Republicans in N. Ireland
Today marked my first border crossing since I left the Netherlands just over a week ago. It`s a border some wish didn`t even exist: the one between the Republic of Ireland and the UK province of Northern Ireland. The border is hardly mentioned and if it weren`t for the different traffic signs, it would be very hard to determine where the border actually runs. It is obvious that today`s article will discuss the troublesome relation between the Irish and the Brits, particularly in the north of the island. British troops withdrew from Northern Ireland two weeks ago. A sign of progress, but Northern Ireland still has a long way to go on the road to reconciliation.
My first interview of the day is not very spectacular. I am still on the bus and in the Republic when I engage in conversation with Rory and Michael (both 15). Michael has lived in Northern Ireland for 8 years. He says that most of the trouble is caused by a small group of fanatics. Apart from some specific areas, there is not much special going on. Michael admits that even he wouldn`t go to certain neighbourhoods in Belfast. Although the overall situation is improving, neither Rory nor Michael think that Ireland and Northern Ireland will once be united. It doesn`t make sense to them economically. Northern Ireland is much richer that the Republic and it is not very likely the Brits will let down their loyalists by handing over control of the province.
On the bogside:
..the location where the Bloody Sunday events took place
John (63) is also on the bus to Derry - as it is called in Irish, Londonderry in English - and I talk to him before we get to the border and he has similar thoughts about the issue. Originally from Scotland, he has lived in Northern Ireland for the last 10 years and he has never been personally affected by the events. He thinks the troublesome situation lingers on because smart people on both sides are making money on it.
Before I notice, and I was paying attention, we cross the border. We`re in the United Kingdom and for some people, that is a fact hard to swallow. The distribution by religion is fairly equal between protestants and catholics. Since I am coming in from the South, I will first have a look at the catholic group, who are also known as the Republicans. They want to reunite the North and South, and claim that all of the Irish island belongs to Ireland. `No matter who takes our head off, in the end we are all Irish`, says Landa (36, social worker). She reminds me of the teddybear-shape of the island, and indicates that Northern Ireland is the head of the teddybear.
I notice some fanatism in her voice, but not only in hers. While walking through the Bogside, a republican-catholic neigbourhood of Belfast, more people share her view. Young children are sent to Irish schools, street names are indicated in both English and Gaelic, and Irish flags are everywhere. Gutters are coloured green, white and orange. The shamrock is all over the place but unlike in Ireland, it breathes aggression here. The difference between the peaceful south of Ireland and this neighbourhood is hard to imagine if you do not see it yourself.
The catholics feel suppressed by the protestants and have no confidence in the police or the army, especially after Bloody Sunday. On that day in 1972, thirteen catholic young boys were shot by the paramilitary troops. And many catholics claim that the army have shot catholic children on purpose during their training sessions. In order for other people to see how much damage was done to the catholic community, a group of three artists created the Bogside Gallery: a series of wallpaintings commemmorating the suffering of the catholics.
Bogside is practically 100% catholic. The other side of town, as well as the part of the city located across the river are almost entirely protestant and there is very little exchange between the two communities. Michelle (27) works in a small supermarket in Bogside. She never goes to the protestant neighbourhoods because there is no need to. People mix in the city centre and after that, they return to their own areas. Whenever wearing football shirts, and many do, catholic people will wear shirts from the Scottish team Celtic. Irish and Scots have a lot in common and they have the same kind of issues with the English. On top of that, no Northern Irish reams are sufficiently well-known for people to make a statement wearing their shirts.
On my tour through the Bogside, I photograph some kids in Celtic shirts. They are collecting waste for a bonfire and the intermediairy result of their work looks promising. Upon completion of my walking tour through the rest of Bogside, I get in touch with one of the artists who put this project together. Tom (48) hopes that their art helps bridge the gap between catholics and protestants. By making the Bogside Gallery a tourist attraction, he further hopes to raise attention for the atrocities suffered by the people of Belfast, regardless of religion or origin. He is very happy about the British troups having pulled back recently. Before two weeks ago, it would still have been common practice for the paramilitaries to fly circles over the Bogside and bully the local population.
When I leave Bogside to get back to the centre, I see how some of the catholic boys I photographed earlier are trying to climb the city walls to irritate the police. They are looking for more material to create a bonfire later this week. At the other side of town, a similar bonfire is being built - in a neighbourhood full of Union Jacks.
The conflict between the loyalists and republicans, the protestants and the catholics, the English and the Irish is much too complex to explain in one single article. It goes far beyond a pure religious matter and history is a severely complicating factor in the story. I feel safe saying that the overal situation has improved since my last visit in 2001. However, as long as people hide and look for political and religious significance in every single move they make, a final solution will remain out of their reach.
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