Sunday, January 24, 2016

Belfast sights (1984)

From the July 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

It's only when showing someone around your home town that you become aware of things normally taken for granted—the attractive buildings become more beautiful and the slums more pathetic. Recently my perception of a few aspects of Belfast became vivid in just such a way when a visitor drew my attention to the basic lunacies of the city.

The first thing he noticed on our afternoon drive was the ever conspicuous presence of army and police patrols. His fear was obvious, as was his astonishment at seeing men walking about openly carrying rifles and strapped with pistols. He was amused however at one sight of these armed men. At traffic lights we watched as two young children played beside an army sniper lying in a doorway, looking attentively through the sights of his rifle while covering for his mates. The young soldier might have been lying in a trench on a battlefield, such was his posture and actions; the young children could have been playing alone in a park, so oblivious were they to the uniformed gunman lying a couple of feet away. It was a peculiar contrast.

When trying to explain the geography of Belfast 1 found myself almost automatically differentiating between the areas purely on the basis of their religious affiliation. “You are now in the Catholic Falls", or “This is the Protestant Shankill” would suffice as a description, and I would not normally have given it a second thought. After all, this is the shorthand most commonly used by the media. But my visitor was bemused at the casual way in which I informed him that we were suddenly in a completely different type of area. The tightly-knit streets were identical to those down the road, the monotonous housing estates just as run-down, the poverty just as obvious and—guess what—the people didn’t look any different. It was much easier when I had told him half an hour before that we were passing through that part of town where the wealthy people live. The avenues there were quiet, with long fences and hedges sectioning off the large, comfortable houses set in their landscaped gardens. Even the uninitiated visitor could differentiate between these types of areas.

But I had to come up with a more satisfactory means of distinguishing between the working class areas which, on the face of it, admittedly looked rather similar. Could I tell him some of the old differences which are supposed to make these two groups of people incompatible? One lot, it is said, sponge off society and have large families in an attempt to undermine the state: The other side are supposedly thrifty, hard-working and loyal. Possibly it is because they come from different traditions. My visitor had seen that whether or not they were hard-working or “spongers", they lived in the same poor housing and dirty streets, and that their common heritage was a decaying environment. My task was becoming difficult and my guest more impatient for some sort of obvious divide between the two communities.

I drew his attention to some of the graffitti on the gable walls, which serve as a guide to the sectional divide. On a wall of the Protestant ghetto were the telling words. "No Pope here". I told my friend that the last Pope had been offered a kitchen house in the street by the housing authority but that the local people had refused to let him in. I didn't have to tell him I was joking. A couple of streets down I pointed out another piece of loyalist assertion, “This we will maintain". He remarked that most of the houses were derelict and some had already been demolished. In similar ghetloes not a stone's throw away (and to prove this the neighbouring communities regularly throw stones at each other) I showed him gable artistry pleading for a “Free Ireland" and headed "Support the IRA". Even he could see that this was as contradictory as it was to talk about "Military Intelligence".

However, I had no difficulty persuading my friend that the problems in Northern Ireland could not be explained away by reference to the superficial religious differences between Protestant and Catholic. Of greater importance were the political ideologies which lead members of the working class, be they republican or loyalist, to accept lives of constant poverty and violence. The urgent need, we agreed, was for them to assert their common interests in a struggle against petty nationalism and religious bigotry, and for a society of harmony.
Brian Montague
World Socialist Party of Ireland

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