Despite Historic Handshake, Belfast Still Deeply Divided Society

BY Kira Kay and Jason Maloney  June 27, 2012 at 2:45 PM EDT


Queen Elizabeth II shakes hands with Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness on Wednesday. Photo by Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images.

While we were filming in Belfast last week, the question on everyone’s mind was whether “Martin would meet the Queen” when she passed through Northern Ireland as part of her Diamond Jubilee celebration.

Most members of the Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist community thought it was the right thing to do: After all, Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, reiterated in language of the 1998 peace agreement that ended the sectarian violence known as the Troubles.

Queen Elizabeth II is the British head of state. Martin McGuinness, once a commander in the militant Irish Republican Army, is now serving as co-governing minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly, alongside his Unionist counterpart Peter Robinson — a power sharing arrangement created by the 1998 agreement that has managed to run fairly amicably in recent years.

Many said it was time for such a handshake in order to further the process of political reconciliation, including even Gerry Adams, president of the Republican-Nationalist party Sinn Féin, who called it, “The right decision at the right time and for the right reasons.”

To be sure, much of Belfast has changed remarkably since its several decades as a war zone. Downtown areas that used to be cordoned off by security fences and army checkpoints now host bustling cafes. A shining, new museum dedicated to the Titanic, which was built in Belfast, and huge banners on the riverside extolling 2012 as “Our Time, Our Place,” highlight the push toward a peaceful and tourist-friendly Northern Ireland.

But beneath the surface of this booming Belfast lies a different reality and a still deeply divided society. On the political level there is a sharp divide on what the peace agreement means for Northern Ireland (indeed, there is even a divide over whether to call it the Good Friday Agreement or the Belfast Agreement, depending on your sectarian affiliation).

The Protestant community sees it as a final determination that Northern Ireland is, and shall remain, a part of the United Kingdom; Catholics see it merely as the next step of a process of eventual unification with Ireland — one that uses political means rather than armed struggle, but with the same ultimate goal.

“In the Good Friday negotiations, the British Government have signed up to the reality that if at some stage in the future the people of the North of Ireland vote to end the link with Britain, that the British Government is now signed up to ensure that that legislation will be passed to make that happen,” McGuinness told us in an interview last week. “I, as someone who is an Irish Republican and who wants to see the reunification of Ireland, am quite content to stand by the agreement we have made.”

And outside the halls of government, the rhetoric is more stark. In Catholic-Republican-Nationalist neighborhoods, we heard that Northern Ireland remains an “occupied territory.” A protest in front of Belfast’s City Hall accused the queen’s army of “state orchestrated murder” and called McGuinness’ handshake decision “very regrettable.” A small but resonant group of dissident Republican groups say the peace agreement was a sell out and that the future of Northern Ireland cannot be secured through any kind of political agreement with Protestant or British counterparts. The bombs they still place have not been terribly effective, but they have succeeded in keeping the atmosphere tense.

Significant parts of the city, particularly in the areas of North and West Belfast that saw the height of violence during the Troubles, even now remain utterly segregated. Huge barriers called “peace walls” still divide Catholic from Protestant neighbors. Several have been erected or extended in recent years, despite the 1998 peace agreement. They are called this, not because they foster peaceful feelings but because they keep the two sides from attacking each other. Time and time again during our week in Belfast, we were told that residents were not ready for the walls to come down anytime soon.

And while much of the year the streets of these segregated communities remain relatively peaceful, tensions tend to boil over during the summer’s so-called “marching season” — the time when Loyalist Orange Order parades march through the streets to celebrate their culture and an historic Protestant victory over Catholic adversaries. Year after year, riots break out around these parades, mostly involving young Catholics angry to see marchers passing near their homes.

Catholic youth worker Fernando Murphy told us the marches send a negative reminder of who is really in charge in Northern Ireland. A Protestant woman watching her husband march in a parade said these events remained necessary to stake her community’s claim to their territory: “The Queen’s highways,” she called them.

Dr. Neil Jarman, director of the Institute for Conflict Research, told us that the important work peace-building organizations struggle to accomplish throughout the year gets set back several steps during these difficult months.

The impact of these marches, the remaining segregation of parts of Belfast and the efforts to move towards some sort of reconciliation, will be the subject of our story airing here on PBS NewsHour in two weeks.

Kira Kay and Jason Maloney are co-founders of the Bureau for International Reporting.