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Old wounds, new walls and upending progress

Charles Moore, Community Voices • May 13, 2018 at 8:45 AM

In 1995, I had the luxury of spending three weeks in Scotland, including a side trip to Belfast, Northern Ireland. Attending some of the excellent lectures by Dr. Liam Campbell, East Tennessee State University’s Wayne G. Basler Chair of Excellence in the Arts, Rhetoric and Science, this most recent semester about comparing Appalachia and Northern Ireland, brought back a long suppressed memory, particularly of that tour into Belfast.

There were two images that apparently made the most impression on me.

One was the painting of political symbols on the gable end of the houses in the more famously divided districts. I have a photograph of one of the homes on my bookshelf. I had never heard of such a method of stating your political sentiments. Something tells me that within the ever-more-popular gated communities in America this would not be allowed and probably frowned upon elsewhere except maybe in the more ravaged neighborhoods. I cannot for the life of me image anyone accepting a swastika painted on the neighbor’s house, but it may very well happen in the states.

Painted gables would suggest a defiance of the government or the vigilantes from within the sanctity and safety of your own home. Maybe, too, back in those days, it was a way to tell whose side you were on. I don’t remember if all houses were this way or if only one side of the conflict practiced this or not. At the time, it didn’t matter too much to me. Now, maybe it matters, because old feelings die hard. Old wounds can re-open in the time it takes for the first bomb to go off.

What had been achieved in 25 years of relative peace and prosperity stands in the face of another wave of so-called progress, that is preparing to undo the present, namely, “Brexit.”

The referendum to exit the EU busted through the United Kingdom sideways. I suspect most of us can’t begin to comprehend the shift. Maybe a new name for the UK ought to be the un-United Kingdom. The industrial half of England voted to leave. London, Scotland, and Northern Ireland voted for the most part to stay. As Dr. Campbell pointed out, something that had not drifted across my aged line-of-sight, was that the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, instead of being the open, terror-free line-in-the-soil of today, has the potential to become once again, a real division between the two parts of the island. Ireland and Northern Ireland share the only land border between the continent and the UK.

Twenty-five years of peace, after nearly 100 years of conflict, is turned on its head.

The second impression, equal of the first, was the “peace fence.” Belfast was divided by a wall mostly separating the famous Falls and Shankill districts. It looked like the brown metal fencing used to barricade the sounds from the interstates. I remember seeing this and astounded that people could live with such a barricade between where otherwise would have been neighbors. Imagine the alley way that runs between Maple and Pine in the tree streets. Now build a 25-foot-tall, rust-brown, metal, bomb-proof wall. Imagine dealing with that every day?

For me it would not barricade the other person, whom I am required to despise, but it would barricade me. How a city survives a wall is beyond me. Berlin didn’t. It looks as if the peace walls in some towns are being taken down, just in time to re-erect abandoned border control stations.

For the past 25 years Belfast and Northern Ireland have been held out as the example of how peace can be maintained to help end the current internal fighting within the Middle East countries. That image for hope and peace might now be further pushed out the window.

I can see, too, that the exiters might not care about what happens in Northern Ireland. One-hundred years of fighting might yield an attitude of, “Let ’em go. I got to take care of number one,” which might be a very real and often stated comment. If you had lost your father or uncle to an IRA bomb or the RUC interrogators it is conceivable that Northern Ireland leaving the UK is just find and dandy. Good riddance to either side, unless you are now once again in the majority at the mercy of the minority or the minority soon to become even a smaller minority?

Frost talks about mending fences builds good neighbors. Well, maybe, but I’m not convinced.

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