09 February 2008
The past meets the present (or I finally see the 'real world')
Yesterday I (finally) finished reading Hope Against History: The Course of Conflict in Northern Ireland by Jack Holland. It covered the conflict from the 70s until the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. It would have been a good read prior to moving to NI, but I needed to understand the geography, the people, the culture, to really start to grasp the facts.
So I finish it and I'm thinking that I need to find something that covers the last 10 years, because in my eyes, things are way different than they were when Holland ends his book. Our young people are very open to cross community work; they themselves start conversations with youth from the other side of the wall about how they are different and how they are the same. Folks all over the city in community relations groups are working to make sure "peace" really sinks in. Our women's group is dreaming of bringing down the wall. Sectarian violence seems to be taking a back seat to the sad reality of "normal" violence that we see in every city around the world.
But I guess, in a way, I am living in a "bubble." It's ironic that a community centre on the peace line, which once saw so much violence, vandalism, riots, fire...has probably given me a better-than-it-is view of the local situation. A taxi ride home last night has made me realize the work that this centre really has done, as well as how much work needs to be done off the peace line, in the communities and neighborhoods that are so homogenous, they don't bother with dropping the prejudices of the past.
Our driver asked where we from, which (as always), led to a conversation about where he and his wife holiday in the states. And with that, he was off...telling us stories of how he has a right as a Protestant to holiday in peace (I didn't realize that was a right afforded to one community...) and when he was in Spain, those Catholics were singing songs and he will never go back to Spain again. This is why they spend a month in Florida every year instead. He made sure to warn us not to walk around our neighborhood alone at night. The roundabout, he said, is a dangerous place that even he wouldn't walk through-he would run. (Thanks, Mr., for assuming my absolute ignorance). He was a man from the depths of the Shankill, not interested in the work we are doing at our centre on the peace line (as many taxi drivers are), but instead, interested in letting us know how things "really" are, and concerned for our safety in this contentious society.
It was good to see a little of the Northern Ireland that people write about and talk about, and to be reminded that there is still tons of tough work to be done in NI. But, mostly, I feel hope for this place in that it's taken me seven months to experience the stereotypes, the history and the mindset of the past. There's definitely a long way to go, but from my vantage point as a volunteer semi-tuned into the peace keeping process, Belfast has an exciting future.