Arriving in an eerily deserted Belfast late in the evening is an intimidating albeit typical experience. This is the residual effect sectarian and politically motivated violence has left on the city’s visual makeup following decades of curfews which held people in their homes. You’ve seen it on your newsstands - 30 years of ‘the troubles’, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and more recently an optimistic vibrant party city reaching out to the world. But the frustration and unrest are still not far away.
The young man’s fiery and biting words keep my attention on the TV screen in my hotel room.
He is one of many disaffected and increasingly polarised youth from loyalist East Belfast. He lambasts the chat show host and guest politician. The TV show is discussing Belfast city councils decision to reduce the number of days the Union flag flies over City hall. This young man, among others, is not happy. But who can really make sense of it all? 22 years old and surrounded by a social mess, growing up conditioned into such a negative setting. It is bound to distort your outlook on life.
Since the final months of 2012 certain loyalist factions, mostly from East Belfast, flow into the city centre for daily protests at City hall. The situation has generated violent flash points all over the city, with everything from rioting to car-jacking taking place. It is now mid-February and the protests continue. I stand among shoppers on Donegall Square where I watch streams of people from all walks of life, draped in Union flags; converge on the intersection in front of City Hall. Some lone men, looking like plain clothes detectives, take in everything. Loyalist ringleaders with their strong Belfast accents lead chants and raise the demonstrator’s emotions. Policing the protests and unrest have pushed Belfast’s police force (the PSNI) to breaking point. They stand, well armed yet slightly on edge, next to their token white armoured vans.
A training day in the city gives me a perfect opportunity to connect with some local mainstream perspectives and opinions away from the radicalised viewpoints marching the streets. I sit with Margaret and John at a table in a comfortable cafe just west of the city centre.
Margaret is in her late 50’s. She shifts from side to side at the table adjusting the cutlery, trying to cover up her nervous state. She speaks to us in a robust manner, trying to show strength to the two younger men she finds sharing her table. John is in his mid-twenties from Derry city; a gentleman, sober in character and upbeat in nature. Both come from very different backgrounds yet their opinions on Belfast and its current situation run alongside each other.
PEACE LINES: BOMBAY STREET OFF THE FALLS ROAD/SPRINGFIELD ROAD