A first shot at final thoughts

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Today was my last working day in Belfast. Tomorrow I head back down to Dublin in advance of my flight home Friday. So this is as good a time as any to start trying to makes sense of some of what I think I’ve learned as a result of the time I’ve spent this time around.

There is a clear sense of relief that the horrors of the past are for the time being over. But many of the people that I talked to expect trouble to return, and only hope that the next time it isn’t as bad as what came before. And everyone I talked to who thinks things will “kickoff” again are equally convinced that it is the other side that will be responsible when it happens. Loyalists in South Armagh are convinced that it will be the Republicans. Republicans in Tyrone are certain the Loyalists will be the first to go back on the offensive.

People genuinely want a better life for their children and grandchildren. Maintaining the peace is central to those wishes, and everyone appears to know and acknowledge it. What is more difficult to understand, however, is that this common desire still doesn’t seem to provide the common ground that will make the peace sustainable. Working class Protestants and working class Catholics (for want of better labels) know that they share many of the same problems, and yet it is the differences between them that they seem to focus upon.

Case in point: Catholics resent the Protestant tradition of marching bands, July 12th bonfires, and the embracing of the Union flag, seeing each of these as obstacles to overcoming divisions between the communities. Protestants, at least in the working class (or what a respectable middle-class Unionist crassly referred to as the “benefits class”) see these as vital parts of their culture and identity which should be accepted as such by their Catholic neighbors. “Let us do our thing and let them do their thing and everyone leaves each other alone,” is how one of the fellows who showed me around the Loyalist neighborhood of Sandy Row this morning put it. This would be all well and good if Catholics didn’t view Loyalist parades through their neighborhoods the same way that Klan marches are viewed by African Americans.

Likewise, these Protestants resent what they believe is the privileged position the Irish language enjoys in the schools and they see displays of the Irish tricolor on St. Patrick’s Day as deliberate political provocation since there’s already a St. Patrick’s Cross flag (which can, not uncoincidentally, be seen as the red cross part of the British Union flag). Nationalists see calls for keeping the tricolor out of the festivities as tantamount to denying the Irishness of the holiday.

Symbols that each side embraces as indelible markers of culture, identity, and community are almost fully rejected by the others, which sees them as artificial, divisive, and intentionally provocative. No one seems to know how to bridge the divide of identity in a way that would acceptable across communities. Attempts to create new, “neutral” institutions that everyone can support, like the introduction of professional ice hockey to Belfast (a sport that no one plays and few actually care much about but has the virtue of not “belonging” to either community) is a case in point.

In short, no one really trusts the other side to keep the peace. And so they wait, hoping for the best but unconvinced that the present calm will last.