About the Walls or Lessons From Northern Ireland


West Belfast, Between Falls And Shankill

The two of them actually look quite similar. Both are middle-aged, robustly built. True, the first has graying hair and glasses, and he is wearing a red-and-white keffiyeh around his neck and a badge on his jacket lapel with the Palestinian flag, below which is a green-white-orange badge unmistakably revealing his republicanism. The second is perhaps a bit younger, with dark hair and a well-groomed goatee, wearing no indicators of his own political affiliations but strangely enough––all things considered––with a sign on his shoulder: Coiste - Irish Political Tours.

Coiste na nIarchimí, or in translation from Irish,“Ex-Prisoner’s Committee” is an organization founded in 1998 with the intention of assisting in the reintegration of Irish republicans released from prison. The organization offers tours led by former political prisoners, both republicans and loyalists, showing interested parties the dual realities of divided West Belfast, a working-class part of the city characterized by absolute segregation and numerous highly charged political murals on both sides.

This low-grade monetization of the Northern Irish conflict (known as "The Troubles") is the principal calling of our guides. Both of them, it must be admitted, are quite convincing speakers, and the principle of multiperspectivity finds its undoubtedly perfect embodiment provided one impartially follows their arguments. And we do indeed listen to them with due attention, first Peadar (a republican, nationalist) and then Mark (a loyalist or unionist), as they alternately guide us through Catholic Falls and Protestant Shankill in West Belfast.

Peader is sardonic, Mark emotional. Peadar speaks from personal experience. He tells us about 16 years spent in prison after being sentenced as a teenager to life imprisonment for terrorist offences, where he participated in collective hunger strikes, refusing prison clothing and personal hygiene. Mark does not even mention his own experience, whatever it may be––and we, again, are discreet enough to avoid asking potentially uncomfortable questions.

Between these two and their somewhat coexisting but absolutely irreconcilable worlds, there rises, as one might expect, an insurmountable obstacle: the famous local Peace Wall, that terrifying oxymoron among oxymorons.

This is quite unlike the so-called matryoshka-nationalism still found after all wars that tore apart the country where I come from––former Yugoslavia, or any of the consequently coined euphemisms that you might personally prefer––where even systematic and terrifying ethnic cleansing in the 1990s could not completely remove the structure of a leopard's skin where within one national/ethnic/religious community we still find smaller communities of different and varied nationalities/ethnicities/religions, within which there are even smaller, and so on ad infinitum. In Northern Ireland, it seems, everything that exists is divided into two camps with identical flawless precision, executed otherwise in maintaining the impeccable front yards of private houses on both sides. Here Catholics, among whom there is (surprisingly?) also a number of secular, if not anti-religious, inclinations and burning republican aspirations; there conservative, perhaps reactionary Protestants, mainly monarchist in sentiment. Here blazing socialist slogans, red five-pointed stars, and raised fists alongside internationalist depictions of the suffering and struggle for freedom of the disenfranchized and enslaved peoples worldwide; there large wall paintings depicting heroic battles from two world wars, many royalist symbols, and the figures of the former queen and current king. Here memorial parks, murals, and giant panels with the images of those who gave their lives in the long struggle for freedom (For what died the sons of Róisín, was it fame?), all those numerous victims of the empire and its repressive apparatus; there memorial parks, murals, and giant panels with the figures of civilian casualties from thousands of bombings by republican paramilitary formations. Here the Provisional IRA and INLA; there the UVF and UDA. Here Sinn Feín; there the DUP. Here a white Lile na Cásca or an Easter lily; there a poppy flower as red as blood. What is considered senseless violence on one side is perceived as heroic and defensive armed struggle on the other. Terrorists of some become heroes of others. And vice versa. Politics in Northern Ireland is to this day largely the continuation of the sectarian violence by other means, and it is not easy in this tangle of political parties and terrorist organizations to assess what is what and who is who, and what or who stems from whom or what, where one begins and the other ends. What is, in all this, the hen? And what on earth is the egg?

In the labyrinth of markers and the forest of symbols (Irish shamrock, golden harp, red hand, various crosses, colors, flags, and coats of arms) the disoriented visitor is seized with uncertainty and with the physical sensation that the ground is slipping from under his or her feet. So much so that even the most innocent conversation becomes a minefield of potential misunderstandings. Unanswered questions and uncertainties literally swarm, one after the other.

“Our struggle is an anti-colonial struggle,” emphasizes our guide Peadar as we stand in the middle of Falls Road, a republican stronghold in West Belfast, in an attempt to explain why it is misleading to view the Northern Ireland conflict exclusively through a religious prism.

""Let them press the switch if they dare," says our guide Mark through clenched teeth as we stand in Shankill Road, a loyalist stronghold in West Belfast, alluding to the hesitance of the most powerful republican party Sinn Feín to demand an immediate referendum. Such a referendum is guaranteed by the clause in the Good Friday Agreement, a pivotal document from 1998, that says Irish unification can only happen if a majority in Northern Ireland vote in favor of it. If invoked and it fails, nationalists would have to wait another seven years before there could be another such ballot. Furthermore, it does not seem that Sinn Feín even has the authority to call a referendum. According to the Good Friday agreement, such a decision falls to the British Government alone.

Peadar sets out his view on likely unification with Ireland with a smile: "I belong to the optimistic wing of the republican movement." He firmly believes that the ultimate republican goal will be achieved soon, in a few years––or at worst in his lifetime. And he is no longer young.

For his part, Mark adds, with a grimace tightening his jaw, "We are not heading in a good direction, guys." For his part, he does not believe that there is a solution that would satisfy both sides. He fears any outcome that would disrupt the fragile balance achieved by the 1998 document he refers to solely as “the Belfast Agreement” and longs for the eternal maintenance of the status quo.

The radicalism of two opposed ambitions, neither of which deviates an inch from the exclusive solution that is, again, utterly unacceptable to the other side, is astonishing. It can only be compared to a similar lack of will for even the smallest compromise as is found in the Balkans and the Middle East.

Everything here, on both sides, is dedicated and subordinated to that deeply ingrained sectarianism; everything serves only to further divisions. Even the local barber on one side of the wall is Turkish and on the other Kurdish, and I'll let you guess for yourself which of the two has found his place on which side of this deeply divided society.

It would all be comical, really, if it weren't so sad. And terrifying also, considering that the Good Friday Agreement was signed 26 years ago and for a time loudly hailed as a document that would forever end divisions. Operation Banner, the military operation that guaranteed the presence of a large number of British army forces in Northern Ireland, ended nine years later when the last soldiers were withdrawn from the region. Paramilitary groups have also (at least in theory) been disbanded, and some sort of order has been established. Yet many peace-related pledges still, unfortunately, exist only on paper. Just one example, no better or worse than any other: The Northern Ireland Executive promised to remove all the peace walls by 2023. Needless to say, that did not happen. Not only are there still tens of kilometers of these barriers in Belfast, they have grown even taller than they were. For example, the one in West Belfast in front of which we stand (silently because it is difficult to find the right words in the face of such a sight) reaches an impressive height of 14 meters, which, we learn, makes it three times taller than the former Berlin Wall. Not only that, but this wall has lasted twice as long as its incomparably more famous counterpart and, as things stand, it is unlikely to be removed anytime soon. The Peace Wall is today, unfortunately, a very much alive and insurmountable symbol of a failed reconciliation, the crowning proof of the fact that the process of reintegration is long, painful, and thorny beyond measure.

Besides our two guides, who had exchanged places at the Peace Wall gateway with a hearty handshake, yet another person was on the bus with us all the while. It was, of course, the driver, a silent young man who obediently followed the instructions of the two guides, driving where he was told and stopping at each place as long as was necessary. As I was sitting right behind him while listening to two consecutive lectures that primarily blamed the conflict and all its consequences exclusively on the other side, I could not resist occasionally glancing at the back of his head and wondering secretly, from behind, who this person is, what he thinks, what nationality, ethnicity, religious affiliation, political beliefs he belongs to, and whether all that is truly important to him. What are his personal views, regardless of all the identity patterns imposed on him mercilessly from birth? What would he have to tell us, if only anyone asked him anything at all?

That, of course, does not happen. He is here to do the job he is paid for and does so professionally and respectfully. Just like the thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens in Northern Ireland on both sides. They are the anonymous members of that always silent and fantastically patient majority that invests most of its vital energy into solving the great equation: how to earn enough money in the limited time available to pay all current expenses and save at least part of what they have earned for more beautiful and noble, inspirational, or at least relaxing things in life.

On the Road to Corrymeela

"The Good Friday Agreement stopped the war," observes Most Reverend John McDowell during our shared journey to the far north of Northern Ireland. "But at the same time, it did not secure peace," he adds a moment later.

I observe him silently. It would be impossible, I think, to encapsulate such a complex, painful truth more precisely. But this is not surprising considering who it comes from. Most Reverend John McDowell is the archbishop of the Anglican Church of Ireland in Armagh, the unique ecclesiastical capital of both the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches. As the 106th in a long line of abbots, bishops, and archbishops of Armagh since Saint Patrick, who is believed to have erected a stone monastery on the site of the cathedral in the fifth century, Most Reverend McDowell enjoys significant public authority in both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. He is known for his ecumenical and purely humanitarian engagement on major issues, such as reconciling the two communities and fearlessly tackling various challenges that continue to complicate British-Irish relations, including all the expected––and also the unexpected––consequences of Brexit on the always volatile local dynamics. Undoubtedly a great man, Most Reverend McDowell is also an exceptionally approachable, warm, and humble person, with a pleasant smile, restrained body language, and a quiet, sometimes barely audible voice of extremely soft intonation. Despite occasionally having to exert myself to decipher his exact words, the conversation we have over lunch is a pure delight for me. Thanks to the fact that we both ask and answer equally, we cover a wide range of topics in a very short time, lingering longest on the causes and consequences of the systematic settlement of English and Scottish Protestant families in Ireland during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries under the patronage of the English Crown, the so-called Plantation. Thanks to learning this unusual term, I am prompted to recall another intense colonization that took place a century or two later: the organized settlement of the region of Vojvodina, part of the Pannonian Plain located in Central Europe, which is now part of the Republic of Serbia.

Primarily during the eighteenth century, especially during the reign of the Habsburg ruler Maria Theresa, I explain to my courteous interlocutor, this fertile land was settled by colonists from many parts of the vast empire to which Vojvodina then belonged. At the same time, by royal decree, its center, the city of Novi Sad––Neoplanta––was founded and built. The plantation and consequent relatively successful growth of multiculturalism in Vojvodina (which not even the bloody ethnic exclusivity that destroyed Yugoslavia managed to eliminate) compared to the rigidly bicultural essence of the place in which I find myself almost seems like magic. With the help of Hedvig Morvai from the Vienna-based Erste Foundation, a Hungarian-born native of Temerin who, in line with the multiethnic and polyglot nature of Vojvodina, naturally embodies the phenomenal cultural and linguistic polyvalence of all its inhabitants, we list before the interested Most Reverend McDowell numerous ethnic groups that have since the early eighteenth century populated Syrmia, Banat, and Bačka, three historical regions in Vojvodina, together forming the distinct complexity of this diverse Pannonian community. Among them are (or once were) Germans, Hungarians, Slovaks, Ukrainians/Rusyns, Serbs, Croats, Montenegrins, Romanians, Roma, Bunjevci/Šokci, Czechs, Jews, Bulgarians, Italians and many, many others. Unlike the rest of Serbia, where the official language is Serbian and the script is Cyrillic, altogether six languages are still in use in Vojvodina: Serbian, Hungarian, Slovak, Croatian, Romanian, and Rusyn, as well as two equal scripts: Cyrillic and Latin.

Our conversation quickly returns to local terrain, however. From that self-obsessed detailed enumeration of a somewhat survived community (which in the Balkans is still a shaky exception confirming a much gloomier rule), we are more concerned to unravel the mystery called Northern Ireland with the valuable help of Archbishop John McDowell. The ultimate goal of our journey is Corrymeela––the well-known center for peaceful conflict resolution, which has been actively working on reconciliation and coexistence of the two communities since 1965. There, our conversation inevitably moves towards the model that would be most acceptable to all and would enable smooth and above all equal coexistence of both sides in the frozen conflict and after it, whatever reality is about to follow the one in which this region has existed for too long. The unyielding aspirations of the two communities imply that in any resolution––and it seems that there are only two: 1) Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom and 2) Northern Ireland becomes part of the Republic of Ireland––someone will draw the short straw.

Therefore, I supposed there must still be at least some third way, i.e., a future that would involve creating an autonomous state entity with all its Irish-British, Catholic-Protestant, republican-loyalist particularities. This time it's Most Reverend John McDowell's turn to look at me silently and with surprise, before replying with the same patient, gentle voice as before, but without any hesitation: "No, I'm afraid such an option does not exist."

I don't insist too much on my own fantasies, which are poorly grounded in the reality of this area. I have no reason for it, after all. Everything I learn here, firsthand, from various interlocutors whose lives are entirely dedicated to Northern Ireland, gives me little reason to believe that some central, mixed, constructed, supra-ethnic, supra-national, and supra-religious identity of local residents and their society and state is really possible. Just knowing that so many years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the number of integrated educational institutions does not exceed 7 percent, while the remaining 93 percent are divided between Catholic and state (i.e., protestant, although not officially religious), gives no hope or reason to believe in a quick way out of the existing situation. Most children here are (largely irreversibly) segregated by religious affiliation from the age of three, and there doesn't seem to be much to counter it. In Northern Ireland, even children's playgrounds can be clearly divided. One should know exactly who swings and teeter-totters where, and which slide and sandbox belongs to whom. Segregation here is no game by any means.

Different initiatives, of course, exist. The concept called Shared Island, initiated in the Republic of Ireland, is based on the idea of involving all communities and all political orientations in the region to create a specific North-South consensus on a common future in line with the clauses of the Good Friday Agreement. However, it seems that this project does not have the ambition of a more permanent solution but (only?) progress and cooperation within existing limitations and divisions. It also appears that loyalists are not particularly impressed by it, and any solution not equally accepted by both sides is actually not a solution at all.

On the other hand, one thing that might actually shift the balance from the uneasy equilibrium that has been going on for too long and finally make it tilt in a decisive direction, resulting in a successful and final referendum, is one of the strongest contemporary political earthquakes in Europe: the infamous Brexit. Radically inconsistent with the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, Brexit has significantly disturbed the fragile peace and uneasy stability that the former ensured, and has thus served as a classic game-changer. The majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU (85 percent of Catholics and even over 40 percent of Protestants), so the UK’s decision to leave the European community has caused a rift and dissatisfaction that resulted in an unexpected political benefit for republicans and their goal. The Solomonic solution created to avoid erecting a hard border on Irish soil, the only land border of the UK with an EU member state, resulted in the Irish Sea Border. It was established in 2021, keeping Northern Ireland within the EU single market for goods but simultaneously separated from Great Britain; it was received by loyalists as a slap in the face and a final betrayal. Brexit has clearly stirred new layers of antagonism here.

In Corrymeela, with Most Reverend John McDowell and the charming and extremely eloquent Dr. Ziya Meral, an expert in historical conflict analysis and research, as well as our host and co-fellow Katy Hayward, professor of Political Sociology at Queen’s University in Belfast, who single-handedly organized such an extensive and informative program for us in and around Belfast, we discussed at length possible futures for Northern Ireland. This plurality was by no means accidental. After all, the IWM program that brought us here from such different and in some cases physically quite distant European countries like Italy, Ukraine, Lithuania, Kosovo, Poland, Estonia, Serbia, and of course, Northern Ireland, is called, also not accidentally, Europe's Futures. We allowed ourselves, therefore, to dream and brainstorm in the company of our local hosts, seeing how challenging it is to conceive, let alone realize, a future that would be equally acceptable to all inhabitants of this northernmost province of the Irish island, the historical Ulster. It also turns out that any particularism is a barrier to the free flow of imagination, which here results in a lack of willingness or even ability to seek solutions to entrenched local problems outside of well-tried matrices and a century-old and quite dysfunctional box with only two openings.

Nevertheless, it would seem that the future is on the side of the republicans and that the optimism of our guide Peadar mentioned at the beginning of this text is not based solely on wishful thinking. Namely, thanks to the fact that the natural birth rate among Catholics is significantly higher than among Protestants, as well as the polls showing that citizens of the Republic of Ireland are cautiously willing to incorporate the northernmost area of the island, the former balance of power is shifting. At the beginning of the twentieth century, close to 70 percent Protestants and around 30 percent Catholics occupied the six counties carved out to form Northern Ireland. According to the 2021 census, there were 44 percent of the former and 46 percent of the latter. For the success of a referendum, 50 percent plus one vote is all that’s needed.

Such calculations strongly reflect the local political reality. Sinn Féin recently celebrated its most successful general election result: it was the first time in history that this unequivocally nationalist party became overwhelmingly dominant in Northern Ireland. Also, last year, parties advocating for Irish unification surpassed unionist ones by a whole 4 percent in local elections.

But however and in whichever direction the future of Northern Ireland unfolds, one thing is more than certain. “The humanism of the other,” a phrase coined by Emmanuel Levinas, a French philosopher of Lithuanian-Jewish origin and the title of one of his most influential works of which Ivan Vejvoda, director of the Europe's Futures program, reminded us during one of the many conversations here, must represent an elementary priority for any side that prevails in the century-old tug-of-war over the final fate and future of the region.


"Besides the vertical divisions such as walls or ethnic and religious identities," says Ivanka Antova, "there are also many horizontal connections. People on both sides of the wall share the same concerns and are connected by similar things. Republicans and loyalists may never agree about anything, but women on both sides share the same issues, young people share the same interests, and the working class has the same needs."

We are sitting around a table in one of the rooms of Queen's University, an impressive neo-Gothic building in a rather elegant part of South Belfast that shows none of the harshness and perpetual unforgiving antagonism that dominate the divided neighborhoods in the western part of the city. However, this might just be a superficial impression, considering the legendary Belfast Europa Hotel where we are staying, located in the heart of the city, about a 10-minute leisurely walk from Queen's University, was bombed a staggering 36 times during The Troubles, earning it the infamous title of the "most bombed hotel in the world."

Here with us are Eileen Weir from the Shankill Women's Centre, Elaine Crory from the Women's Resource & Development Agency (WRDA), the aforementioned Dr. Ivanka Antova from Unite against Hate, Avila Kilmurray from the Social Change Initiative, along with Louise Coyle and Charmain Jones from the Northern Ireland Women's Rural Network (NIWRN). We have gathered here to meet prominent activists from grassroots initiatives and from the first moment, we realized that we were witnessing something unusual and significant, dramatically different from the generally depressive dominant local dynamics. These courageous women of various generations but equally energetic and smiling, have from the very beginning of our exchange shown the almost uncanny ability to naturally relax the atmosphere in an otherwise quite stiff classroom at an academic institution, setting a cheerful and occasionally almost uninhibited tone. They are all engaged in connecting communities based on a simple principle explained to us by Ivanka Antova at the start of this chapter. There is much that connects communities here; it just takes the will and a certain boldness to recognize and adopt these types of identity patterns and, ultimately, to overcome the narrow-mindedness of imposed and rigid national, ethnic, and religious identities. This is not easy, of course, but the women we have met here are diligently and passionately working on their cause.

Questions follow one after another. We are wondering what challenges they face on the ground, how they overcome local divisions, where their funding comes from, and how they build trust from both sides. We are also interested in what sets them apart and defines them as members of one community or another and how this membership affects communication with their target audience on the other side of the wall.

"In my case, it's certainly the name," says Eileen Weir from the Shankill Women's Centre, a famous and multi-award-winning activist who has dedicated her entire life and career to creating connections between two communities, especially advocating for the creation of the Women's Network of West Belfast. "As soon as anyone hears my name, they well know who I am and what I stand for." And she laughs heartily, which immediately prompts a cheerful response from her fellow activists.

We laugh too; but given all the divisions we witnessed during our stay in Northern Ireland, we assume that, despite the positive atmosphere during our conversation, there must be some very dark hidden currents motivating these women and driving them to engage in the activities they are so passionately dedicated to. Karolina Wigura, a Polish sociologist and historian based in Berlin, leans towards me to whisper that, judging by the body language of at least some among them, it seems quite evident to her that these women have had direct and traumatic experiences with the violent male norm that has so strongly and for so long governed local social relations. “It’s like the men here build walls and the women have no other choice but to jump them,” Karolina adds thoughtfully.

It is quite possible that she is right. The joy that permeated our conversation––probably the most impressive of all the discussions we have had during the few days spent in this dynamic city––could just as well be a form of self-defense, as well as a way to reconstruct energy and regain a will for action; it could even be the reason for existence in often grim circumstances. Unfortunately, all this is not unfamiliar to me, thanks to the experience of the tragic region where I live and work.

But after the meeting, as I wander the streets of Belfast during the long sunset, within me sparks and blazes an unexpectedly good mood and a strong wave of hope that engulfed me during the encounter with all these (extra)ordinary women from local grassroots organizations, the true heroines of Northern Ireland. And I believe firmly, if a tad too excitedly, that it is right here, in this troubled but also very inspiring place, that the well-known and already somewhat worn-out feminist cry that the next revolution will certainly be female holds significantly stronger and more convincing meaning than almost anywhere else in Europe.

This publication represents the views of the author(s) and not the collective position of the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM Vienna) or the “Europe’s Futures” project.