Our first night here, there was a film screening on campus at Queen’s University, Belfast (where the program this week was based) called “Life as an Interface.” It was unrelated to this CIEE IFDS week, but the timing seemed perfect and it really set the stage for so much of what we focused on and studied in the days that followed as it followed one community through the process of developing their interface – the divide between communities of differing political or religious beliefs – so as to unite the communities rather than divide them. It is this idea of an interface as a division that pervades everything about life in Northern Ireland and forces everyday places and actions to be considered in a new, dual-meaning light.
We’ve talked a lot about interfaces this week. They can range from a physical fence, sometimes many tens of feet high, to discourage things being thrown over them onto houses on the other side, to a barren wasteland where tensions got so high that houses were abandoned, to a just a roundabout - as the film showed in the neighborhood of Skegoneill. On a more nuanced level, it can be simple things like members of different communities walking on different sides of the street or shopping at stores further from their house that are frequented by others like them. What unifies the myriad versions of an interface is the community divisions they forward.
In this way, Dr. Duncan Morrow (former head of the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council) explained, “all of Northern Ireland is an interface.” This means that every action has an implication and needs to be greatly thought out. Community divides have lead to social divides; every new personal interaction comes with a process of “telling” – trying to figure out, without asking directly, how a person is aligned politically and/or religiously. This, from what I can tell, leads to a nervousness about meeting new people and a distrust of most newcomers until they can prove themselves otherwise. Such a culture of skepticism then drives forward divisions between even those who live on the same street. Without positive, comfortable interactions between people fostering mutual understanding, it is only logical that these divides will deepen and not resolve.
From an outside perspective, it may be easy to say “oh, well if communities were able to understand each other, they would be able to unify the community or at least develop less contentious relations between the two sides.” On paper, I suppose this makes sense. A week ago, I would have said the very same thing. Now, however, it is clear to me that this is not quite so simple. I know that’s sort of a cliff-hanger to leave this post on, but I don’t have all the answers (or even any of them). What I do have, however, are lots of questions that need answering and thinking through and the days, weeks, months, and more to come.