On the day a couple weeks ago that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met in Washington DC to resume the long-stalled peace process, my wife and I toured Belfast, site of another intractable conflict that long seemed beyond resolution. We learned that—15 years after the “Good Friday Agreement,” which brought a formal end to the conflict setting Protestants versus Catholics—the reality on the ground falls far short of peace, let alone reconciliation, even if it also marks a vast improvement over the warfare and terror that had raged before. One cannot help but ponder the lessons of the Belfast situation for the peacemakers resuming work this week in Jerusalem, and for those who want to support their efforts. I offer the following reflections.
First: separation walls have their uses in promoting peace, but are not always helpful in securing reconciliation. Not having studied the situation in Northern Ireland before our brief visit (and by no means an expert now), I was shocked to come upon a wall, 25 to 40 feet high and half a mile long, dividing a Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist neighborhood from a twin Catholic-Nationalist-Republican neighborhood on the other side. It is one of 99 such barriers or buffers in Belfast alone. Houses on the Catholic side abutted directly onto the wall. On the Protestant side, there was a large open area of vacant lots and overgrown weeds between the wall and the nearest houses. I could not get over the sight of a Catholic home, adorned at the front with flowers and satellite dish, with the back windows and patio enclosed by heavy metal fencing. It remains my dominant image of Belfast. No less disturbing was the fact that, with the consent of both sides, gates to the two neighborhoods are locked every night. No one can get in or out: a heavy price to pay for protection from the other, and from oneself.
Our two guides—Issac, a former member of a Protestant paramilitary group, and Tommy, once part of the Official (as opposed to the Provisional) Irish Republican Army (IRA)—were of course beyond shock at the reality that so upset me. Their depression seemed tempered by full awareness of how much better the present situation is than the one that preceded it. Tommy told us of the time British soldiers caught him in a Protestant neighborhood where he had been visiting his girlfriend, pushed him against a wall, and broke both his hands as a warning never to come back. Between puffs on chain-smoked cigarettes and with understated eloquence, Issac described the brutality and senseless violence of “The Troubles,” including murderous rivalries and killings, Mafia-style, among the various Loyalist militias. Our two guides had much in common, and knew it (a fact driven home to us when we shared a meal after the tour and they both ordered an “Ulster Fry”—ham, eggs, and toast—downed with black coffee and cigarettes).
Issac recounted the moving story of how his imprisoned brother (a member of a Loyalist paramilitary, also named Tommy) one day heard the voice of a childhood friend—in jail for IRA military activity—from an adjoining cell. Both were naked except for blankets, a protest against the British decision to treat them as common prisoners and issue them regulation convict garb, rather than treat them as political prisoners, who are permitted—in accordance with that status—to dress in street clothes. Both had grown long black beards. The two former friends and rival gunmen lay prone on the floor of their cells to talk, taking advantage of a narrow opening at the bottom of the wall. “How did we come to this?” they asked one another. Thus, according to the story, began a major personal breakthrough, and a vow to stop young people from going down the same path. Our two guides, together and separately, now work on conflict resolution with groups from Northern Ireland and other world trouble spots; one such retreat brought Israelis and Palestinians together in Belfast. Only face-to-face, person-to-person relationships, they believe, will move Northern Ireland past its history. “Power sharing” between political factions will not suffice. “Things are never going to change so long as it’s a matter of separating the two communities and dividing spoils between them,” they said.
Lesson number two: symbols matter. One part of the separation wall, on the Protestant side, was adorned with murals and messages devoted to the effort of getting Belfast beyond conflict. A visiting Israeli had scrawled “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu,” the title of the anthem of the Israeli peace movement. We translated the words, and explained their significance to Issac and Tommy. As uplifting as this stretch of wall was, it was outnumbered by others nearby that bore quite different messages, and by flags and parades that asserted identity and ownership. One cannot stay long in Belfast without encountering Protestant parades of men and boys playing fifes and drums. On the Catholic side, one finds memorial gardens and plaques to people who had died for the cause going back almost a century. Murals are everywhere. One, set in a Nationalist neighborhood, features endorsement of the Palestinian cause, the legacy of cooperation between the IRA and the Palestine Liberation Organization. A prominent Protestant mural has a militant brandishing a machine gun that uncannily remains pointed at the viewer no matter the angle from which it is approached.
Symbols are better than violence, of course, but these don’t seem to be advancing the cause of lasting peace and genuine reconciliation. There are no unifying symbols, to my knowledge: no flag beyond those of the Irish Tricolour and the Union Jack; no days to celebrate or imagine an era beyond hostilities or coexistence, reflecting the lack of any such option at present, real or imagined. Will Israelis and Palestinians one day trade guns for in-your-face marches through East and West Jerusalem? Will we rejoice at the sight of rival flags, appreciating how much better it is than the sight of bombed out pizza parlors and coffee shops? Or will we manage to find rituals and symbols shared by the two sides, expressing interests and convictions that are truly mutual?
Final lesson: there is no one factor that causes the conflict, and no one factor that can resolve it. Again and again, our two guides stressed that “The Troubles” were sectarian rather than religious, by which they meant that the two communities are not divided primarily by faith, but by ethnic identity and sense of nationhood. Religion continues to play its part; however, clergy cannot help but bless and help to maintain conflicting identities, even if they work against violence. Politics continue to be a major factor, whether as contested division of spoils or the basic question of who has the power to make decisions affecting people’s lives. I was struck by the degree to which the conflict seems to have heated up in recent years with the cooling of the Irish economy. The separation walls divide working class neighborhoods from which Catholics and Protestants alike move up and out with educational and economic attainment. Other areas, such as the one around the university, have a far more normal feel. To some extent, the latest installment of “The Troubles” resembles gang warfare in the “’hood.” The sectarian problems of Belfast likely won’t be solved until job opportunities can be provided to a generation of young people who currently lack both employment and hope.
“They have nothing now,” Issac lamented about those on the dole. Once they were fighters and respected for that. Before that, they had steady, decent jobs in industries that have long since moved away. Now they can’t even find anyone to listen to their stories from those days, let alone someone to hire them for honest work. Disappointment at the Good Friday Agreement is fueled, in part, by absence of the promised “peace dividend”: economic benefits to ordinary citizens. Rabble-rousers exploit poverty in Belfast as they do elsewhere, accusing neighborhoods and politicians on the other side of grabbing more than their fair share. Investment dollars matter a lot to the success of peace, our guides agreed—another lesson for Israel; one of which American promoters of an Israeli-Palestinian accord have long been aware.
I left Belfast sobered by the reminder that peace—difficult as it is to achieve—is not an event but a process. One key stage is reached when the two parties put down weapons and agree to resolve all matters henceforth by democratic means. That is hard enough to accomplish—and it is not sufficient. Despite huge differences between the two conflicts of concern to me in this essay, Robert Frost’s warning in the poem “Mending Walls” seems to apply equally in both cases. On the one hand, “Good fences make good neighbors. It’s simplistic to believe one can entirely do without walls in a place like Belfast. But Frost was wise, and not merely sentimental, to note as well: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Do we really need the separation fences once violence ceases? One “ask[s] to know / What I was walling in and walling out / and to whom I was like to give offense / Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”
Peace, for example.