Northern Ireland tries to heal a legacy of separation | FT Film
In Northern Ireland physical and social barriers still shape society, business and the economy. The FT's Ireland correspondent Jude Webber meets people trying to overcome them and to build a shared future.
Director of photography: Petros Gioumpasis. Graphics: Russ Birkett. Colourist: Susumu Asano. Mix: Saul Rivers & Ed Railton. Producer/director: Ben Marino. Executive producers: Joe Sinclair and Veronica Kan-Dapaah.
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It's 7am in a pretty Victorian park in North Belfast. As parents take their children to school, a steel gate is being unlocked. Every day at the same time, a warden opens these gates that separate two communities from each other. It's called a peace wall.
Almost 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement, I've come to see how much Northern Ireland has moved on. Before I moved to Ireland last summer, I hadn't been in Belfast since 1994. I was astonished to find out that today there are more peace walls separating communities than ever before. This wall is about one of 100 in Belfast that have been built since the 1960s.
The name peace wall sounds like a contradiction in terms. The barriers range from simple fences to towering metal walls that cut through the city's working class communities. So I wanted to find out why Northern Ireland is having such a hard time leaving all these physical, political, and economic barriers behind.
To try to understand all this, I'm going to talk to people from Northern Ireland's past, present, and future, some who took up arms during the Troubles, some who were born since the ceasefire, and some who are educating the next generation. Their aim? To get Northern Ireland to stop punching below its weight.
This is Belfast today. It's busy and vibrant, and it's come a long way since the bombings and terror of the Troubles. But it's still struggling with problems that are deeply rooted in the past. The linen and shipbuilding industries that put it on the map even before Northern Ireland was created by partition in 1921 have long gone. By almost any measure, today, it's a region that badly lags the rest of the UK.
Part of the history of Northern Ireland has been events, politically and socially, have often got ahead of economic problems being addressed. And that's been the case right through the past 100 years.
Compared with the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland today is poorer, its productivity is lower, and an exodus of young people seeking better opportunities is stunting its future prospects. Researchers say young people move away because of segregation, sectarianism, and politics that they believe are stuck in the past. And then there's Brexit, which has become a hugely divisive issue in a region that overwhelmingly voted to Remain.
But today's barriers are not just physical. In Northern Ireland, your name or where you live can mark you out as being Protestant or Catholic. That might once have affected your job prospects. The shipyards mostly employed Protestants, for example.
During the Troubles, it could have put your life in danger. Today, many people say that the once automatic reflex to identify people has gone, but not when it comes to education. Look at this chart. Students here overwhelmingly go to schools that are either Protestant or Catholic. Only 8 per cent of schools are fully integrated.
In Northern Ireland, even education is divided. So I've come here to visit one of the very few schools that isn't.
Jude, how are you?
You're very welcome.
Thank you very much.
The Hazelwood Integrated Primary School in the wonderful North Belfast with a beautiful backdrop of the Cavehill.
Shall I take you in the school and show you some interesting things?
Show me around.
Maybe I should start off with telling you some of the back story of the school. So about 45 years ago a group of parents, two of which are still employed in the school, met in a kitchen and had a dream, a vision as an alternative to segregated education.
As Jim the headmaster explains, while the Troubles raged in the 1970s, some parents were convinced that education needed to be mixed. They managed to set up integrated schools for children of both faiths and for both Nationalist and Unionist communities. The first was established in 1981. But tensions were so high that there had to be armed police outside.
But times have changed. People may identify as belonging to one or another tradition, but church attendance even before COVID was on the wane. And mixed marriage is on the rise.
Jim says Northern Ireland is still grappling with hatred and distrust.
SUBJECT 2: So this is the fault line we talked about, the fissure that runs through our community here-- and one community me on this side and the second community on that side. And we talked about those--
INTERVIEWER: So that's the Nationalist community. That's the Unionist community.
SUBJECT 2: Pretty much. Like everything else in Northern Ireland, you use very clumsy, crude language to group a whole group of people into one pigeonhole. And that's not only is unkind but usually unfair. So predominantly, we have a Nationalist community on this side. Predominantly, we have a Unionist community on that side. And this was a flash point for a long time.
INTERVIEWER: Paul Caskey from the Integrated Education Fund says that today, these are safe but not neutral spaces for people from all sides.
PAUL CASKEY: I'm very proud to say that today, we have 69 integrated schools educating over 25,000 children. And think of that ripple effect, where you have 25,000 children, possibly maybe 40,000 parents and more grandparents. So it reaches out into the community. It shows that it can work. And we've demonstrated that this wasn't some sort of wacky, willy, liberal group of people.
INTERVIEWER: These kids are facing an uncertain future. When it comes to jobs, productivity, and wages, Northern Ireland is bottom of the class in the UK. No wonder some people decide to leave. But some decide to come. Immigrants started to arrive in Northern Ireland in large numbers about 20 years ago to work in meat processing and the health service. Then a few years later came an influx of people from new EU member states attracted by relatively free labour market access.
But the immigrant population is still tiny, and it doesn't make up for the number of people who move away every year. A recent survey by Pivotal, a think tank, found the number one reason people want to go is sectarianism. Number two is job opportunities.
Carl Frampton's way out was boxing. I meet the two times world champion in Tiger's Bay, a Unionist area where he grew up.
CARL FRAMPTON: This is a real flash point here. This is Tiger's Bay. My street was the first street in Tiger's Bay, and that's the new lodge there. Good friend called Sam, his brother Glen got blew up at the bottom of the street with a pipe bomb.
INTERVIEWER: That's why Carl's mum made him start boxing when he was 7, to keep him out of trouble. That's also how he met Catholics for the first time. Now, he promotes integrated education and sees the results at home.
CARL FRAMPTON: It's a better place than it used to be, Northern Ireland, certainly, Belfast as well. But I think we're still-- my kids' generation, it needs them guys that come through-- kids like my daughter, who doesn't know the difference at 11 years old between a Catholic and a Protestant.
INTERVIEWER: But for some people, he admits peace hasn't brought change fast enough.
CARL FRAMPTON: The area, if I'm being honest, it hasn't changed that much. I feel like people talk about places being left behind.
INTERVIEWER: Just down the road from Carl's gym, Harry Smith and Kate Clark are trying to get opposite communities to focus on what they have in common, not what keeps them apart. It's not easy. This was a flash point area during the troubles, and it's where the latest flare up in violence happened just last year. Loyalists are already collecting wood for a giant bonfire, one of thousands traditionally lit every July to commemorate Protestant King William of Orange's victory over the Catholic King James in 1690.
HARRY SMITH: Now, we have communities that rely on peace walls for community safety, for feeling safe in their homes at night. What our job is today is to try and promote and engage with those residents who aren't normally engaged with, promote peace by a removal, reimaging, or redesigning.
INTERVIEWER: But that's easier said than done. Kate lives behind steel fences here in the Nationalist new lodge estate over the road from Tiger's Bay. And what are we seeing here?
KATE CLARK: These are the gates that close off Duncairn Gardens. These are peace gates. These are closed. They opened at half 7:00, close at 6:00 o'clock.
INTERVIEWER: And is there no other way in or out?
KATE CLARK: No.
INTERVIEWER: So if you're in and you've forgotten to buy something, you're--
KATE CLARK: So if you're in, you're stuck. If you've been living beside a barrier for 20 or 30-odd years, sometimes 40 years, you know, yeah, it's like a comfort blanket for you as well. And it's pretty hard to let go. You have to show people that there's another possibility, another life.
INTERVIEWER: In Northern Ireland, younger people don't remember the Troubles. Older people can't forget them. Republicans were fighting for a united Ireland and loyalists to remain British. Paddy Harte has been working for more than 30 years to rebuild relationships. He says it's too soon to expect things to have moved on entirely. And Brexit is reviving old divisions.
PADDY HARTE: Lots of the gains, lots of the hope, lots of the positives out of the Good Friday Agreement have come under pressure in recent years because of Brexit, and the protocol, and the uncertainty that they bring. People begin to move back into the binary [INAUDIBLE]. So yes, lots of progress, but regrettably, a lot more to do. But also, understandably, given what Northern Ireland's been through. It would be too much to expect that 25 years on, everyone would have left all of what happened behind.
Pauline Hegney used to work at the Europa Hotel, which was bombed more than 30 times during the Troubles. Her husband Carl, a Catholic, was murdered because he was walking home from the pub on the wrong side of the road.
PAULINE HEGNEY: In those days in 1991, you would have walked on one side of the road going down the road. You would have walked on the right-hand side if you were a Catholic and on the left-hand side going down if you were a Protestant. He was on the right-hand side of the road coming down the road, and someone was standing just in a doorway along the gasworks wall. And as Carl approached, the gunman just walked up to him and shot him point blank range in the stomach. And when he fell, then they shot him point blank range in the back.
INTERVIEWER: But Pauline, who's also a Catholic, thanked the predominantly Protestant police for taking him to hospital.
PAULINE HEGNEY: That was something that didn't sit well with some people in the community I lived. And one Saturday night, my car windows smashed, and there was paint thrown around and everything. So and that was because I thanked the RUC, something I don't regret doing.
INTERVIEWER: A lot has changed. But sometimes, the old orange and green divides resurface. Like housing, her son is looking to buy a place with his Protestant girlfriend.
PAULINE HEGNEY: He's in a relationship with a wee girl from the other community in the country. And she could live anywhere with him in any Catholic area. I don't know if he could live in any Protestant area.
INTERVIEWER: Rigid divisions between communities can also extend to gender opportunities. But prospects for women aren't always better. Eileen Weir has been working with the Shankill Women's Centre in the heart of Belfast's Protestant Unionist community for three decades. Today, employment rates for women are stubbornly low.
EILEEN WEIR: And we're not seeing that peace dividend that we thought we would have. We need jobs for our young people coming through. We've probably about three generations here that never worked and never knew what work was.
INTERVIEWER: Fixing that will help put Northern Ireland on a path to higher growth.
SUBJECT 3: North Ireland has the biggest proportion of those with low or no skills in the UK or of any region in the UK. But there's also the problem of those with higher skills. And Northern Ireland has the lowest proportion of those who have a tertiary education, such as University degrees but also further education, those kind of vocational qualifications.
INTERVIEWER: It's not just about jobs. Divisions in Northern Ireland are all about identity. Language and sport are two key expressions of that, and they can be political.
JAKE MAC SIACAIS: We see this already here. West Belfast are 80,000 inhabitants and 10,000 people from here were in prison.
INTERVIEWER: Jake Mac Siacais is a former IRA prisoner. He now runs a Gaelic football club. It's already considered a Nationalist game. But here, they play in Irish.
JAKE MAC SIACAIS: I joined the Republican movement when I was 10 years of age. I joined the youth wing of the Republican movement. I always had a great admiration for the generations of Irish people who had resisted British rule. And I knew that I was a captive second-class citizen in a state which was hostile to me at every level.
INTERVIEWER: His love of the Irish language grew. He perfected it in prison in the notorious H blocks, where 10 IRA prisoners died on hunger strike. Irish has long been a political football. A law to give it official status has been promised but has still not been passed. When Jake set up his club, all he asked was that people could kick a ball and speak Irish fluently. Today, he even has some Protestant players. But identity and culture are complex.
JAKE MAC SIACAIS: And it's that conflation of political allegiance with cultural identity that causes a lot of problems. I mean, you go into the Unionist or Protestant community, there are evangelicals, Adventists, Presbyterians, free Presbyterians, non-aligned Presbyterians, Church of Ireland, all sorts of Methodists. There's one Catholic, identity but there isn't one Protestant identity. It's so multilayered.
INTERVIEWER: On the other side of the historic divide, another former fighter is trying to build bridges. I meet Robert Williamson in the historic house where King William of Orange stayed when he first arrived in Northern Ireland. Robert grew up on a housing estate that was predominantly paramilitary. But now, he works with loyalist communities to change some of the famous murals that illustrate the past.
ROBERT WILLIAMSON: We would go to various streets, and we talk to individuals and families, and we talk to local community groups. And we try and get a buy-in from them. Will you come to a meeting? And basically say, listen guys, that wall there, when it was painted 20 years ago, it was fresh and new.
But you know what? It's peeling off the wall. It's a disgrace to this neighbourhood. We're trying to rejuvenate, clean the place up. And you try to get them to see that and say that, is this so important to you that it has to stay? Or could you have a conversation about reimaging it?
Bill Wolsey is one of Northern Ireland's most successful business people. A self-made man, he runs a string of high-end hotels and pubs. He grew up in a working-class Unionist area, but his parents were socialists.
BILL WOLSEY: I made it, and I haven't a clue how I made it-- some luck and some judgement. But I went over to Arsenal to play football, and that didn't work out. And I got into printing, which I hated. And then at night school, I went to college in Westminster and got into hospitality industry and loved it and made a little bit of money in England and then came back to buy a pub that was run by paramilitaries.
We were able to purchase this pub, and we had sort of two years of hell. But at that stage, Northern Ireland was very dark, difficult days. But we were determined that, A, we wouldn't pay protection and B, we would absolutely let everyone into our pub. We didn't care about religion and politics. But we wanted them to respect our rules. And sounds pretty obvious now, but was difficult then, that said.
INTERVIEWER: He says Brexit is one way politicians perpetuate divisions. Because of the Good Friday Agreement, most people couldn't countenance a return to a hard border on the island of Ireland. A quarter of a century of peace has reduced a once fortified boundary to this, an almost imperceptible line in the tarmac. In its place, a customs border was put in the Irish Sea.
BILL WOLSEY: Everybody knows here that if you appeal to the Nationalist side and the Unionist side, that's pretty much split 40-40. It's the 20% in the middle who absolutely are reconsidering where this country should go. And they're looking at on the basis, what will be best for my children? Do I still feel European? How are we on social progress? And where will I be economically? It's no longer driven by orange and green.
INTERVIEWER: Today, tech and service companies have relocated here. The movie business has taken off. Shipbuilding and linen have gone. And many young people are just bored by constantly harking back to history. Benji Wallace, a 19-year-old poet and rapper tells me that, for his work, the past is not prologue.
BENJI WALLACE: A lot of it isn't inspired by all of the conflict and the kind of division. It's about the fact that I don't care about it, It's not relevant really anymore. Not forgetting the past but letting us learn from it, but not keep acknowledging it.
INTERVIEWER: Northern Ireland's future, whether to remain part of the UK or to unite with Ireland, is just one of the many things that divide people here. And like all the other social, cultural, political, economic, and educational divisions, it's going to take time to settle. But there's plenty of optimism too. Take Benji, unlike many of his generation, he doesn't want to leave Northern Ireland, but he does want things to change.
BENJI WALLACE: I am resilient. Days turn to months. Months turn to years upon years. We're all different. This wasted potential is turning our hopes into fears. This is the barrier never acknowledged, artists forced to leave.
Our wee country's about to get aware if you don't truly believe in the youth of the nation. Feel our frustrations, doubts, and hopes. Cut us loose from the industrial rope. Creative time bombs about to explode. We are young, but you'd better take note. We are wild, rock the cultural boat. We are strong, keep this nation afloat. Innovate 'cause we're ditching your cultural rope.