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06/16/2012

INTERFACES

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.

06/13/2012

(London)Derry

A city with two names, depending on who you ask.

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06/12/2012

"All sports for all people." (?)

Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic games as the institutor of the International Olympic Committee, famously declared the games as "all sports for all people." While this is particularly fitting in an Olympic year, it also applies well to the culture surrounding sports here existing outside of the Olympics.

Euro 2012 is being played out as I type (seriously - I'm watching Greece lose to the Czech Republic right this very second). "So what," you may say, "go cheer for Ireland!" But it isn't that simple, as I learned my first day on the ground in Belfast. Here there are Ireland fans, and there are England fans; this has caused some tension as decisions were made about which games (if any) to show on the big screen at Belfast City Hall. Ultimately, it was decided that games of both countries should be shown so as to give both sets of supporters an equal chance. I saw the Ireland-Croatia game there on Sunday night:

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Sports have always struck me as a great thing because they have only the value people assign to them - but here I've discovered that they take on much more significance. Ray Casserly, the Resident Director of CIEE here in Belfast, explained that this is the result of political tensions spilling over into things like sports. Some remain uncontroversial. Others, like soccer, force citizens to (yet again in their lives) pick a side or declare an allegiance of some sort. As a result, showing either Irish or English matches in the public venue was a somewhat controversial decision - an impact of the tensions on everyday life I honestly would have never considered, had I not experienced it.

(Sidebar: watching the match was a relatively subdued affair - Ireland did lose, after all.)

The Importance of Communication

If I've learned just one thing so far this week, it is the importance of communication. We've seen how communication - be it direct or indirect - can be forwarding the goals of peace, or serving to highten already high tensions surrounding sensitive issues. I guess, on the most basic level, I knew that already (in fact, I think I wrote my fellowship application about that very idea). However, until this week it had been just that: an idea. Today, seminar participants were afforded the unique opportunity to hear about reality from first-hand sources who have been on both sides of the peace process. As a result, the paramilitaries with whom we spoke provided unique insight into the importance of communication and compromise in finding solutions that are acceptable to all parties dealing with an issue. 

Noel Large and Sean Murray are former paramilitaries (Large a loyalist, Murray a republican) who, despite their contrasting backgrounds, are both working toward a future void of violence in Belfast. Through their work with community organizations, Interaction Belfast and the Springfield Road Residents Action Group respectively, these men are both making strides to increase communication between the factions of the city - and both cite the importance of cultural understanding in making this communication possible.

It may sound quite simple and logical, but it was clear from listening to Large and Murray speak about their experiences and opinions that actualizing meaningful communication was difficult - to put it mildly. The ideas of finding mutual goals toward which to work and being patient in the peace process were emphasized. Murray called this a "generational process" and discussed the importance of institutionalizing or embedding certain community organizations so as to affect long-term change. Large, through his work with the Community Development Team of Interaction Belfast discussed common concerns of conflicting communities as a means by which to "humanize" the other side of the conflict. 

It will be interesting to see how, as the week goes on, others deal with the issue of communicating with others who are unlike them. In a city where walls physically divide people of different viewpoints and backgrounds, it is easy to see how the "mental walls" can be put up as well. While I saw first-hand today that the concrete is a relatively stable structure, today's discussion has caused me to reconsider the permanence of the social divide between people here. As Large and Murray showed us in recounting their own work and experiences, it is possible to break down barriers between people - though it may take more than a bulldozer to change minds.

Walls That Talk

"If these walls could talk..." is possibly one of the most cliché terms in the English language. Despite how corny it may sound, however, the walls of Belfast truly do tell a story of the conflict and tensions here. Through murals on walls in every corner of the city, community allegiances are displayed, lives lost are commemorated, injustices are articulated, and heroes are championed - sometimes all at once. 

Many of these exist at interfaces - the boundaries between neighborhoods of conflicting ideologies; along many of these boundaries there are physical walls further cementing the divide. We've talked a lot about these physical walls, and the mental walls that parallel them, but I'll get to that in another post.

From our moving bus tour of the interface areas yesteday, I unfortunately captured very few pictures - even fewer of which do the artwork any justice. However, this post would be incomplete without any accompanying visuals. Accordingly, I've included pictures from other sources of three murals that have inspired particular discussion or shock within our group (all sourced in the hyperlinks).

Prepared for Peace, Ready for War

Loyalist mural that the group has been talking about for the last 24 hours.

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Republican mural in commemoration of MP Bobby Sands, who died in the hunger strike in 1981.

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Loyalist mural along Sandy Row, which is known for being one of the staunchest loyalist neighborhoods in the city.

 

 

Hello from Belfast!

Good afternoon!

We just wrapped up the second day of IDFS Ireland 2012, so this seemed like as good a time as any to write my inaugural blog post of the experience!

The question is: where to begin? I could start with…

…the trip around the city yesterday to look at interfaces and murals…

…or the former paramilitaries who spoke with us just hours ago…

…or my solo trek to watch the Irish soccer match on the screen at Belfast City Hall…

…or this morning’s discussion of both Loyalist and Republican bands and parades…

…or everything else that's happened in the last 72 hours?

I’ve got a couple free hours now, so the goal is to catch up on all of the above - looking forward to sharing this amazing, truly once-in-a-lifetime experience!