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Peace in Northern Ireland, But Religious Divide Remains

July 11, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Protesters have been out on the streets of Belfast in recent days in advance of Thursday's annual parade honoring Protestant King William's victory over his Catholic rival in 1690. Special correspondent Kira Kay reports on the ongoing religious tension -- 14 years after Ireland's sectarian conflict formally ended.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: the simmering unrest in Northern Ireland.

Protesters have been out on the street in Belfast for the past two days in advance of an annual parade tomorrow. NewsHour special correspondent Kira Kay looks at the ongoing religious tensions 14 years after Ireland’s sectarian conflict formally ended.

KIRA KAY: It’s a compelling sight: the parades that wind their way down the Shankill Road in the heart of Belfast’s Protestant community.

This parade is one of the first of the so-called marching season, when during the summer months, Protestant Northern Ireland residents loyal to the United Kingdom commemorate a series of historic moments. The largest takes place tomorrow, July 12, honoring Protestant King William’s victory over his Catholic rival in 1690.

Wesley McCreedy has been marching the Shankill Road for 50 years.

WESLEY MCCREEDY, Marcher: It’s very much important the way of the Shankill Road. The Shankill Road are a very loyal people, a very worthwhile people, and they all stick together.

WOMAN: That’s what I was brought up to believe in, too. It’s my culture.

KIRA KAY: For Joanne Harrison and her husband, Tommy, the parades are a family tradition, but also a matter of self-preservation.

MAN: Have to keep the culture going.

WOMAN: Have to keep it going. We have to keep walking. It’s the queen’s road. It’s the queen’s highway

KIRA KAY: You have to keep it going, why?

WOMAN: Well, if we don’t, the other side is going to take over.

KIRA KAY: The other side she refers to are the Catholics living just a few blocks away. The Shankill is virtually encircled by Catholic neighborhoods.

And this small area, where West and North Belfast meet, saw some of the worst violence of the 30 years of sectarian conflict here, known as the Troubles; 3,500 people died in bombings, assassinations and clashes between nationalist militants like the IRA and the British army and loyalist paramilitaries.

In 1998, peace came, with an agreement that maintained Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, but brought Catholic nationalist party Sinn Fein into government in a power-sharing arrangement with its former loyalist foes.

MARTIN MCGUINNESS, Deputy First Prime Minister, Northern Ireland: It has been a remarkable journey. We’re now in the control effectively of one of the most successful peace processes in the world today.

KIRA KAY: Martin McGuinness, once a militant IRA commander, is now co-leader of the power-sharing government.

MARTIN MCGUINNESS: Throughout the course of the last 14 or 15 years, many things that were considered unimaginable have actually happened.

KIRA KAY: Downtown Belfast, once cordoned off by security fences and army checkpoints, now hosts bustling streets and cafes. A new museum about the Titanic, built in Belfast, beckons tourists.

MARTIN MCGUINNESS: We have been working away at trying to attract foreign direct investment. We have brought on thousands of jobs over the course of the last couple of years. You go out on the streets of Belfast and Derry, there’s been a transformation. All that said, we’re still very conscious of the fact that a lot of work needs to be done.

NEIL JARMAN, Director, Institute for Conflict Research: The peace agreement did certain things, in that it brought Sinn Fein and the IRA out of the political wilderness to some extent and into the institutions of power. But it didn’t deal with some of the wider issues of Northern Ireland, which are around segregation and hostility between the two dominant communities.

KIRA KAY: Dr. Neil Jarman directs the Institute for Conflict Research. He says that, while the peace agreement has brought a welcome end to full-scale violence, parts of the country remain divided and on edge.

NEIL JARMAN: In Belfast, they’re most visibly expressed in working-class communities, which are almost entirely segregated. And the tensions really break out where those residential areas meet, where a Catholic area butts up against a Protestant area.

KIRA KAY: North and West Belfast resemble a patchwork quilt. Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods alternate every few blocks, sometimes dramatically separated by physical barriers called peace walls.

Most were built during the Troubles, but some have gone up even since the peace agreement, as intercommunal attacks continued. Stark and sometimes militaristic murals make it impossible to escape the weight of history and identity here.

Jarman says that, while a great deal of the year the streets here are calm, that changes during the marching season, with the palpable culture clash the parades bring.

NEIL JARMAN: Parades can cause very real tensions, because it’s almost impossible to find a route through North Belfast that doesn’t come into contact with a Catholic area or a Protestant area.

KIRA KAY: In recent years, parades have sparked upheaval. First come the protests by Catholic community groups over the parades passing through their area, followed later in the evening by full-scale riots of angry youth.

Last year, the riots cost two-and-a-half million dollars to police.

WINSTON IRVINE, North and West Belfast Parades Forum: We need to understand, appreciate and respect the fact that we have cultural differences, we have historical differences and religious and political differences here in Northern Ireland.

KIRA KAY: Winston Irvine defends the Protestant community’s right to march at annual negotiations over the parades routing through the most contentious streets.

WINSTON IRVINE: We as a Protestant community understand that there are different perceptions and there are different notions towards loyal order parades. But I think that the only way to discuss those issues is around a table. And I think it’s totally illegitimate to use any means of violence to protest or to express opposition to someone else’s culture.

FERNANDO MURPHY, Ardoyne Youth Providers Forum: The parade is — it’s a triumphalism of the Protestants against the Catholics. It brings us back 20 years every time that parade goes down the road. You know, it brings this community back to what we have tried to move on and tried to let everybody else see that it has moved on.

KIRA KAY: Outreach worker Fernando Murphy lives in the Ardoyne neighborhood, a particularly poor and marginalized Catholic community. Peace walls virtually encircle Ardoyne, creating what Murphy describes as a siege mentality. And he fears the upcoming July 12 parade will roil communal tensions yet again.

FERNANDO MURPHY: Across the way, there is the Protestant area, and this side is the Catholic side. And on the 12th of July, the parade comes up here. It comes up past here and comes into the Catholic area and up past all these houses. All these shops have to shut. People can’t go about their normal daily life. This usually culminates in a riot situation.

KIRA KAY: Protestant Representative Winston Irvine says the two communities have to find a way to agree on parading.

WINSTON IRVINE: The single biggest, most important aspect of reconciliation for unionists and for Protestants living particularly in working-class areas of Northern Ireland will be to see a resolution of the parading dispute. That will be a visible affirmation that reconciliation has begun.

KIRA KAY: But Fernando Murphy says his Catholic community will never accept the parades on their streets. So, instead, his organization runs field trips for local youths to remove them from the area on July 12.

FERNANDO MURPHY: Community groups are — actually don’t want the people to be taken away. I can see their issue by saying, why should we remove our young people from our area because of one parade? Why doesn’t the parade just remove itself from our area?

We see it necessary, because it stops young people from getting a criminal record or being exposed to sectarian violence.

KIRA KAY: On the streets of North and West Belfast, young people are living with the reality of segregation. Kids in Protestant neighborhoods are busy building towering bonfires to be lit on the eve of the July 12 march.

YOUTH: Aye, it’s brilliant.

KIRA KAY: It’s brilliant?

YOUTH: Aye, I love it.

KIRA KAY: Why?

MAN: Because, I don’t know, I have been waiting for this time of year all year, to start collecting for the bonfire.

YOUTH: There’s nothing to do up these here streets. So whenever a bonfire comes up, there’s just really something to do.

KIRA KAY: Do you ever go into the Catholic neighborhoods?

YOUTH: Not really, no.

KIRA KAY: How come?

YOUTH: Just probably end up getting hurt if you end up caught over there.

YOUTH: Different religion. 

KIRA KAY: People still feel differently here?

YOUTH: Yes. Conflict hasn’t changed, to be honest with you.

KIRA KAY: Among a group of Catholic kids on the other side of town, there is some initial bluster.

YOUTH: They’re orange bastards. They’re British.

KIRA KAY: They’re orange bastards?

YOUTH: Yes, they’re British, so they’re not our people.

KIRA KAY: They are not your people.

YOUTH: No.

KIRA KAY: But then also some promising signs of curiosity.

You would like to meet some Protestants?

YOUTH: Well, I would.

YOUTH: Aye.

KIRA KAY: You would like to understand them a little bit.

YOUTH: Aye, see if they get on like us, see if they’re different.

KIRA KAY: Would any of you go to the same school with them?

YOUTH: I would.

KIRA KAY: You would? Why?

YOUTH: Aye.

YOUTH: See what it’s like.

YOUTH: Aye. See what it’s like.

KIRA KAY: See what it’s like.

More than 90 percent of Northern Ireland’s schools are segregated. But Hazelwood Primary School is different. Its goal is integration.

Patricia Murtagh is the principal.

PATRICIA MURTAGH, Principal, Hazelwood Integrated Primary School: One of the things that parents that set up a school like ours were banking on, that the relationships that the children would establish here would be continued as they got older, and as they got older they would realize the significance of those relationships, that I’m living in a Catholic area, my friend is living in a Protestant area, and yet we’re still friends.

KIRA KAY: The school maintains a strict sectarian balance, both in numbers of students and topics covered. But even Hazelwood’s campus abuts a peace wall, erected just a few years ago when nearby homes were torched.

PATRICIA MURTAGH: And, actually, we use it as a discussion point without children, too. You know, it’s a resource. And we go and talk to them and ask, why is it there and why do you think people felt threatened sufficiently to have something like that constructed?

KIRA KAY: For schools like Hazelwood to become the norm and for communities to integrate, activists are looking towards removing the peace walls bit by bit.

Alexandra Park has been split in half for 18 years. But now, in an experiment, the gates are being opened from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. on weekdays.

NEIL JARMAN: As it moves on, the intention is that the gates will be open, rather than they will be closed. And once that norm has become established, you can then take away the rest of the fence. It will take a long time, but we will get there.

MARTIN MCGUINNESS: You can’t flick a switch and go from darkness into light. It’s a process. And it’s going to take a lot of effort and a lot of recognition by people within communities that we have to work together.

KIRA KAY: The Northern Ireland Parades Commission has now ruled that this year’s July 12 march must end earlier than in previous years, in an attempt to avoid clashes with protesters. Protestant politicians called the decision outrageous. Catholics said it didn’t go far enough.

GWEN IFILL: Kira’s story is part of the series “Fault Lines of Faith,” produced in partnership with the Bureau for International Reporting.

You can learn more about their stories by following a link on our Web site. Plus, on our World page, read about how one group is using video diaries to try to bridge the divide between Catholic and Protestant youth in Belfast.