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Issue Date:  April 8, 2005

Divided loyalties

In Belfast, conflict runs deep as the color of your hair; set of your eyes


When I heard the news about the murder of Robert McCartney in a Belfast pub, I couldn’t stop thinking of my own experiences in Belfast pubs. I remember one conversation in particular, in an area of Belfast run lock, stock and barrel by Protestant paramilitaries.

“I have a lot of Catholic friends,” the slender young man beside me whispered.

I could barely hear him in the din of the small, smoke-filled pub with people yelling, laughing, but I knew better than to ask him to speak up.

“I could never bring them here, though. All it’d take is one guy to recognize him, and say, ‘Hey, that’s a Taig,’ and he’d be dead.

“Well, not dead,” he backtracked, “but it’d be really, really serious.”

During a nine-week stay in Belfast, Northern Ireland, I had many such conversations as I struggled to understand the conflict there and to answer for myself the question so many Americans wearily ask, “Why can’t they just get over it already? Whatever ‘it’ is?” After weeks of interviews, parades, bonfires and more than a couple pints of Guinness, I began to get it.

The first challenge is to realize that despite the intertwining of religious and political issues in Northern Ireland, the American description of the conflict as “Catholic versus Protestant” is a misnomer. It is as inaccurate as if coverage of the Middle East were reported entirely as “Jews and Muslims.” A prayer to Yahweh or Allah does not change that it’s a political war. So it is in Northern Ireland. The war is not “Catholic versus Protestant.” It is, rather, “Nationalist versus Unionist.”

To give a glib overview of history, in 1690 -- back in the days when the Holy Roman Empire really was an empire -- Protestant William of Orange defeated Catholic King James II. For the next 300 years or so, Catholics of Ireland were discriminated against in one way or another because, as everywhere else, to the victors -- those loyal to the British/Protestant throne -- went the spoils. The small number of Irish who always demanded independence eventually became known as “nationalists.” Of those, some saw violence as the only way to achieve their freedom. They would become known as “republicans.”

In 1921, Britain agreed to the creation of an Irish state, but only if it kept a small section of the island known as Ulster. The majority in Ulster were Protestant and considered themselves to be British -- to the point that a few years earlier, they’d threatened to start a civil war at the prospect of being abandoned to the Irish. Also, Ulster’s capital, Belfast, was the world’s leader in shipbuilding, linen and rope making. With Her Majesty’s Navy circling the globe and preeminence in international commerce at stake, the United Kingdom was not about to lose Ulster. In the new Republic, the split was controversial before it happened: Irish hero Michael Collins was assassinated for his agreement to the partition. In Ulster, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Except, of course, to Catholics who remained an oppressed minority.

But the very reasons for keeping Ulster British were the seeds of disaster.

Over time, Her Majesty did not rule colonies around the world, so she didn’t have the need for a huge navy, and there were other ways to transport passengers and goods. Then, with no need for ships, there was no need for rope or linen. Suddenly, a man with 15 years in a skilled trade faced lifelong unemployment. For his sons, prospects were worse: never getting a job to begin with. The speed with which this occurred was breathtaking: Forty-year-olds remember growing up when thousands (mostly Protestants/British) worked in the shipyards. Only a few hundred, if that, still work in the yards. And since the rest of the economy had relied on shipping, the Protestant/British community was devastated economically.

On the Catholic side, they never had anything to begin with, so the loss of industry didn’t hit them as hard. All they had -- good Catholics that they were -- were people. But that meant Catholics’ already impoverished circumstances were getting worse. There were more Catholics, and they were getting angrier.

Meanwhile, the Protestants/British were terrified. The native industry was gone; the rest of the United Kingdom was propping them up economically. And nationalists wanted to unite with Ireland. Ireland -- with its only export being immigrants who fled the country each year -- had an economy that made Northern Ireland’s look sterling by comparison. Add to that “Irish rule was Rome rule”: Ireland forbade divorce, birth control and followed papal decrees to the letter. It would no doubt discriminate against Ulster Protestants; it would strip them of the little they had left. Their only hope was to be “unionist,” to remain part of the United Kingdom.

Tens of thousands, poor, angry and feeling powerless. It was a powder keg just waiting to explode.

The fuse was first lit not in the Republic of Ireland but the southern United States. Throughout the 1960s, while reading newspaper want ads saying “No Catholics,” Catholics in Northern Ireland watched the American civil rights movement. They said, “We have a dream, too.” And they, too, took to the streets.

But while American protesters confronted water cannons, Catholics in Northern Ireland were met with British soldiers firing live ammo. The republicans, at the time little more than street vigilantes, struck back with a bombing campaign.

Not surprisingly, all hell broke loose.

From 1969 to 2003, more than 3,300 died and over 11,000 people were injured in Troubles-related violence. There have been almost 37,000 shooting incidents and more than 16,200 bombings. (This figure includes deactivated bombs but doesn’t include petrol bombs regularly hurled over peace walls.) These numbers become more astounding when you consider all of Northern Ireland is no bigger in area than Connecticut, with a population near the size of Columbus, Ohio.

The politics of identity

There is an old joke in Northern Ireland: An American comes to Belfast and is asked if he’s a Catholic or Protestant.

“Neither,” he answers. “I’m Jewish.”

“Oh, aye,” comes the response, “but are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?”

While in Belfast, I met dozens who identified themselves as “Catholics” and “Protestants,” but most of them hadn’t darkened a church door in years. So why does “integrated” refer to Catholic and Protestant instead of the Asian or African communities in the area? And why does 84 percent of the population believe religion will always make a difference in Northern Ireland, regardless the outcome of the political fight?

Because in Northern Ireland, “Catholic” and “Protestant” aren’t just descriptions of religions. Instead, they are signifiers of entire traditions. “Catholic” doesn’t mean “universal.” It means “Irish.” And Protestant means “British.”

According to the well-known “life and times” surveys, Catholics are nationalist (60 percent); 0 percent are unionist. They are “Irish” (64 percent): Only 8 percent are “British.” Some 59 percent believe Northern Ireland should be unified with the Republic, or that it should become an independent state. They want Irish culture and language taught in schools (61 percent). Some 24 percent of Catholics are proud to see the Irish tricolor flag, and 4 percent are hostile to it.

By contrast, 66 percent of Protestants identify themselves as “British,” while only 2 percent are “Irish.” They are unionists (68 percent), not nationalists (1 percent). They overwhelmingly want to remain a part of the United Kingdom (82 percent). Only 10 percent would want to see unification or the creation of a Northern Irish state. Just 13 percent want Irish culture and language in schools. No Protestants are proud to see a tricolor, and 42 percent are “hostile” to it.

British play soccer and cricket. Irish play rugby and Gaelic football. They play soccer, too -- but don’t try putting that “British game” on the television in an IRA pub.

Institutions perpetuate these divisions. For example, the majority of Catholics attend church-run schools. In those schools, students study Irish history. Protestants attend state-run schools that teach British history. I heard more than once someone say it wasn’t until going to university that he learned about any bad things that his people had done to the other side. What would have happened in the United States if during the Cold War half of our students were taught the Soviet Union was the “Evil Empire” while the others were taught an exclusively Soviet point of view?

One of the first things a newcomer asks is, “How do you tell a Catholic from a Protestant?” Actually, it’s easy. Even I know a Protestant from a Catholic at 100 yards. And I’m nearsighted and only lived in Belfast for a couple months.

Most of the time, people voluntarily identify themselves. It’s a matter of pride, cultural heritage and fashion. It’s also a matter of life and death. For years, it was so dangerous to go across town that there are people in Belfast who have literally never left their own street. As for their image of the other side, I’m reminded of pre-Columbus maps: “There be dragons there.” Even if not that extreme, Belfast’s community is small, isolated and insular. Everyone knows everyone, so they already know who is a stranger. The only question is if you’re friend or foe.

While identifying yourself within your own community is required, identifying yourself as Catholic or Protestant in areas considered “neutral territory” -- like Belfast’s downtown -- or “on the other side” is either foolish or a dare to be taken on. The Northern Irish are avid soccer fans who follow the Celtics and the Rangers, the two soccer teams in Glasgow, Scotland. (One of the United Kingdom’s dirty little secrets is that Glasgow is just as sectarian as Belfast.) The Rangers are the Protestant team in Glasgow; the Celtics are Catholic. In an effort to stop fights before they begin, many public places in Northern Ireland forbid wearing soccer team jerseys.

“Walking down the Shankill Road in a Celtic shirt, you’re dead, straight-away,” the Catholic 17-year-old Roisin explained. “They’ll just brush you onto the carpet. But it’s the same in Catholic areas. If someone walked in with a Ranger shirt in a Catholic area, they’re as good as dead. … If it’s a mostly Catholic area, or a mostly Protestant area, you’re dead. You just are.”

There are many other ways to tell “which foot you kick with.”

Anything with green or the Irish tricolor represents Catholics/nationalists. Anything orange or with a Union Jack signifies Protestantism/unionism. Catholics are named Mary and Patrick while Protestants are named after Queen Elizabeth or King William. A Protestant’s accent may sound more Scottish than a Catholic’s. Wearing school uniforms, children have their religion written on their chests. (On a city bus through an unfamiliar neighborhood, they hold their hands over the school name on their uniform and hope for the best.) Catholic girls wear claddagh rings and gold hoop earrings. Protestant boys favor a particular crewcut and a certain kind of boots.

Catholics have red hair and too many kids. Protestants’ eyes are set close together.

At Queen’s University, the epitome of integration, there were “Catholic” and “Protestant” bathrooms. There were no signs posted: “Everyone just knows.”

Hair color and close-set eyes? Segregated bathrooms? Yes, for some, “Catholic” and “Protestant” are racial divisions.

There may be a further complication, hidden in the traditions of the two communities.

While there are moderates on both the nationalist and unionist sides, the chief stumbling blocks to peace have been in the battle between the Democratic Unionist Party and the nationalist Sinn Fein. Led by its founder Ian Paisley, the Democratic Unionist Party is militantly against the Good Friday Agreement, a peace agreement worked out in 1998, and adamantly refuses to govern with the Sinn Fein because the Democratic Unionists believe Sinn Fein is a front for the IRA and that its leaders, such as Gerry Adams, are murderers. It’s a position not difficult to understand. We in the United States often say people cannot bomb their way to the bargaining table, and then having painted ourselves into a rhetorical corner, subsequently struggle with whether we can talk to leaders such as Adams or Yasser Arafat to bring about peace.

Does dogma matter?

But I fear there’s more to it. Paisley also founded the Free Presbyterian Church. A tenet of his church -- and other Protestant denominations -- is that the pope is the antichrist. As we all know, you can’t make deals with the devil. And you must resist all of Satan’s tricks to lead mankind into darkness. I wonder how much of Paisley and others’ objections to Sinn Fein actually lie in a belief that its leaders are quite literally the minions of Satan. “For Bible and crown,” they say, believing that keeping Northern Ireland Protestant and British is their God-given duty.

Even less extreme Protestant and unionist leaders alike are confounded by nationalists’ willingness to overlook the violent pasts of leaders such as former IRA Chief of Staff Martin McGuinness. My hunch is the nationalists’ view is rooted in an unexpressed Catholic belief that with a sincere act of repentance, a person can completely turn his life around -- again and again if need be. While dogma is not the reason for a bombing, differences between the religious traditions such as belief in the nature of grace and redemption may have resulted in two political traditions based on irreconcilable philosophies.

Thinking of such things, I don’t know if the fragile peace can continue in Northern Ireland or whether its people will return to war. It’s a possibility that makes my heart break because I grew to love the people -- well, most -- of Belfast. Protestant, Catholic, or atheist, nationalist, unionist, armed paramilitary or militantly apolitical, they were the warmest people I’ve ever met. Perfect strangers I met on the street took me into their homes. They gave me tours of the city. They bought me meals and drinks. They spent hours educating me about their lives.

I met people I consider nothing less than heroic. People who devote their lives to improving their communities. A woman who treats children traumatized by the Troubles. Another who provides job training to women living with third-generation unemployment. Teachers. Police. Clergy. Paramilitaries turned politicians. Children with downcast faces as they describe the bigotry confronting them. Men who are finding a way for Belfast to regain its position as a global leader. So many want to live their lives in peace and struggle with the choice of whether to stay in Northern Ireland or flee.

But the conflict in Northern Ireland involves many individuals and a complex morass of personalities and political agendas, both hidden and in plain view. For both sides, nationalism, commonly expressed via religion, is a compelling force.

“If Northern Ireland were to become a part of Ireland, I would become a terrorist,” one shop owner told me as we stood amid the Union Jack flags, Ulster Volunteer Force calendars and refrigerator magnets advertising the Ulster Defense Association. “And I wouldn’t stop until it went back to the British.”

Hope and despair. That sums up my feelings about Northern Ireland today.

Ashley Merryman is a lawyer and writer living in Los Angeles who is writing a book about Northern Ireland.

National Catholic Reporter, April 8, 2005

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