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.

4 comments:

Elaine said...

I completely understand the issue about holidaying in peace. People in NI tend to go to resorts which are primarily populated with other people from Northern Ireland, often in Spain but wherever the charter packages go. Holidays are usually seen as a chance to get away from sectarian bullshit, and people like a break from it. Who could blame them?

I don't think it's fair to say your taxi driver isn't interested. People here have seen young idealists come in, do 'amazing' work, get very excited and then go home again and write it up for hte PhD. People here I suppose are tired of being written and spoken about by the great and the good, whether politicians or journalists - and this is especially true since the restoration of the Assembly - when poverty and sectarianism remain huge problems.

Allison said...

I am all about peaceful holidays! (Isn't that the point of a holiday!!) I suppose I was thrown by the statement by this gentleman, that it was his right as a Protestant to holiday in peace...I'm pretty sure most of us agree that anyone/everyone has a right to a holiday in peace, wherever they find that.

And certainly, after my 10 minute journey home, I have no place to say what he is or is not interested in. My thoughts are a reaction to how easy I have found it to surround myself with people who are actively working against poverty and sectarianism, and to forget that that is not a mindset that everyone has. Whether or not Mr. Taxi Driver is of one opinion or another, I think it was important to remind myself of the point. I am not doing amazing things. I am learning from people here, but learning stops when I lose site of a big picture, and I think that is easy to do. I feel thankful that I have been reminded that we each have our unique perspective based on our experiences, and that I cannot even begin to presume that I understand the first thing about what this country and these people have been through.

Elaine said...

I think you are contributing to amazing things. I think that is easy to get so focussed that one can lose sight of other work. The class system and poverty help sectarianism thrive and that in this sense NI is not much different to other societies. Until these issues are tackled effectively, there will be division and people like your taxi driver will not see the point of cross-community work. I'm not getting at you - you seem defensive but I'm not trying to say you're wrong or you're misguided. The holiday thing is interesting because your guy was trying to assert his identity as a Protestant, but he wanted to go on holiday where he could be a Protestant openly. (Probably not much different than a gay holiday, actually).

Elaine said...

I think you are contributing to amazing things. I think that is easy to get so focussed that one can lose sight of other work. The class system and poverty help sectarianism thrive and that in this sense NI is not much different to other societies. Until these issues are tackled effectively, there will be division and people like your taxi driver will not see the point of cross-community work. I'm not getting at you - you seem defensive but I'm not trying to say you're wrong or you're misguided. The holiday thing is interesting because your guy was trying to assert his identity as a Protestant, but he wanted to go on holiday where he could be a Protestant openly. (Probably not much different than a gay holiday, actually).