Alternative ulster: From my time in Belfast, Ireland

“There’ll be no talk of that here. None of it.” Stone cold silence was my initial response. When the shock was over, I apologized and told him that the conversation would end. I was talking American politics … American. I surrendered the conversation. The two Monaghan women I was talking to had different plans. I had no need for an argument and preserving the conversation just didn’t seem worth the effort. I backed away from the bar and eventually found myself outside.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t in some way scared of the hostility the publican showed me. In complete honesty, I was horrified. I knew I shouldn’t have been, but I was. I attempted to reconcile the hostility by picking up a conversation with one of the lads who was playing the gig at the pub that night. Our conversation about instruments and folk music helped me close down my fear. However, fear gone, I was haunted by this interaction at the bar.

I had been walking on eggshells and I hadn’t even known it. Perhaps the whole of city center Belfast was walking on eggshells. Earlier that day our tour guide would look around before he would tell us certain bombing stories. He told me that there had been a rise in dissident violence since the Brexit vote, but I hadn’t a clue that American politics could kick off a conflict. I desperately wanted to interview the publican about his nervousness of my conversation. Perhaps it was the point that Glenn Patterson reaches within his novel “That Which Was” – there is harm in progress before reconciliation. Our tour guide struck the same note when stating the Shankill Butchers were released from prison following the Accord.

I can’t help but notice the division that the main political parties of the north continue to perpetuate. It seems that as long as they are still in charge, the wounds will remain open. The city center of Belfast is a political no-man’s land as long as political discussion is silenced. Belfast City Council has tried hard to erase the memory of sectarianism. Although it isn’t just a memory, sectarianism is prevalent. The unobservant tourist may visit city center Belfast and not see or hear about it. Venture outside of the center or discuss what mustn’t be discussed and they may find themselves face to face with sectarianism.

There is a growing recognition of the horrors sectarianism has caused. The generational gap has created a growing number of individuals who have laid to rest the old tribal living and grasped a more collective economic ethos. No longer is the only growth seen in cemeteries. The working classes that were pitted within a crusade are beginning to recognize that their future lies within solidarity. There is an effort being done to progress, but in some cases the wounds lay unattended.

As a country, Northern Ireland’s fate is in limbo. Neither the Republic nor the United Kingdom knows what status it will hold within the coming years. Open political discussion needs to be happening but not along the old sectarian lines or facilitated by the old political parties. The apolitical city center could be the forum for progressive ideas and discussions. The younger generations may act as the new platform for dialogue. The opportunity to create an Alternative Ulster (as Stiff Little Fingers coined) is palpable but fragile.

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