In Northern Ireland, Getting Past the Troubles

A decade after Protestants and Catholics agreed on a peace treaty, both sides are adjusting to a hopeful new reality

In a once strife-torn Belfast neighborhood (where murals today dramatize a message of hope), reconciliation is taking hold. Even so, says Father Aidan Troy, formerly of a Belfast parish, progress must be nurtured day by day: "Peace is a delicate plant." (Andrew McConnell / WPN)
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As political stability strengthened, Northern Ireland began looking toward the Republic of Ireland to learn how to transform itself into an economic powerhouse. In the Republic, an educated population, skilled labor force, generous European Union investment, strong leadership and development of a high-tech sector created unprecedented prosperity. Within a decade—from the mid-1990s on—the "Celtic Tiger" turned itself into Europe's second-wealthiest nation (behind Luxembourg).

Today, however, the global economic crisis has hit the Republic's economy hard and slowed development momentum in Northern Ireland. Even before the worldwide financial meltdown occurred, Northern Ireland faced serious obstacles—reluctance among U.S. venture capitalists to invest, lingering sectarianism, and poor education, health and employment prospects in sections of Belfast and Derry. Yet McGuinness and other leaders are optimistic that investors will be attracted once the world economy improves and confidence builds.

No town or city better illustrates how far Northern Ireland has come and how far it has to go than its capital, Belfast, which straddles the Lagan River in County Antrim. Investment capital, much of it from England, has poured into the city since the coming of peace. The city center, once deserted after dark, is now a jewel of restored Victorian architecture and trendy boutiques. A new riverside promenade winds past a renovation project that is transforming the moribund shipyards, at one time Belfast's largest employer, into a revitalized district, the Titanic Quarter, named for the doomed luxury liner that was built here in 1909-12. The Lagan, once a neglected, smelly and polluted estuary, has been dramatically rehabilitated; an underwater aeration system has vastly improved water quality.

"People in Belfast are defining themselves less and less by religion," entrepreneur Bill Wolsey told me over a pint of Guinness at his elegant Merchant Hotel, a restored 1860 Italianate building in the historic Cathedral Quarter. "Until the Merchant opened, the most famous hotel in Belfast was the Europa—which was bombed by the IRA dozens of times," Wolsey says. "We needed a hotel that the people of Belfast would be proud of—something architecturally significant. And it's leading a revival of the whole district." In the lively neighborhood surrounding the Merchant, traditional Irish music can be heard regularly in pubs.

But half a mile away, one enters a different world. On Shankill Road, a Loyalist stronghold in west Belfast, youths loiter on litter-strewn sidewalks in front of fish-and-chips shops and liquor stores. Brightly painted murals juxtapose images of the late Queen Mother and the Ulster Freedom Fighters, a notorious Loyalist paramilitary group. Other wall paintings celebrate the Battle of the Boyne, near Belfast, the 1690 victory of Protestant King William III over Catholic King James II, the deposed monarch attempting to regain the British throne. (William's victory consolidated British rule over the whole of Ireland. British hegemony began to unravel with the 1916 Irish uprising; five years later, the Anglo-Irish Treaty created the Irish Free State out of 26 southern counties. Six northern counties, where Protestants formed the majority of the population, remained part of Britain.) Another half mile away, in the Catholic Ardoyne neighborhood, equally lurid murals, of IRA hunger strikers, loom over brick row houses where the armed struggle received wide support.

In August 2001, the Rev. Aidan Troy arrived as pastor of Holy Cross Parish on Crumlin Road, a dividing line between Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. Earlier, in June, a sectarian dispute had escalated into heckling and bottle-throwing by Protestants who tried to stop Catholic children from reaching their school. When the new school year began in the fall, Father Troy attracted international media attention when he escorted frightened children through the gantlet every school morning for three months.

The area remains tense today. Troy leads me to the rear of the church, its gray stone walls splattered with paint tossed by Protestants. "Even last week they threw [a paint bomb] in," he says, indicating a fresh yellow stain. Peace has brought other difficulties, Troy tells me: the suicide rate among Belfast's youth has risen sharply since the Troubles ended, largely because, the priest believes, the sense of camaraderie and shared struggle provided by the paramilitary groups has been replaced by ennui and despair. "So many young people get into drinking and drugs early on," Troy says. And lingering sectarian tensions discourage business development. In 2003, Dunne's Stores, a British chain, opened a large department store on Crumlin Road. The store recruited Catholic and Protestant employees in equal numbers, but hostile exchanges involving both shoppers and staffers escalated. Because the store's delivery entrances faced the Catholic Ardoyne neighborhood rather than neutral ground, Dunne's was soon deemed a "Catholic" store and deserted by Protestants. Last May, Dunne's shut its doors.

Troy believes that it will take decades for the hatred to end. Ironically, he says, Northern Ireland's best hope lies with the very men who once incited violence. "I don't justify one drop of blood, but I do believe that sometimes the only ones who can [make peace] are the perpetrators," Troy tells me. "The fact we haven't had a hundred deaths since this time last year can only be good." Peace, he says, "is a very delicate plant." Now, he adds, "there's a commitment" from both sides to nurture it.

About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

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