The New Year in Belfast

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Last year on Under a Grey Sky Phil Scraton took us on a Saturday morning walk from his house in Belfast. After another such walk last weekend, he reflects on the current situation in the city:

It’s the 5th January, midwinter in Belfast. At this time of year the sun appears briefly above roof-tops before slipping away. Yet it warms my face as I walk through the park. It’s only 9.30am and the joggers are out in shorts and vests, the golfers cheerful in short-sleeved shirts, the birds singing prematurely anticipating Spring.

At this time two years ago the big freeze and sudden thaw wrecked the back of our house yet today the temperature reaches 13 Celsius. The Southern light breeze encourages walkers to remove gloves and scarves and busy squirrels are clearly content as their food comes easy.

Down on the Lagan the rowers are in full flow, instructions barked by megaphone from their cycling coaches. The water is like glass until disturbed by the bows of the sleek boats. There has been little rainfall for over a week but the river is tidal and high. A heron, startled by the kerfuffle rises from the overgrown riverbank and heads upstream.

On park benches alongside stripped flower beds lovers kiss while others sit reading newspapers. Families rush by en route to swimming lessons at the Sports Centre. Leaving the Botanic Gardens a flash of yellow catches my eye. In the shelter of the trees, remarkably, daffodils are in flower – in January! Beyond the gates people are eating breakfast outside cafes.

Rarely have I known such dry, mild weather in January and its impact is tangible in how people move, talk and gesticulate. The children in the play-park run from swings to slides to roundabouts unhindered by heavy winter clothes. Families sit chatting on the steps of the Ulster Museum awaiting opening time.

Brightness, laughter, fun and freedom.

*****

Last night, until morning’s early hours, the police helicopter hovered over East Belfast. Its spotlights delivered powerful beams picking out brick-throwers and petrol-bombers directing their missiles at the police. Street protests and violent disturbances have become a nightly occurrence in many Loyalist communities; images of young masked men facing down riot police and water cannon beamed around the world.

The protests began early in December when Belfast City Councillors voted 29 to 21 to cease flying the Union Jack flag above the City Hall on each day of the year. It was a decision, consistent with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that heralded peace in the North, recognising the diversity of its population and the allegiance to the Irish flag within Nationalist/ Republican communities.

Following the vote the key political protagonists agreed to an Alliance Party compromise to fall in line with most UK public authorities and fly the Union flag only on agreed designated days. For many in Loyalist communities the decision was received as further evidence of ‘appeasement’ to Republicanism. They marched on City Hall.

For several years the City Hall’s grounds have been home to the Christmas market. At Belfast’s heart, the international market has brought people together. On that first night of protest shoppers moved peacefully between the stalls while behind the building the protest descended into mayhem.

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Cars in the City Hall car park were wrecked and protesters, draped in the Union flag, tried to force entry into the building. Filmed from inside, a middle-aged woman screamed ‘No Surrender!’ through a broken glass pane. Within 24 hours the clip went viral on YouTube.

Nightly protests continued across the North. In Belfast the market closed, shoppers stayed out of the city centre, restaurant owners suffered unprecedented cancellations at their busiest time of year, public transport was disrupted and hotel chains transferred business outside the North as visitors took fright following media coverage of the street violence.

The immediate cost is vast in lost revenue, damage to property and police operations. What cannot be estimated are losses in future economic investment, political damage to inter-community relations and, most importantly, social harm to communities recovering from decades of conflict.

Beyond the North these events are reduced by an ill-informed media to a tribal dispute over flying a flag on a public building. The issue is more profound. Of course, flags and parades are expressions of cultural identity and place, yet socio-economic deprivation, under-investment and barriers to educational opportunity are the fundamental issues in working-class communities, whether Catholic/ Nationalist/ Republican or Protestant/ Unionist/ Loyalist.

The experiences of working class children and young people in the poorest working class communities show that every aspect of their lives are defined by division – identity, community, schooling, sport and social networks. Lack of inter-community contact and understanding, segregated housing and education reproduce sectarianism and territorial ‘ownership’ of space.

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In communities where futures are defined by political uncertainty and determined by persistent poverty and the continued presence of paramilitaries, sectarianism – the hatred of the ‘other’ – fuels the displaced aggression of a politically and economically marginalised generation.

*****

The evening is drawing in. A bright sky in the West silhouettes Black Mountain. Parents call their children from play and the traffic heads home from the winter sales. Park gates are locked as golfers play the last holes before heading to the Club bar.

Along the tree-lined avenues people are still out and about enjoying the mild weekend. Less than a mile away the police helicopter circles …

Words & Pictures: Phil Scraton

Phil Scraton is co-author, with Siobhán McAlister and Deena Haydon, of Childhood in Transition: Experiencing Marginalisation and Conflict in Northern Ireland available here.

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