before me now on a street curb, hunched against the Irish winter, reciting a poem he wrote in jail about a time before the Troubles, “filled with hopes and dreams and adventures.” For Large, these tours are about telling a story of what happened in an abnormal time. “It’s about telling people we weren’t all monsters, and letting them make up their minds.”
The peace walls in Northern Ireland can make the divisions between the two communities seem stark, but for some, allegiances aren’t so clearly cut. And the ground is shifting with new uncertainties: a growing Catholic population, a power-sharing government deadlocked since January 2017, and Brexit, which has again thrown questions about the border into the spotlight.
I meet a young Catholic historian who identifies as unionist—a lose-lose situation, he confesses cheerfully, when it comes to romantic pursuits: He’s been rejected by the ladies twice for being Catholic and once for being unionist. And I think of Paul Donnelly, who describes himself as secular Protestant and left wing, British and Irish—a consequence, perhaps, of what he calls “mixed marriages” between unionists and nationalists in his family, which can make family gatherings awkward.
He’s never been tempted to join the paramilitaries—“not because I morally rejected violence and was a better person because of it. These guys, who are, you know, absolutely, morally prepared to go out and do certain things… there’s also more to them than that.” He was invited to join several political parties, but turned them all down. Even voting is tricky—“I think Sinn Fein dress themselves up as left wing and progressive, but they’re not. And the Democratic Unionist Party are positively medieval when it comes to social issues. I find life here very frustrating. There’s not an awful lot of political space for somebody like me.”
Instead, before he became a tour guide, he was a bridge between the two sides, bringing former paramilitaries to the table to engage in dialogue and teaching them Irish history as part of an adult community-education initiative to foster mutual understanding. But before he was formally certified as a conflict mediator, he says, he had honed his fine balancing act from three years working as a pub doorman in the midnineties, dealing with paramilitaries, policemen and drug dealers who were among the clientele.
“Hard guys were at the door, and you knew most of them had guns. So you had to use your head, your words, to diffuse these powder-keg situations.”
At the outbreak of the Troubles, the barricades that separated Falls Road and Shankill Road were made up of burned-out buses, corrugated metal, scaffolding, rubble, furniture, whatever the people could get their hands on. When the British Army moved into Belfast to restore order, it replaced them with barbed-wire fences meant to be temporary, but which grew more solid over time.
There are still over a hundred peace walls in Belfast. There are more today than there were during the Troubles. Most are not as imposing as the one along Cupar Way. Some have electronic gates that allow scheduled crossings. One even extends underground at a cemetery.
The overriding sentiment is that the peace walls started as self-imposed barriers by the two communities, and they’ll only come down when both sides are ready. Along Cupar Way, Catholic homes pressed up against the peace wall still have metal cages covering their backyards, to ward off the occasional petrol bomb thrown by antisocial or “dissident” splinter paramilitary groups still bucking the peace process.
But there’s also something else: the beginning of a road that defies logic. It runs right up against the peace wall, goes nowhere. “Before the wall came up, this road used to run from the Falls into the Shankill,” Robert McClenaghan says. “So when the Catholic community rebuilt these homes after the riots of August 1969, they built this road as a symbol of hope—that one day, the wall will come down, and the road will pave the way to the other side.”
I ask if there’s a similar road on the other side that would, theoretically, connect. McClenaghan laughs. “No, no. They’re not into that symbolism shit.” But they are. Both sides are. In the contested geographies of Belfast, their symbols are everywhere, vying for supremacy over the past.
“Thing is, when the Troubles ended, neither side had got what they wanted,” says Paul Donnelly. “We didn’t stop fighting because we had a new utopian vision of a new integrated society. We stopped fighting simply because we were tired. We wanted, maybe not to love thy neighbor, but to look away from them and stop provoking them. Nobody had won.”
This dispatch is from #VQRTrueStory, our social-media experiment in nonfiction, which you can follow by visiting us on Instagram: @vqreview.