Across Belfast city hall lies Donegall Place. Wandering window shoppers fill the wide avenue on a sunny Saturday afternoon. With no licence required, numerous buskers compete for the attention of passers-by in the streets. It is a vibrant scene. Yet after 6 P.M. the otherwise so busy street is completely devoid of life. Furthermore, there is no pub or restaurant to be found on it. Odd for an otherwise thirsty city.

“Another consequence of the Troubles you see.” Paul ‘Donzo’ Donnelly is aformer school teacher turned local guide of Dead Centre Tours. “During the 70s and 80s the city centre of Belfast was hit numerous times by the IRA. Aside from gaining political leverage through fear, their aim was to inflict economical pain on Belfast, or rather on the UK. In the hope that Westminster would just give up on the region by bleeding their treasury dry. More trouble than it’s worth sort of thing.”

Paul ¨Donzo¨Donelly

He points out two former pubs sitting right next each other. Former hotbeds for off-duty British soldiers, both bombed in 1972. One now houses a C&A, the other a Manchester United fan shop. “When the British Army first came into Belfast, they put up a barrier to separate the suburbsfrom the centre. We just called it the Ring of Steel. It didn’t stop the attacks though. In fact, they attracted them, especially after Bloody Sunday at the start of 1972. That was the turning point. The British Army were no longer seen as neutral peacekeepers by Republicans. It only got worse from there.” 

And so, even though Northern Ireland’s very own Iron Curtain was broken down thirty years ago, the habits it formed over its twenty-year reign still persist to this day. For a regional capital of over 300.000, Belfast is awfullyquiet at night. Remarkably, there are no plaques commemorating any of its numerous bombings. “That’s just asking for trouble.” Paul replies. “It’s impossible to commemorate neutrally. Someone on one side or the other is bound to take offense and generally speaking the emotional scars are too fresh. We’re still talking about fathers, uncles and grandfathers here.”

Scars of old

Building bridges between the Unionist and Republican population is a long-winded arduous process. Both sides have inflicted deep andlasting wounds on the other. Aresentment that is tangible duringface-to-face mediatory talks of former IRA (Irish Republican Army)and UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) combatants.F

The different degrees of division

A Loyalist is the hardcore version of a Unionist. While both are loyal to the United Kingdom and identify themselves as Brits, the word Loyalist often has a violent or paramilitary connotation.

Similarly, Republican is the hardcore versionof a Nationalist. Both identify themselves as Irish, but Republican often has a violent or paramilitary connotation.

“There were times when the hairson the back of your neck wouldstand up, but what really stuckwith me is all the things they havein common with each other. Most importantly, both groups see themselvesas protectors of their communities and victims of injustice.”

For Republicans, Bloody Sunday in 1972 was the tipping point, and the reason why many took up arms. A citizen’s right protest in Derry escalated, resulting in the killing of 13 unarmed civilians by the British Army. The ongoing trial of “Soldier F” who supposedly shot these civilians, is a contemporary hot topic in British media.

For most Loyalists, it was the countless bombings and attacks by the IRA that drove them to protect their own communities. From their perspective they were caught up in the middle of an identarian war between the IRA and the British Army. Both sides however were guilty of inhumane and violent acts. 

Famous Bobby Sands mural commemorating the hunger strike in 1981. Photo: Frederik Mahieu

FVote beats bullet

Gradually, throughout the course of the conflict, the gun made way for the ballot box. Especially after the hunger strike of Bobby Sands in 1981. Him and a number of other prisoners died of self-starvation after their demands to be recognized as political prisoner kept falling on the deaf ears of former Prime-Minister Margaret Thatcher. Still known locally as Maggy The Witch. Ding dong.

Nowadays many of these ex-prisoners are called upon to give preventative talks in schools to teenagers at risk of perpetuating political violence. However, when they do so, it is based not on a deconstruction ofthe ideology that is drawn on to explain their violence. In other words, not against Republicanism or Loyalism.

Rather, ex-prisoners evoke their personal experience of injury, loss, and self-sacrifice as a deterrent to youth engagement in violence. As Jack, a Loyalist ex-prisoner said: “Things are different now. Violence wouldn’t be the right thing to do, but I will never tell anyone not to take up arms should things change in the future.”

Both groups however are adamant about not letting the younger generation inherit their experiences and to live with what they faced day in day out. William, a Republican ex-prisoner adds on: “I tell them this all the time. You have more in common than what separates you. In the end we’re all just working-class people from Belfast. Those kids are struggling with the same issues as you. Employment, girls, trying to get on with life.”

Stella Maris

These face-to-face talks are but one of many projects organized under the umbrella of PEACE IV, a specialized fund of the European Union to support peace and reconciliation in the Northern Irish area.

For its efforts in promoting peace and stability here and in Eastern Europe,the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012.

In the most recent 2014-2020 budgetary period, Northern Ireland received roughly 6.3 billion euro in EU funding. PEACE IV makes up around 2 billion of that. Comparatively, the entire United Kingdom received 16 billion euro in funding.

Fortunately, for those wondering, PEACE IV funding is one thing that Brexit will not have an impact on. The European Commission has already promised and safe-guarded its continuity even after a British exit from the European Union.

Jack and William are fictional names in order to maintain the persons anonymity. Real names known with the editor.