Students from the University of Tuebingen visiting Belfast

From the Ship

Can you talk to a person from the opposite side?

Jan 7, 2021

This article is part of a reportage series from selected ports of call of Peace Boat’s 102nd Global Voyage, seen through the eyes of students from the University of Tuebingen who joined the voyage.

University of Tuebingen students in Belfast, Northern Ireland - Part 1

By Juliane Hauschulz, Anna Langer and Daniela Bold

The armed conflict in Northern Ireland, known as The Troubles (1968-1998), involved the Republicans, Catholics, who wanted a unification with Ireland and the Unionists, Protestants, who wanted to remain within the UK. The Catholic population in Northern Ireland was historically marginalized by the UK administration causing public protests to culminate in 1968, the beginning of the Troubles. Both sides had paramilitary groups responsible for bomb attacks, assassinations and violence on the streets, leading to deep separation and untrust between Catholics and Protestants. The Good Friday Peace Agreement of April 1998, officially ended the armed conflict, but the separation remained. Brexit, however, has sparked new worries about the Ireland-Northern Ireland border issue, putting the fragile peace in danger once again.

Arriving in Belfast, we join a city tour with Coiste in order to better understand the violent conflict in Northern Ireland and its significance for the people today. Coiste is an organization that engages former prisoners from both parties to the conflict as city guides and thus contributes to their resocialization. In addition, during their training as city guides, the former prisoners get to know people from the other side of the conflict and other neighborhoods, people they would not otherwise meet because of the social rifts that still exist today. 

On an ice-cold day with clear skies, our tour leads us through the west of Belfast. The Catholic-Republican and Protestant-Unionist neighborhoods are still separated by a so-called Peace Wall, which was built in the 1970s to keep the hostile groups apart during the time of armed conflict, known as The Troubles. To this day, the Peace Wall still characterizes the cityscape of Belfast, but its name seems inadequate to us, when one can see that the wall still separates people from one another, instead of bringing them together.

Photo - Peace Wall   The so-called Peace Wall separating Catholic-Republican and Protestant-Unionist neighborhoods

On a multi-lane street in front of a tall building with many small windows we meet our first city guide, Chip from the Republican-Catholic side. He is small and gaunt, and over a black fleece jacket he wears a black hoodie with the Coiste logo on its chest. We meet his physical opposite, tall and stocky Mark, a Union-Protestant, at one of the large steel gates of the Peace Wall. Mark speaks solemnly about the fact that the conflict should never have reached such a violent scale, about the tragedy of the separated neighborhoods, and about how the gates of the Peace Wall between the two communities open every morning at 7 AM and close again every evening at 7 PM. For security reasons. 

Terrorist or brave fighter?

According to Mark's story, Chip, our first guide, was a terrorist. Chip joined the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to defend local people as Unionist attacks and mass imprisonment increased. His own brother was killed by police shooting at his car. Innocent, as Chip keeps emphasizing. In order to illustrate the numerous unnecessary deaths, Chip shows us a large black plaque in the Garden of Remembrance, on which the names of victims from Catholic neighborhoods are listed in golden letters. The name of his brother is also immortalized there. Drawings of Republican so-called brave fighters are just next to the plaque. We hear about many victims and brave fighters. It seems there are no perpetrators here. Offenders only exist on the other side. 

Photo - Garden of remembrance  Chip in the Garden of Remembrance

On the other side, in Mark's neighborhood, we also hear about many victims. Here, too, the perpetrators are only on the other side. And here too, wall paintings keep the conflict strongly alive as a vivid memory.

Everywhere in the quarter, there are huge memorial plaques with names of victims, some who died as brave fighters, others as innocent civilians. Mark shows us a picture on a house wall depicting four men with rifles. Writing on the left side of the picture describes them as heroic fighters who defended their country and their rights. The red poppies (British symbols of war veterans), the Union Jack, and pictures of the Queen adorn the street scene along Shankill Road. Loyalty to Great Britain in this neighborhood is unmistakable. 

Photo - MemorialMemorial for victims on the Protestant side

The so-called Peace Wall

In Chip's quarter, we see many Irish flags, with the colors of green, white and orange determining the street scene. Our tour leads us along the busy Falls Road, full of graffiti and murals, which keep the events of the Troubles alive. Chip draws our attention to another detail: the small gardens of the houses which are bordered by the Peace Wall. They are shady and seem cramped by the wall. In one garden, a child's bicycle leans directly against the wall. The scene looks surreal. 

On Shankill Road, on the Unionist side of the Peace Wall, we see a different picture. At the bottom of the concrete wall is an exhibition of photos of peace walls all over the world. The Peace Wall still serves to protect the Protestant population from the attacks of the opposite side, says Mark. 

Both Chip and Mark assure us that they are in favor of reconciliation and do not want violence to return to the city. A small gesture that we would hardly have noticed if Mark had not mentioned it: when Chip hands our group over to Mark at one of the separation steel gates of the Peace Wall, the two shake hands! This is a great gesture for Mark. He emphasizes that the handshake is possible for him only with three city representatives of the Republican side. And yet, although Mark and Chip can shake hands, they are both certain that the other side is to blame for the conflict and that the Peace Wall is still necessary. Mark and Chip show us that peace in a society needs much more than just an end to physical violence.

Photo - Backyward and wallBackyards cramped by the so-called Peace Wall

In Part 2, the students of the University of Tuebingen talk about new roads to peace in Belfast: read here.

These reports from Belfast are adapted from the radio series broadcasted by the Wueste Welle, Tuebingen. Listen to all podcasts here (in German)

Our partners in this project: University of Tuebingen, Germany, and Berghof Foundation Tuebingen