The so-called Peace Wall dividing Belfast

From the Ship

New Roads to Peace

Jan 7, 2021

University of Tuebingen students in Belfast, Northern Ireland - Part 2

By Juliane Hauschulz, Anna Langer and Daniela Bold

All of Belfast is divided between the Catholic and Protestant sides - housing estates, schools and hospitals, and neighborhoods. Only about 10% of partnerships and marriages are "mixed", consisting of a person from each side. In such a situation, with conflict always latently present, peace work is extremely important, and there are many initiatives for dialogue and reconciliation in Belfast. 

We meet Sean O'Boyle and Jonny Baxter from the British Red Cross for Northern Ireland. They have been conducting workshops and seminars on the reconciliation process for years, bringing people from both sides together to listen to different perspectives, to establish dialogue, and to tear down the walls in people's minds. It is incredible to hear from Sean that the mere fact that they work for the British Red Cross can sometimes cause rejection. Or when Jonny describes his childhood memories of his father locking the car doors when driving through residential areas with Irish flags.

Same city, different worlds

It is fascinating listening to Sean and Jonny’s stories about their different lives in separated communities, in the same city. We sit close together in a mini-van, and Sean and Jonny talk about how they went to Irish and British schools respectively, how they were seen as belonging to one party in the conflict simply because of their school uniforms, and how they learned different sports, one cricket and one Gaelic football. Or how even the pronunciation of certain words or just the letter "H" would mean a perceived affiliation with a particular party in the conflict, even today.

Photo - Students with Sean and Jonny

Tuebingen students discussing reconciliation in Northern Ireland with Sean and Jonny

Sean and Jonny convey it all in a humorous way. They are friends. But the fact that these two young men from the same city could grow up so differently, in such separate worlds, is astonishing. And while both of them reflect on their personal stories honestly and critically, they also admit that they must watch out again and again not to slip into old thinking patterns. 

The main problem that remains is that the two separate narratives about the armed conflict in Belfast are too present and alive. We find it exciting that there are initiatives to take action against the large public murals for which Belfast is so well-known but which also support these one-sided narratives. Instead, there are new artists who spray and paint connecting, reconciling images that show common values on the walls. While writing this article, we have learned that the current pandemic has had a positive effect here, with new paintings on the city walls in honour of nurses and doctors from both communities, creating another shared narrative. 

Photo - Murals in Belfast

Belfast is famous for its murals representing different parties to the conflict

Lack of political will

Almost everyone we speak to express regret that the situation is difficult for many organizations which work for building common ground and sustainable peace, because they are chronically underfinanced and often reach only the people who want to be reached. Overall, there is too little political will to finance and support peace work in communities and neighborhoods. For example, the initiative to develop and make compulsory in all schools a shared curriculum of this recent and painful history, is yet unrealized. 

We leave Belfast feeling that even though we met so many committed people who throw themselves into peace and reconciliation work with full conviction, an overall political and social vision on both the Republican and Unionist sides is missing. And Brexit will not make this any easier, since it is still not clear what the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland will look like in the future.

Photo - in front of Peace Boat

University of Tuebingen students about to board Peace Boat after visiting Belfast

Read Part 1 of this article 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