San Francisco Chronicle
By Tom McEnery
THE WALLS still stand. They are impossible to avoid, separating neighborhoods, streets, an entire city. Some of them are stark and bleak, an awful gray presence, just like the fortified police stations that dot the street corners; others are buff-colored and buffered with greenery, an incongruous tip of the hat to environmental sensitively. Children play in their shadows. In an era that has seen the collapse of the walls of hatred and oppression in Berlin, Johannesburg and the Kremlin, this is a city like no other. Welcome to Belfast.
The city is more British than the British themselves. The Union Jack is omnipresent. Queen Victoria impassively commands the front of city hall, orb in hand, overlooking a massive redevelopment of the Donegal Square vicinity, liberally sponsored by the European Community’s grant system. A short drive takes you into the Catholic Falls Road, where the flags are the green, white and orange of the Irish Republic and the urban graffiti reads: “Up the IRA,” “Remember the Patriots of 1916” and “Free the POWs.” A few blocks away on the other side of the wall, in Protestant West Belfast, the street art has different connotations, like “For God & Ulster” or “Ready for Peace — Prepared for War.” The colors are orange, and the heraldic red hand of Ulster. Instead of the IRA, it is the loyalist paramilitaries of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) that hold sway.
The usual rejoinder to a “How are you?” in this place, is “not so bad.” Today that is true. Many changes have occurred since my last trip. Then the flak-jacketed police officers were themselves escorted on beat by soldiers. Watch towers were fully manned. Armored vehicles roared up and down the narrow lanes, bristling with pointed rifles. For more than a year there has been a cease fire by all the military groups.
In many neighborhoods there are signs of regeneration — small businesses and shopping complexes; schools and community centers. The grounds of the latter are strewn with beer cans and trash. Poverty is ever present. The unemployment rate in these areas is the highest in Great Britain. In some households no male has ever held a real job, father and son condemned to unemployment, the hated “dole.” The city is in transition. But to what? The people of Belfast persevere. Beneath a British army facility in Whiterock overlooking the Falls, is a Fort Apache look-alike from a John Wayne
movie. Nearby, plans go forward for a University of Ulster campus in Springvale. Four bytes for Belfast centers for computer learning were recently funded by Apple Computer on these same mean streets. They are loaded with teenagers trying to change their lives with a magical box instead of a plastic bomb.
The recent truce has renewed optimism. No IRA or Protestant UVF prisoners have been released. Yet Irish gallows humor is ever present. In response to the bull-headed pardon of a British soldier, convicted of killing a teenage girl, some rioted while others asked, “Are you innocent or Irish?” Twenty-five years of conflict and repression have produced over 3000 dead and many more ruined lives.
Always there are the walls — jagged, looming and obscene. John Hume, the leading politician of Northern Ireland and a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, calls these “things” an “indictment of us all — Catholic and Protestant, Britain and Ireland.” Roundly criticized for speaking to the IRA, he brokered the recent truce and daily reaches out for a process in which Protestants can remain Protestants and Catholics, Catholics. After two world wars in one century, leaving tens of millions of bodies strewn across the continent, it should be possible to shake some sense into the hard liners in Northern Ireland. But Irish history is an ongoing nightmare. “They speak of 1689,” a friend of mine said, “as if it were last week.” Hopefully, this should be a history that the British remember and the Irish forget. Amnesia would be a blessing.
As the people warm to the opportunities of a violence-free society, the men of peace may have the upper hand. At the dawn of the 21st Century, it is time to emerge from the hatred and bigotry of the 17th. Only then will Belfast be on the single path to a city that one day will have no walls.
Tom McEnery, former mayor of San Jose, is trustee of the Bytes for Belfast project. He is currently editing a book “A New Ireland” to be published by Robert Rinehart in December.
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This article appeared on page A – 26 of the San Francisco Chronicle