Here is the second story in a series that looks at the impact of colonization and its aftermath of historical trauma.
The first story, After the Guns Have Been Laid Down, documented how monuments and flags trigger historical trauma and keep tensions burning on both sides of the Atlantic – among natives in the Southwest and in Northern Ireland.
Where the Rubber Misses the Road, looks deeper into the reasons for the ongoing tensions between nationalists (mostly Catholic) and loyalists (mostly Protestant) communities in Belfast.
As an original publication of the New Media Street Press, After the Guns Have Been Laid Down earned 1st place in the online news category of the 2014 New Mexico Press Women’s Communication Contest.
BELFAST, NI – For the first time in a very long time, Jean Brown is drinking her morning coffee at home. It’s the very first day of her retirement after working for thirty years on peace efforts between Suffolk, a Protestant estate and the neighboring Catholic community of Lenadoon, on the west side of the city.
Her legacy is a cross community initiative called the Suffolk-Lenadoon Interface Group (SLIG) that she helped to found with Renee Crawford from Lenadoon. SLIG includes a joint use preschool and shopping center, along with youth outreach work and an array of services.
They began working together at the height of the civil unrest known as the Troubles that lasted three decades finally coming to an official end with the Belfast Agreement in 1998 when both loyalists and nationalists agreed to lay down their arms.
Since then, Belfast has transformed itself from a city to avoid to an international tourist destination offering fine hotels, gourmet dining, first class stout and spirits in charming neighborhood pubs and tours that go to such wondrous sights as the Giants Causeway and special events like the recent Tall Ships exhibition.
Reflecting on the past and the present, Jean says, “I think that sense of normalcy is wonderful. It’s fantastic to see Belfast getting back on its feet and see the tourists coming in and have that whole buzz about the city, but somebody has got to get the grips on the real issues that are happening on the ground.”
By this, she means in working class communities like Suffolk and Lenadoon set off from city center in suburban neighborhoods, people are struggling in more ways than one.
This includes dealing with sectarian tensions, residual trauma from the violence that took lives and maimed family members and the impact of hard core poverty and unemployment on both sides of the peace walls. (Peace walls made out of fencing and other materials were constructed during the Troubles as a way of separating the two communities.)
Jean says that all these dynamics need to be addressed together in order to alleviate the ongoing tensions.
King Williams Day – 2015
It’s Friday morning before King William’s day, a national holiday that’s usually celebrated on the12th that pays spectacular tribute to protestant King William of Orange who hailed victory over Catholic King James four hundred years ago. But, this year the holiday is on July 13th, since the 12th fell on a Sunday.
When the day rolls around, the sound of drums and flutes can be heard throughout the city. To members of loyalist communities, the sounds resonate with their culture and history.
But, to members of Catholic nationalist communities, the drumming and whistles trigger traumatic memories.
Thousands of Union Jacks hang on houses in Protestant areas, blow in the wind off cars that drive slowly through the city streets and shroud off the shoulders of onlookers.
“Every 12th we do this. The parade is fourteen miles and along the way you see family and friends,” says Stephen, a lodge member of the Finaghy True Blues, as he stands in a roundabout near city center watching the parade go by around mid-day.
“This is the band that has been stopped the last three years from parading past the Ardoyne shops,” Stephen points out with a stern look on his face referring to the Northern Ireland Parade Commission’s ruling that prohibits the loyalist band from marching past the shops in the mainly Catholic nationalist district of Ardoyne, one of the hardest hit during the Troubles.
Violence breaks out
A few hours later, city police land rovers make their way down Woodvale Road, the short stretch of road that runs past Protestant homes and into Ardoyne, located on the north side of the city.
Outfitted in black riot gear and helmets, Belfast officers slowly and methodically begin building a metal link barrier across the road. Then, they park their land rovers side-by-side fortifying the barrier, as journalists from Belfast and several countries look on. Just as the barrier and the land rovers are in place, drumbeats and flute whistles signal that the bands are near. By the time they reach the barrier, hundreds of parade goers butt up against it, with several young men climbing up on to the nearby stone walls to see over the land rovers.
And, that’s when the pelting starts, slowly at first with one glass bottle. Then, more bottles, along with bolts, full soda cans, a ladder and a torn off car door side mirror crash down as police and journalists duck for cover. Some reporters don crash helmets and buddy up with other reporters.
The bombarding, along with raucous calls directed at police and journalists, continues for about an hour until another outbreak summons the police farther down the road in front of the Ardoyne shops.
By the end of the day, at least 24 police officers and several journalists are injured along with a young girl who was run over by a person who was thought to be a loyalist, according to the nightly news.
It appears to be the only major contentious spot in this year’s King William’s Day parade.
But, Jean says that even one is too many.
“If it is not dealt with, it’s just simmering away there, underneath the surface and it’s likely to erupt again at some stage,” she says.
At first look
To get at what’s causing the tensions, Jean says that on the surface it’s deeply held sectarian attitudes.
“Strong as they ever were,” she says talking about the differing ideology on either side of the peace walls, allegiance to Britain on one and a vision of a united Ireland on the other.
“Our conflict is a territorial conflict,” emphasizes Suzanne Lavery, who’s helping carry on the work Jean started at SLIG. She’s the manager of the Peace Walls project, a project that aims to either re-design the peace walls or take them down altogether.
Watching the tensions flare up as the police build the cage-like barrier across Woodvale Road, it’s easy to see what she’s talking about.
Margaret, who appears to be a member of the loyalist community wearing red, white and blue accessories to show her allegiance to the Queen and the Crown, raises her voice in objection expressing resentment that the road to her Aunt’s home is blocked again this year.
“My Aunt Abby is 77. She has a bad heart,” she says crying out loudly, “What happens if she has a heart attack? No one is taking our human rights issue up, not even our delegations. We are left on our own. That is the way we (loyalists) feel,” she says, her voice rasping.
Marley (from a Catholic community), speaking just as passionately as Margaret, his voice full of sadness, anger and frustration reflects on a different kind of territorial barrier that he experiences every day.
“You go anywhere in the Shankill or any Protestant area, you will see Union flags. The (curbs) are even painted red, white and blue,” he says.
Recalling the Troubles, Marley, who is in his 60’s, says that the patriotic colors representing loyalty to Britain trigger memories of the trauma he experienced as a teenager when he was arrested and put in the Crumlin Road Jail without a trial.
“All I was interested in at the time was girls,” he says with a smile and a look back at his wife, Mary, who was listening to him.
Riling up tensions even more, Laura Brown, Jean’s daughter, who’s also carrying on Jean’s work at SLIG, says that while paramilitaries from both sides are not overtly out shooting people and planting bombs anymore, they are still very active behind the scenes – “actively recruiting.”
“They still are very much in control (of areas). If they don’t like who comes in, that person has to move out. Just recently, someone threw a petrol bomb over the fence and it exploded shattering all the windows and (the resident) had to move out (of Suffolk),” she says.
Deeper look – historic trauma
Laura adds that the Troubles left a legacy that puts on another layer of tensions between the two communities.
“They say that Northern Ireland has the highest rate of post-traumatic stress in Europe. Everyone in these areas are directly impacted,” says Laura, SLIG’s chief accountant, as she looks up from a pile of files and papers in her office above the joint use shops on Stewartstown Road.
“Since the Troubles, families are dealing with the loss of friends and relatives who were killed (3,500 people from across communities), injuries sustained, loss of their homes and jobs,” she says.
Continuing, she adds, “One of the women on our management committee, her son is deaf because a bomb went off outside their house and damaged his ear drums. Another man, when he was a teenager, paramilitaries broke into his house when he was eating dinner and opened fire. He’s now in a wheelchair, because his spine was severed. These are not uncommon experiences. Every family has stories like this (on both sides).”
Deeper look – impact of poverty
On top of sectarian attitudes and historic trauma, Laura says that unemployment and poverty are making things worse across communities. This is where she says the tire is missing the road because it’s where tensions could begin to relax.
“We could build on similarities,” she says mentioning that this was how the pre-school and shops were developed.
The neat set of shops with a wooden walkway in front of them stretch look like any other small strip mall in a suburban area. But, this one serves another purpose. It acts as a shared facility during the day with doors opening up to both the Protestant and Catholic communities and as a peace wall at night. The shops include a grocery store, a blind and curtain shop, a pharmacy, a hair salon and a café. On the Saturday before King Williams Day, the café was packed with families having breakfast and a visit with each other.
“If you come up on any Saturday you might see the two rival football teams, the Suffolk football club and St. Oliver Plunket football club sitting together having coffee and having a laugh with each other. It’s bringing the two communities together,” Laura says.
But, instead of building on similarities, Laura says that the Northern Ireland government recently supported reforms to cut assistance benefits for families in need on both sides of the peace walls.
While the reforms include increasing the minimum wage, she says, “That’s not very helpful for people who can’t find jobs.”
Adding, she says, “Welfare cuts have put on so much pressure that a mother has gone to social services to ask them if they will take her children because she can’t feed them. That’s not uncommon, people are desperate; people are panicking. They need help getting a job, feeding their kids, and getting through the winter. People are suffering from stress, depression, anxiety. It’s a massive issue,” she says.
Laura says that SLIG helps by providing social services and mental health counseling, in addition to maintaining the shops and running the pre-school.
But, Jean says funding from the Northern Ireland government isn’t coming through where it’s needed the most.
“They aren’t putting their money where their mouth is. They aren’t even close to putting their money where their mouth is. It’s very frustrating,” says Jean.
Jean acknowledges that the Northern Ireland government provides some funds for community projects, “But its piece meal, different drops to get a youth camp or a project for a couple of weeks. To get core costs to keep your staff in place that’s very difficult. You can’t run projects without staff in place,” she says.
SLIG in danger of closing its doors
Since 2003, much of SLIG’s funding came from Atlantic Philanthropies, a foundation created by Charles “Chuck” Feeney, an Irish entrepreneur whose philosophy is to use his wealth during his lifetime to help people, Laura explains.
But recently, Atlantic Philanthropies announced that its closing its doors after distributing the funds allotted through Feeney’s life estate, which has left SLIG with an uncertain future.
“We don’t know if there will be funding after April,” Jean says.
On the morning of King Williams day, as Gerad, a member of the Catholic community, keeps an eye out on the loyalist parade that’s about to march past the Ardoyne shops, he looks around at the dozens of police land rovers that are standing by in case there’s trouble.
He points out that thousands of pounds have been spent on the police response, “But there’s no money for schools and hospitals (and other services),” he says.
Back at SLIG in west Belfast, Suzanne says, “It would be good for our own government to start coming into our communities and start seeing what’s actually happening on the ground. Maybe the government would be more supportive of what we’re doing and what we’re trying to achieve.”
As she says this, she points to a statue created by internally-known artist Ralph Sander that depicts the silhouettes of two women on one side and two men on the other. Suzanne says that more than 100 community people from Suffolk, Lenadoon and the surrounding communities watched the unveiling.
Motioning with her hands, Suzanne shows how they covered the statue with their handprints.
“We are using art to bring communities together. It shows that you can come up from the divide and become friends,” says Suzanne.
She adds that the memory of the unveiling will make a difference in her children’s lives, one that is completely opposite of the one she has from her experiences growing up in the area.
“We used to run about at the back of the shops. I remember an (IRA) sniper on the roof shooting down into the community and we would run into our houses. It’s something we grew up with and we got used to living with. We just got used to seeing the army walking about the streets and the paramilitaries wearing combat jackets and baklavas,” she recalls.
Where the rubber meets the road
Reflecting on the needs in the community and how Laura, Suzanne and others are carrying on her work, Jean says that there’s hope at the end of the road.
“Where people have the courage to vote differently; to stop voting along sectarian lines, and start voting real issues that affect people’s lives,” that’s when peace will move off shaky roads to stable ones, she says.
Thinking about it all for a moment, Mary, Marley’s wife, wonders just how long it will all take, “My mama used to say, ‘There will never be peace daughter in my day, but there might be peace in your day.’”
But, Mary says with a sound of deep sadness in her voice, “I can’t see it in our day. I’m hoping for my kid’s sake and my grandkids sake, that it will come someday.”
Hesitating a minute before answering, Laura says, “I think there’s hope. I believe in community spirit.”
In an email from a staffer at the Office of the First Minister Peter Robinson and the deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness funding is available for summer camps, a project to create four urban villages, shared education experiences, cross community youth programs, housing integration and a 10-year program to reduce and eventually remove all interface barriers.
In a statement posted online about next year’s budget, Robinson noted that creating opportunities and tackling disadvantages remains a key priority of his administration.
For more information, www.slig.org