Friday, August 22, 2008

Not That Unlike

By Jillian Olinger, Graduate Research Associate at Kirwan Institute

I recently returned from a trip to Ireland, during which several things struck me…I spent a day and a half in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The city is rebuilding itself, everywhere one looked there were cranes and construction zones, new modern buildings springing up alongside centuries’ old ones—it was an incredible sight to see. As a tourist, it would be easy to miss the troubled history of the place. Indeed, one had only to walk a few blocks to the west of city centre to be confronted with the present day form of the civil tensions, represented by a housing development called The Markets, a testament to the high degree of residential segregation that still exists today.

Prior to my trip I had attended a lecture on being Catholic in Northern Ireland, and the lady, born here in Upper Arlington but living in Northern Ireland for the past 15 years, spoke of the violence, discrimination and segregation—past and present—that were part of the Catholic struggle. Sound familiar? Although these tensions are sectarian in nature, there are clear similarities to our own racial tensions. Even today, though Northern Ireland’s prime minister is a Sinn Fein member, the situation is still a turbulent one, although improved. I was with an English friend of mine who commented that as recent as a few years ago, he would not have felt comfortable doing one of the bus tours of Belfast, as he was sure to be unwelcome in many parts of the city; still today, he would not walk past the Markets at night, as he was sure to encounter trouble. Even with political gains for the nationalists and Sinn Fein, troubles persist. My friend’s comment about the bus tours reminded me of one provided for planners through Carbrini Green as it was beginning the process of demolition—a tour that not so many years ago would have been completely unfeasible. Both tours seem to be trying to say ‘See, it’s all better now.’ But we know it is not.

In the north side of Dublin, we stumbled upon the remains of their own failed housing project, Ballymun, which is now undergoing major renovations as condominiums, hotels, golf courses and shopping areas replace the old projects.

This all called to mind our own troubled history around race here in the US. Indeed, the civil rights movement provided inspiration for the Catholics and nationalists in combating their own segregation and discrimination from the Protestants and unionists. I was struck that despite our very different histories, we have ended up in modern day situations in which similarities can be noted. We even have our own political ‘signal’ of progress in Obama. Yet these gains, just as in Belfast or Dublin, each with their own flavor and history to deal with, cannot signal the end of the troubles, or that race is no longer an issue. Disparities and discrimination are still readily prevalent in all places, even as the noise of new construction, globalism, and economic vitality try to hide these disturbing and disappointing facts.


  1. I visited Ireland last year and saw these things too. Here in Minneapolis, I heard a lot of joy around the news that the Brits were now pulling out of Northern Ireland, so I made a point of exploring this when I visited Belfast.

    According to the locals, the transition wasn't all that simple. The Brits hadn't really been all that involved for some years except as a peacekeeping force so their leaving wasn't any big breakthrough. The biggest hurdle is ahead--uniting the warring sectors on the ground. The folks I talked to didn't believe it will happen in this generation because the hate has been passed down from father to son for too many generations. They hold out a lot of hope for the next generation, though.

    Throughout Ireland, there were signs of past struggles everywhere--the plaques to fallen Irishmen and to past battles, and the Belfast murals. There were also the outward signs of hope, like new construction going on all over the country.

    Do we dare think that the signs of hope will help spark a more peaceful future, or will it just distract us from the problems? I think the latter has happened in the US, at least where I'm at. With the fancy new condos comes invisible "relocation" of the poor.

    I've seen police interrogate black men, whose only "crime" seems to be standing at a bus stop with a suitcase, ie, Standing While Black. The message looks like, "Move along, son, we don't want you people here." That's just one of the things I've seen, as a white person in the city.

    Sad that this is 2008 and the overt racism continues.

  2. The withdrawal of the British Army from Belfast in particular was as much a political token, a pawn to be offered up to the Good Friday Peace process. It was felt by the Republicians that for too long British troops had a presence in Northern Ireland which undermined trust in the UK Government.

    The Northern Ireland Assembly was already in place when the troops finally left so the province was already self governed. This and the fact that RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) was renamed the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland)was request by the Republicians to remove links with UK Mainland and Monarchy in an attempt to further easing some of the tension.

    With my experience of the troubles in Northern Ireland i can see parallels to the American racial divide. In particular the depth of feeling built up over the years by those involved after lifetimes of tension. Often seen in less affluent areas and with one side having superior resources to inflict misery on the other.

    It has been commented on by both of the previous bloggers that they observed hope during their visits to Belast and a future for the city. The city is becoming more prosperous in recent years as investors seem happier that there expensive new buildings will not be reduced to rubble by car bombs and riots. Many large corporations have moved in to take advantage of the lower wage costs compared to the UK mainland as well as enjoying the unprecedented raise in the cities property prices.

    Seeing the city skyline full of cranes gives a real sense of hope that after such a bitter struggle for so many generations that there may be a way forward in this and other entrenched social conflicts.