Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding: A Report on Belfast, Northern Ireland

By Bennett, Georgette F. | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Summer-Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding: A Report on Belfast, Northern Ireland


Bennett, Georgette F., Journal of Ecumenical Studies


What has come to be known as "the Troubles" in Northern Ireland has persisted for thirty years. Although it has been defined as a Roman Catholic Protestant conflict, it is much more a battle over national identity and equal rights than over religious belief. This report was written following my trip to Belfast in May, 1999.

Sectarianism -- Physical and Social: The most striking aspect of Belfast was the contrast between the warmth and charm of its people and architecture and the physical manifestations of its sectarianism. The city is divided into Catholic and Protestant enclaves separated by walls, called "peace lines." Steel gates guard the entrances to some of the enclaves. The gates are electronically controlled from fortress-like police stations encased in steel cages. During fighting, the police slam the gates shut. Unlike the case of the Berlin Wall, most Belfast residents do not want their walls torn down. Because sectarianism has increased since the cease-fires, the walls give comfort both to those they keep out and those they keep in. The physical barriers are reinforced by social barriers. Catholic and Protestant children attend separate schools (fully financed by the government) and live in separate communities. It is not unusual for a child to reach the age of eighteen before ever coming into contact with someone o f the other faith. The absence of contact creates an information vacuum that is filled with hateful stereotypes. The current attempts to create integrated schools will go a long way toward replacing ignorance with notions of diversity and coexistence. Public-opinion surveys reveal that sixty percent of the population favors integrated education. Indeed, the forty-three existing integrated schools were opened by grassroots organizations, not by the churches or the government. Four percent (12,000) of Northern Ireland's students now attend integrated schools.

Putting Peace to Work: Policy-makers and their agencies must now deal with the economic and social fallout of three decades of violence in West Belfast and other parts of the city. Most agencies have tried to stay neutral, but this has proved to be counterproductive. The "religion-blind" stance has served as an avoidance mechanism that has shielded policy-makers from dealing with the roots of the conflict. Until government agencies acknowledge that division, services will ipso facto remain unequal. The mechanism for translating the Good Friday Agreement into daily life is called "mainstreaming" the peace process. Planners are working to identify every sphere that has a role to play in implementing the peace, that is, trade unions, business, education, military, police, churches, local councils, sports teams, media, arts, farmers, etc. Bureaucracies are serving as the middle layer between the power-brokers and the community. However, much single-identity -- that is, Catholic or Protestant -- work must be done before coexistence work can begin. A culture has emerged in Northern Ireland in which people avoid discussing identity, religion, or politics, for to talk about these things is to engage in conflict. A grassroots group, Ulster Community Dialogue, has developed a leafleting campaign to engage the public in dialogue. The leaflets outline the threatening issues from the perspective of each tradition and raise simple but provocative questions. The group then offers facilitators for dealing with the scary issues.

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