I’ll be honest, I knew practically nothing of the history of Belfast before visiting it. Yes, I knew that the city had been through some turbulent time and was for a long time a destination to avoid. The Troubles happened over twenty years ago, when I was still a child and not very interested in what was happening elsewhere in the world.
Exploring Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, and learning its history was a bit of a shock for me. First, because I do not understand how I have been ignorant for so long of the tumults experienced by this nation. Secondly, because peace may have been signed twenty years ago, Belfast still bears the marks and tension of a divided city.
This is especially visible along the famous Peace Lines of the city. Built in the 1970s, these peace walls were used to separate Protestant neighborhoods from Catholic neighborhoods. There are more than 34 kilometres of these walls in Northern Ireland, the majority of it in Belfast. They were built at a time when tensions between Catholics (mostly Republicans, who want Northern Ireland to be an independent country) and Protestants (mostly Loyalists, who want to stay in the UK) were particularly lively. The walls were supposed to be temporary. They are still there, almost 50 years later.
It must be said that even today, Catholics as Protestants consider that these walls work and reduce the number of violent altercations between the two communities. Access points between the neighborhoods are closed at 7:00 pm each night, making it difficult to circulate between the communities during the night.
I admit that I was a little troubled to learn that such barriers still existed in 21st century Europe. And that there was still tension between the communities. But Belfast may be a trendy and modern city, barbed wire and bomb barriers are still present, proof that the time of the Troubles is not so far away …
And beyond the walls, the best way to realize the gap between the communities is to go through these neighborhoods. On the Catholic side, the Irish flag is everywhere, and there are countless numbers of political murals. These depict important moments in Irish history, pay tribute to the victims of the Troubles, and sometimes promote paramilitary groups.
The most famous, the mural honoring the activist Bobby Sands, who died after a hunger strike, is one of the most photographed murals in Europe.
On the loyalist side, the Union Jack is everywhere. There are also murals, a little more militaristic, but equally significant and loaded with political messages.
To visit Belfast is to dive into the heart of a city that still seems divided, with a tension that still seems strong. It is also to remember that there are still walls that need to be brought down. There is a plan to dismantle the Peace Lines by 2023. I’m hoping that Belfast will one day no longer need these peace wall to live in peace.