In the shadow of the walls

Updated on
The World

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Early on a Sunday evening a group of Catholic teenagers huddle in the corner of an empty construction site getting drunk. Nearby, four amateur pyromaniacs set fire to an old football jersey on a stone that bares the spray-painted message: “COPS NOT WELCOM.”

This is the Catholic neighborhood of Clonard, just off The Falls Road. It is separated from the Protestant neighborhood of Shankill by a 40-foot-high wall, called a “peace line.” There are at least 40 such walls all over Northern Ireland, the most recent of which was built just in 2008 around a school that is religiously integrated. The wall where these youths have gathered is one of the oldest, dating back to the early 1970s.

Most of modern Belfast has moved on from The Troubles — the ethno-political conflict that began in the 1960s. But the working class areas, still divided by peace lines, continue to live with the legacy of violence.

These teenagers have dropped out of school and gone on welfare, leaving their evenings free. Their prospects for the future are virtually non-existent. One of the boys, who proudly claims to have spray-painted “Kill All Brits & Cops” on the wall, says that his father is in jail, but he does not say why.

On the other side of the wall the story is the same. Shankill is a deprived neighborhood where one local youth worker describes “generational unemployment” as an epidemic. Less than 1 percent of students here will go on to university.

During the long summer months these kids will take part in something the locals refer to as “recreational rioting.” Twenty to 30 teenagers will gather on either side of the wall and lob rocks, bricks and petrol bombs at one another.

While the Catholic boys in Clonard say they hate Protestants, not one has ever crossed the peace line into Shankill. They live on Bombay Street, which in 1969 was the site of an infamous riot in which three-fifths of the street’s houses were burned to the ground. When asked why he hates Protestants, the memory of that riot is the best a boy born in 1992 can offer by way of a reason. His only other explanation: “It’s the way I’ve been raised.”

Billy Drummond, a youth worker in the Protestant loyalist neighborhood, says that it is not political, that these boys simply have nothing else to do. There is no movie theatre or shopping mall in Shankill. To participate in the kind of socializing typical to American teenagers they would have to venture into the city center where Catholics and Protestants mingle.

In front of City Hall, teenagers from both religions meet up on weekends. They joke around and laugh and look like kids one might see at any shopping mall in America. By their own admission, they are “goths,” sk8er-boys” and “long-haired hippies.” They have friends from both religions, and say that when they meet someone new in the city it does not even occur to them to ask what religion they are.

But these teenagers are from the upwardly mobile middle class of Belfast. They are still in school and they live far from the peace lines. The problems, they say, come from the “football kids” in the working-class areas who only occasionally leave their neighborhoods.

Drummond says that one Christmas he took a small group of his kids into the city center to go shopping, and a random Catholic recognized one of his teens as a Protestant. Before he knew it, there was a full-scale riot in the middle of the city with a large group of Catholic kids throwing rocks at Drummond’s school bus.

Another 17-year-old boy comes home from work. He lives 200 yards from where the other boys were drinking, but he is on the Shankill side of the wall. He does not want his name used because too many members of his family are still involved in loyalist paramilitary groups. He too dropped out of school at 15, but he takes classes to learn a trade. He claims not to hate Catholics, but he “can’t be bothered with them.” He is intelligent, responsible and well-spoken, and he agrees with his counterpart from Clonard: Catholics and Protestants in this part of Belfast will never get along. And while he is tired of the religious strife, he admits that he too has thrown rocks over the walls “because my mates were doing it.”

The youth workers on both sides talk about how much better things are compared to 15 years ago. They talk about how this new generation is leaving the Troubles behind. They organize gatherings for groups from both communities to get together and interact away from their neighborhoods so that they can learn about each other. They say that those gatherings are peaceful and make a real difference. But some of the teenagers paint an entirely different picture.

The boy from Shankill says he will not go to the inter-communal gatherings because the last one he heard about ended in a massive fight. The boy from Clonard claims that he wants to join the Real IRA, the splinter dissident group that took responsibility for a March attack at an army barracks that left two British soldiers dead.

Drummond fears that in the realm of global issues, since the Troubles ended 11 years ago with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the world thinks of Northern Ireland as “done and dusted.” But there are real problems in these communities that need to be addressed, and the one consensus is that it will take generations to fix them.

(Scott Harris reported from Northern Ireland on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Photographs by Matthias Thoelen.)

More dispatches on Northern Ireland:

Read the walls for signs of peace

Divided Cities

The ground truth from Belfast

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