Political Polarisation: The Dangers of Division

‘I have witnessed some terrible atrocities and it has only gone to reinforce in me the need to live a non-violent and peaceful co-existence with one’s neighbour. And if this next generation is going to have any legacy, then it must be a legacy of working together rather than working apart.’

Part I


I was standing on Divis Street at the bottom of the Falls Road, less than half a mile from the city centre. My guide from the West Belfast Taxi Association was showing me the vivid republican murals on the wall there. The image of a man with copper red hair and beard was Kieran Nugent, the first blanket protestor he explained. Then, passing along the wall he pointed out the faces of the ten hunger strikers including Bobby Sands, who died during the summer of 1981.[1] My guide’s respect for Sands was obvious. The man, now middle-aged had grown up close to the Falls Road and for him Sands had been a hero.

‘On the first day of the strike, he wrote in his diary he knew he had already broken his mother’s heart, for he was prepared to go to the death.’ He told me. ‘They were all in their twenties the men who died. The youngest was 23, the oldest 27. They were only kids. The IRA couldn’t stop it. The families intervened. 13 men came off the strike.’

Having grown up in Britain during the Troubles it was hard to hear the man’s account of the hunger strikes, the armed searches and curfews carried out by the British Army and how a friend had been shot. I had known only a little of what he said before, and listening to his stories I had felt unsettled. As we walked back towards the cab parked on Albert Street, for the layby opposite the International Wall was already full of tour groups when we arrived, he told me about the murals conveying republican solidarity with Cataluña and against the occupation of Palestine.

‘We support the people of Palestine.’ He had said. Then, placing his hand on his chest continued, ‘In my view what is happening there is wrong.’ He did not mention the occupation of the North, but I understood the implicit comparison. Later he told me how Northern Ireland had been formed in 1921, with an inbuilt majority of unionists.

‘They didn’t want three counties including Donegal because there were too many Catholics.’[2] He had said. Then looking at me added – ‘Why would we have wanted to be a part of Ireland if we were happy? If they had looked after us?’

As we’d walked back to the cab he’d also started to read aloud the words being drawn on a new section of wall, but then quickly disregarded them. For they listed a series of grievances against the Good Friday Agreement, including the number of peace walls which have been erected since it was signed.

International Wall, Belfast.jpg


Back in the taxi driving towards Conway Street, I saw the imposing fence dividing the two communities for the first time. My guide explained the barricades erected at the start of the Troubles after the Northern Irish police attacked the civil rights demonstrations, and soon after rebuilt as peace lines, were only intended to be temporary.[3]

‘Before 1969 people lived together. But after the barricades were built, people moved between the two sides. The different communities still live less than 50 yards apart. They take different routes into town, may even cross over in the city centre, but they would not recognise one another.’

The steel fence overlooking the gardens of the modern houses there, in some ways insipidly ordinary, is a physical reminder of Northern Ireland’s recent volatile history as well as its anxious present. The situation may have mellowed but peace is still relatively new. Near Bombay Street, my guide explained the walls were slated to come down in 2023. He even joked if Trump wanted to build a wall ‘we can sell him one.’ But he didn’t really think they would be dismantled any time soon. ‘Ultimately,’ he told me later, ‘the decision is up to the people who live by them.’

Belfast, David Street.jpg


Soon we drove through the gates on Lanark Way, which are still closed at night. Less than three hundred meters from the International Wall my driver pulled into the corner of Northumberland and Beverly Street to show me the Lt Colonel John Henry Patterson Mural. There on the border of Shankill, were plaques remembering local men killed during the First World War. There were also pictures and information describing the sacrifices made by soldiers from the British Empire, as well as the contribution of Polish RAF pilots during the Second World War. Around the corner was a sign listing John Henry Patterson’s achievements and although recently damaged by fire, a picture of the Israeli flag and a female soldier.

From there it was a short drive to Cupar Way. Opposite the coaches and tourists adding their signatures to those of Bill Clinton and the Dalai Lamar, I photographed the flags on Canmore Street. There were Union Jacks, the Ulster Banner, the flags of Wales, Scotland and New Zealand attached to the lampposts and a basketball court there. The familiar flags stridently patriotic and territorial, seemed alien to me and I thought then, the name peace line a strange choice for a wall intended to keep communities apart.

Soon we were following the coach companies and taxis towards Hopewell Crescent. My driver pulled up opposite a mural dedicated to Stevie ‘Top-gun’ McKeag a commander of the Ulster Freedom Fighters who died in 2000. To my left a bus load of tourists were standing on a green in front of a house with a picture of William of Orange and the date 1690 painted on the side. In the street opposite, Union Jack bunting fluttered in the wind and I could see a family sitting on the wall in their front garden. Next to the mural my guide pointed to the picture of two men wearing balaclavas intentionally pointing riffles at the spectator and in the opposite direction the image of Col William Bucky MCCullogh of the UDA. But I noticed community development projects were also operational in the area from the more encouraging murals there; one celebrating the young people on the estate and another promoting women and equality.

Cupar Way.jpg

In Belfast the peace walls are located mainly in the North and West of the city, in poor, more disadvantaged areas. The more time I spent in Northern Ireland, in Belfast and later Derry/Londonderry the more I appreciated that the conflict had not been experienced equally and it was young men on both sides, particularly those living in economic deprivation, who were, and continue to be most at risk. As we got back into the cab and drove through the estate passing painted curbs and lampposts, I felt as though I had been on a human safari. Just before we parted I asked my guide what he thought of the tours. He said they had opened people’s eyes.

‘Before the media told what unionists wanted people to know.’ He had said

‘How do you feel about the Troubles now?’ I enquired.

‘I love peace.’ He replied. ‘There is money coming in. Twenty years ago you would have been lucky to see a tourist here.’

[1] In the mid 1970s Kieran Nugent was the first man to protest against the withdrawal of Special Category Status for all prisoners convicted of offences related to the Troubles, by refusing to wear the prison uniform he was given and instead wrapping himself in a blanket. The protest in H-block culminated in the 1981 hunger strikes. Sometime after, all Five Demands were unofficially granted but the prisoners’ political status was not formally recognised.

[2] The northernmost county in Ireland, Donegal is in Ulster but not in Northern Ireland (Kevin O’Rourke, A Short History of Brexit from Brentry to Backstop)

[3] ‘The British Army was sent to the province to keep the peace, initially being welcomed by the Catholic population; the IRA split, with the Provisional IRA becoming the dominant faction and embarking on a murderous terrorist campaign targeting the security forces, Protestant civilians and Catholics deemed to be disloyal to the cause. That in turn prompted the introduction of internment without trial and other measures by the security forces, alienating many Catholics. Loyalist terrorists (‘loyalist’ being the Protestant equivalent of ‘republican’) targeted their republican opposite numbers as well as the Catholic population more generally. Ian Paisley, who had led the opposition to the civil rights movement, founded the radical Democratic Unionist Party in 1971. In 1972 British paratroopers shot 28 unarmed civilians in Derry, of whom fourteen eventually died, and a mob in Dublin burned the British Embassy in response.’ (Kevin O’Rourke, A Short History of Brexit from Brentry to Backstop)