Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

I’ve been developing fairly involved opinions about religion and denominations, but I’m not sure how in depth I’d like to get here. I will say that it’s terribly disheartening the things people do in the name of religion, even when the two religions are very similar. Frankly most of them are more similar than they’d like to admit, it seems. Yet there’s judgement, and war, and violence in the name of it. But I’ll leave it at that.

Of course, being here in Ireland, the two main denominations in contention with one another are Protestantism and Catholicism. The Troubles are still relatively fresh in Ireland’s history, of course, with the Good Friday agreement coming about in 1998 and the Irish Republican Army only declaring a ceasefire in the mid-2000’s. While the out-and-out violence seems to have stopped, the disagreement continues on whether Northern Ireland should remain part of Britain or re-unite with the Republic. And what’s intriguing is, people don’t want to talk about it. Most of them are careful not to reveal which side of the debate they fall on, though we’re continually learning the nuances which reveal what side a person falls on. Our friend John told us, for example, that a Republican (as in, one who supports a whole Republic of Ireland independent of Great Britain) would not refer to Northern Ireland as a separate entity, but rather would just call it “the North.” A speaker who came to talk to us about The Troubles yesterday said that a person could determine whether you were Catholic or Protestant by the way you say the letter H — “atche” vs. “hatche.” I read prior to coming to Ireland that even how you refer to the 6 counties (as in territory vs. province vs. counties etc.) indicates a support of one side or the other.

It seems that Belfast is sort of the center of the leftover tensions; the city itself is quite segregated. According to our speaker, North Belfast is rather mixed, but individual neighborhoods are divided, and around them are what’s referred to as “peace walls.” And the people — on both sides — are afraid to take them down and live united. As Laura, an anthropology student from NY (who’s staying in our hostel and gave a talk to us today) pointed out, the first people who assimilate during times of peace are the first to feel the ramifications if things get bad again.

While we were in Belfast last weekend, we wandered through a residential neighborhood that was clearly Unionist — not only that, but fervently so. Some of it might have had to do with the upcoming Union Day Parade on Thursday, but there were more permanent symbols too: a well-maintained shrine/memorial and separate mural for the Ulster Volunteer Force, along with an excessive number of Union Jack flags — on poles near people’s houses and strung up across the streets. As Laura said, instead of physical violence, people ¬†still confront one another with the flag they choose to fly.

I’ve heard conflicting reports on whether the Irish Republic flag is permitted to fly in Northern Ireland. Our tour guide said it’s technically illegal but tolerated; John says he thinks it was one of the laws put in place way back when the Gaelic language was outlawed and was never technically repealed, though neither seems to be enforced any longer (a lot of the road signs near the highway, for example, have both English and Irish names, and I’ve seen a few tri-colors flying here and there in Armagh). From what Laura shared with us, some of the symbolism seems to be more a sign of history and heritage rather than an attempt at starting more conflict, but people are still reluctant to move past things like the Orange Order (the unionist Protestant organization much like the free masons) or to tear down the peace walls (which are government entities — there are processes and permits for putting up the wall, but was no procedure for taking them down until within the last year or so).

It’s an intriguing and complicated situation. Being here, it’s hard not to start choosing a side, but even that comes with some reservation, because I feel like, as an outsider, I would never get the whole intricate story. I just wish that persecution of people who are different wasn’t such a big part of religious practice. I doubt I’m alone in that though.