I had very little understanding of Belfast’s history before I made a day’s visit there. Back in the 80’s, I was vaguely aware of the rioting, fiery pictures in the magazines and the IRA to blame, so we were told. But I had little insight into the people or issues behind it all. Visiting Belfast yesterday was a steep and unsettling immersion into its Troubles, and it left me with a lot of doubts about their future.
When I visited Jerusalem a few years ago, my epiphany was in seeing how compact the problem was. Jewish and Arab neighborhoods are within blocks of one another; the Wall is just beyond the city. Partition would never work; a co-existent solution needs to be found.
Similarly in Belfast. The immersion showed me how close together the Unionist and Republican neighborhoods lie, with angry murals marking territory and yellow Peace Walls holding people apart. It’s deeply disquieting to see the neat houses and shops in the shadow of the violence and emotion. The murals are warning, expression, symbol, reminder, everywhere.
It still feels fragile, there are so many open wounds scattered across the city, the martyrs and the innocents filling parks and memorials.
And, layered over it, our tour guide pointing out bombings, shootings, burnings and, finally, reconciliation. I was acutely uncomfortable to be riding through tragic scenes in an open-topped bus, imagining the neighbors hearing our guide’s even-handed commentary about their history.
Today, Belfast feels run-down and spent. The streets are dotted with shawled beggars and debris-strewn lots. Rare flashes of controversially red or green clothing color the people, who prefer neutral blues and blacks. Condominiums rise on burned foundations in the old quarters, even as they are falling in value. Clusters of sharp-eyed young men hurry along the sidewalks going nowhere; there are only jobs for 500 workers in shipyards that used to employ 35,0000.
And what of tomorrow?
The city leaders are trying to smooth over the emotion with drugs of shopping and tourism. Downtown is dotted with restorations of iconic bars and gingerbread culture centers. The legacy of Titanic and Narnia are their rallying points for Belfast’s rebranding. New murals commemorating the Ship and statues remembering the Wardrobe are being purposefully painted over the old. They seem like shallow substitutes for the authentic history and community pride being torn down.
In this post-modern environment, “The Future” is a debate over whether to convert the giant cranes into bungee jumps or restaurants. Deliberate Disney-fication bringing in too-familiar global brands, local shops, pubs, restaurants smothered by a cream of outdoor clothing, bath products, and jewelry.
Is the cure worse than the disease? I imagine that if something weren’t done, the city could have become another Beirut. But I don’t feel that relentless consumerism the answer: it’s just goods in / jobs out. The huge yellow cranes stand above the dark skyline, monuments to the shipbuilding jobs, textile industry, and dockyard trade that disappeared overseas with globalization.
There is a battle here for the legacy of a city and the heart of its people. The past needs to be reconciled and a new future built, I feel that this just isn’t a real or sustainable way forward.