Nothing about Belfast would lead an Indian to realise how eye-opening a visit to this city can be. Not the bumpy flight from London, not the wet and blustery weather and not even the friendly voices with their beguiling Irish accents. In fact, all of this may only serve to hide the truth. It’s when you look for the opposite that it hits you squarely in the face.
In all the years I lived in England, Belfast was considered a war zone. The images on television of Falls Road and Shanklin Road, with their Protestant and Catholic militias and the British Army battling each other, encapsulated the sad story of this city. It seemed forever torn apart by sectarian strife.
So last week, when I visited Belfast, I was eager to see many of the places associated with the IRA and the various Protestant factions but, of course, for the wrong reasons. My motive was a perverse form of war-tourism.
If this is where violence and, even, wars once happened then I wanted to see the sights for myself!
I did but what I found was not what I expected. I was looking for Northern Ireland’s Bandipore, Handawara and Sopore. I expected to find two divided communities, still bitter though no longer feuding. I anticipated an atmosphere of apprehension, tension, even fear. On every count I was wrong.
Belfast, I discovered, has become a city of reconciliation. The Good Friday agreement has finally, though not firmly, ended the fighting. Protestants and Catholics now live side by side, not brothers but certainly neighbours. West Belfast remains Catholic, the East continues to be Protestant but increasingly the new middle class residential areas are mixed. Peace and aspiration have forged bonds of unity, diminishing, perhaps even ending, the divisions of the past.
Of course, they like to taunt each other and often do. But that’s the Irish for you! Sometimes their taunts are redolent with hurt memories or ooze unhealed wounds. But they are taunts nonetheless, not more.
What’s more telling is that the IRA has disbanded and its offices are now commemorative sites. The Protestant militias are just names from the past. An unreformed minority still believes in violence but it is mocked, at times scorned, by everyone else.
The Protestants may still hold their marches, the Catholics their bonfires, but today these are more cultural than threatening. Murals are still this city’s favourite art form, but they now speak as much of international protest as they do of sectarian splits. And Falls Road, Shanklin Road and Antrim Road seem uncannily normal. In fact, the gentrification of Falls Road took me by surprise. There’s not an hint of the bloody battle lines of the 1970s and ’80s.
If Belfast, I said to myself, can achieve this level of reconciliation why not Kashmir? If Protestants and Catholics can put their past behind them and together seek a common future why can’t Indians and Pakistanis? If Falls Road can rise why not Lal Chowk?
The critical question is what made the difference in Belfast? Was it exhaustion after four decades of division and violence? Was it a generation of young dynamic politicians determined not to be shackled by history? Or was it just luck?
Different people gave me different answers. However, they all agreed that men like Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, former prime ministers of Britain and Ireland, made a big difference.
Alas, no matter where I look, we don’t have politicians like them.
Views expressed by the author are personal.