Reminders of deep divide, signs of hope mix in Ulster

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

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BELFAST — On the surface, it looks like any other cookie-cutter, working-class neighborhood in Europe.

Small, dull houses are pushed up against one another, with a few tiny patches of green grass poking through the gray tones.

But look a little closer at this two-block housing development in West Belfast, and you notice what’s missing: people.

“No one will live here,” says Carl Von Ohsen, a development officer for Making Belfast Work, an agency aimed at bringing peace to Northern Ireland. “This is the border between Catholic Belfast and Protestant Belfast. People know what can happen to people who live here – the beatings, the killings.”

At a time when Northern Ireland is supposed to be at peace, those long-empty homes are a reminder that all is not yet well here.

Last year, the world rejoiced when Catholic and Protestant leaders reached an agreement many thought impossible just a few years ago: a deal for the two sides to put down their guns and share power in a new government.

The date of the deal – Good Friday – brought overtones of hope and salvation. In the euphoria, the top leaders of both sides won last year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

And while yesterday brought another major political breakthrough, winning over the hearts and minds of everyday people, trained to hate one another for four centuries, will prove more difficult.

“Socially and economically, Catholics and Protestants are in the same situation, and they’ve got the same problems,” Mr. Von Ohsen said. “But each side thinks the other is better off, and they hate each other for it. I’m not optimistic that will change anytime soon.”

You can’t tell the difference between Belfast’s Catholics and Protestants by looking at them. But sometimes you can tell by listening to the words they use.

To Catholics, the second largest city in Northern Ireland is called Derry. To Protestants, it’s Londonderry, in recognition of the Protestants from the British capital who took control of the town in 1609.

Protestants often call Northern Ireland Ulster, as in the name of Northern Ireland’s largest Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists.

In contrast, the name of one of the two main Catholic parties, Sinn Fein, isn’t even in English; it means “we, ourselves” in Irish. Sinn Fein is the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, a paramilitary group aimed at a reunited Ireland, through violence if necessary.

Catholics point out that the ancient boundaries of Ulster actually include three counties now in the Republic of Ireland, and that their goal is to unite them.

The divide in Northern Ireland has even split the language in two. “The differences are important,” said Dominic Doherty, press officer for Sinn Fein. “Words actually mean things here.”

Driving around West Belfast – the part of this 300,000-person capital city hardest hit by the Troubles – shows quickly that the division goes far beyond language.

Police stations look like forts, surrounded by 25-foot windowless concrete walls topped with barbed wire. It’s a rare sight to see anyone actually walking into a police station. Many Catholics and Protestants choose to get their “justice” through local paramilitaries, who use beatings to get their points across to suspected criminals, even of their own religion.

In the most one-sided parts of the city, Belfast’s famous murals of masked gunmen still loom over residential neighborhoods. Ten-foot walls, put up by the government for peacekeeping purposes, divide Catholic neighborhoods from Protestant ones.

Almost comically, the division lasts beyond death. When it was discovered a few years ago that a city cemetery included Catholics and Protestants, locals built an underground wall to separate the two sets of bodies.

“After you’re dead and turning to dust, you’re still on one side or the other,” said Jason Welley, a Catholic West Belfast construction worker.

The battles over Northern Ireland began in 1609, during the reign of James I, the Scot who had become King of England. British military forces were in control of nearly all of Ireland, with the notable exception of Ulster, a province in the northeast.

English officials came up with a solution to their problem: encourage tens of thousands of English Protestants to move to Ulster. This colonization replaced the Catholic leadership in Ulster with a Protestant one. While there continued to be battles between the two groups for centuries, the lines were drawn and Ulster became mostly Protestant while the rest of Ireland remained mostly Catholic.

As punishment for a variety of rebellions over the years, the English enacted punishing laws discriminating against Catholics, stripping them of their rights and their lands. By 1700, less than 10 per cent of Irish land was owned by Catholics.

Eventually, Great Britain began to relent on its stern command of Ireland. . In January, 1922, Ireland was formally partitioned politically – one parliament for the six majority-Protestant counties of Ulster, which became Northern Ireland, and one for the rest of Ireland, which became the Irish Free State.

Still, problems continued. Dissident groups within the Free State, unhappy with the accord with Britain, began waging war against the Free State’s provisional government. Once the groups settled their differences, the Free State turned its attention to gaining economic strength and severing its ties to Great Britain. This struggle continued for another two decades.

It wasn’t until April 18, 1949, that the Republic of Ireland was formed, free of any allegiance to the British crown and the Commonwealth. The next month, the British Parliament voted to keep Northern Ireland as a part of Great Britain. The Republic of Ireland objected, demanding return of the six counties to form a united Ireland. Its leaders have been making that demand ever since.

“There’s no reason for there to be two Irelands,” said Francie Molloy, a Sinn Fein member of the new assembly created by the Good Friday accord.

Catholics began a civil rights movement in 1968, which they intended to put them on an equal level with the Protestant rulers. Catholics earned many concessions, such as equal rights in housing, voting, and employment. But the peaceful movement was also the start of the violence-ridden “Troubles,” pitting nationalists and republicans (who want Northern Ireland united with the rest of Ireland) against unionists and loyalists (who want to keep the North’s association with Britain).

In the 31 years since, the human cost has been substantial. More than 3,200 people have died from bombings, shootings, and beatings, along with tens of thousands injured. The main culprit has been the IRA, but in response to their actions, several loyalist paramilitaries have taken up arms.

The underground paramilitaries have always been small. Some have only a few dozen members, and experts believe that the IRA has never had more than a few hundred. But they’ve caught the 1.6 million people of the North in their crossfire.

“Ulster’s been torn apart,” said Sarah McDonald, a Protestant housewife who lives a few blocks away from the infamous Shankill Road, site of dozens of violent acts during the Troubles. “Some people want to give in to the other side to get peace, and some want to keep fighting. I don’t think we should give in yet.”

Because the two sides’ demands are so far apart, compromise was almost impossible for decades. Either the North would be part of Great Britain, or it wouldn’t. Bombs in Northern Ireland became a regular highlight of the American evening news, and some Irish-Americans chose to help fund the IRA’s militant efforts.

The last few years, however, have seen enormous progress. In 1997, the IRA declared a cease-fire, and representatives of Sinn Fein were invited to the negotiating table at peace talks chaired by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell. Finally, last year, the parties announced an agreement to create a government in which members of all the major parties would share power.

The accord calls for a national assembly and a 12-member executive, the equivalent of the cabinet in America. Four of the seats in the executive will go to the Ulster Unionists, and four will go to the largest nationalist party, the Social Democratic and Labor Party, which has always opposed the violence on both sides. As the two largest parties, the UUP and the SDLP have long formed the moderate center of Northern politics; their leaders, John Hume for the SDLP and David Trimble for the UUP, were winners of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Two seats each will go to the more extreme Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party, an openly anti-Catholic party that considers the Good Friday agreement treachery against the Protestant majority.

If it all works, it would be the first time since a brief failed experiment in 1974 that loyalists and republicans shared government power. It would allow Northern Ireland to rule itself for the first extended period since 1972, when the British government took control from the fractured local parliament.

But the Good Friday accord did not settle all the tough questions, for either the politicians or the general population.

For the politicians, the biggest problem has been a dispute over the IRA and other paramilitaries giving up their weapons. The Ulster Unionists have operated for several years under the slogan “No guns, no government,” meaning that until the IRA decommissions its guns and explosives, it will not sit in government with any representatives of Sinn Fein.

But that potentially explosive issue was partially resolved yesterday, when the Ulster Unionists voted to join in the formation of the executive tomorrow, the same day the IRA begins negotiations on decommissioning.

It’s not a guarantee of peace – the IRA still has not turned in one weapon, and Mr. Trimble has said he will resign if that hasn’t happened by February – but it’s an important step.

“We need more than assurances,” said Rev. Robert Coulter, an Ulster Unionist member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. “We need weapons. If we let them into the government, they have no excuses for armed patriotism any more.”

The stakes are high for the current peace talks, as the last few years of relative peace hang in the balance. “History tells us that when there’s a vacuum, and the political process isn’t working, then in come the people with violent intentions,” said Jackie Johnston, an assistant director of political affairs in the Northern Ireland government.

“If this process fails, you’d be straight into open civil war worse than what we’ve seen,” said Pauline Lindsay, a secretary who works for the Ulster Unionist Party. “It’d be Kosovo all over again.”

But even if the party leaders reach a settlement of their own, the general population of Northern Ireland will still have four centuries of religious warfare in its history, and a pattern of hatred difficult to eradicate. The views of the two sides remain far apart.

While legal discrimination against Catholics has been eliminated, it continues on among the Protestant business owners who have long held economic power in Northern Ireland. Catholic unemployment rates are more than twice as high as Protestant ones; in some Catholic neighborhoods, as many as 65 per cent are jobless.

“I think a lot of it does come down to money,” said Janey Wilcox, a Protestant nurse from suburban Belfast. “It’s economics, really: if you have a job, you don’t want to make trouble.”

And even if the IRA turns in its weapons – certainly not a foregone conclusion – there are still more violent groups ready to enter the fray to scuttle peace. Several extremist IRA splinter groups, most notably one calling itself the Real IRA, are believed to be hoarding weapons just across the border with the Republic, ready to strike.

Still, there are reasons for hope in Northern Ireland. There has been relative peace since the IRA’s 1997 cease-fire, although the paramilitaries on both sides continue to murder dozens of “troublemakers” annually. The economy, fed by the Republic of Ireland’s boom and the U.K.’s continued prosperity, is doing well. Belfast has seen an influx of foreign capital previously scared off by the violence; a new Hilton has just gone up downtown.

And as scarred psychologically as Northern Ireland may be, it has never been the disaster zone other parts of the world have been.

“We’ve never reached the level of the Balkans,” said Dr. Sean Antrim, an SDLP assembly member who will be one of the 12 executive ministers if the government is ever formed. “We’ve never gone over the precipice here. We’ve gone to the edge and looked over to see what’s there, but we’ve always scampered back.”

If the current political debate over decommissioning is solved, and a government is formed, the cooperation that would be created by power sharing could go a long way to building common ground between Catholics and Protestants, who often agree on issues.

“The Troubles are about history, culture, and feelings, not about politics,” Mr. Johnston said. “On health issues, economic issues, agricultural issues, the differences are not large.”

“I think people are getting more mature,” Mr. Coulter of the Ulster Unionists said. “People can work together once you get past republicans vs. loyalists.”

There are real issues to deal with, such as the fact that 60 per cent of the economy is still in the public sector and significant problems with the province’s agricultural business.

In time, the decision on the unification question may be made for leaders by Northern Ireland’s changing demographics.

The Catholic birth rate is higher than that of Protestants. Some Protestants, perhaps seeing an eventual Catholic victory or simply tired of the fighting, have left for England.

Over the last 10 years, the population of the Shankill Road area, long West Belfast’s Protestant stronghold, has dropped 75 per cent.

“Protestants feel as though they’re under siege,” Mr. Von Ohsen said.

“A lot of my friends have moved out to the suburbs, or just left Ireland, to get away from all this,” said Ms. McDonald, who lives near Shankill Road.

As a result, some demographers predict that within a decade or so, Catholics will become the majority.

Currently, Northern Ireland is about 42 per cent Catholic; they already make up majorities in four of the six counties.

Prime Minister Tony Blair has said that his government would allow the North to join Ireland if a majority of voters ever approved such a move.

“It’s a matter of time, really,” Mr. Doherty of Sinn Fein said. “The unionists want to hold on to their privilege and power for as long as they can, and they’re willing to stall and be obstructionist if that will accomplish their goals.”

All sides agree that a solution to the generations of enmity will take time.

Their brightest hope may be the next generation, which may be beginning to look beyond the sectarianism of the past.

At an Internet cafe a few blocks away from the North’s most prestigious college – the somewhat argumentatively named Queen’s University – 25-year-old George O’Neill sips a latte and surfs the web site for CNN.

Mr. O’Neill knows computers, and has a job writing software for a company in South Belfast.

“It’s tragic that it’s gone on for as long as it has,” he said. “But a lot of people my age couldn’t care less what you are. They’re more interested in what kind of a person you are.” Mr. O’Neill said he is a Protestant, but quickly added that “it’s not a big deal for me.”

Sitting at the next computer terminal at the cafe was Jenny McGowan, also 25.

“I’m a Catholic, but that doesn’t mean I hate Protestants or anything,” she said while taking a break from reading up on fashion news at a web site.

“It’s silly to hate people for things that they had no control over and that happened hundreds of years ago.”