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Tales From an Irish Ghetto MAG
The air was cold and hung with the pungent odor of diesel fumes and moist grass. The rain had just stopped. The small neighborhood was close to deserted. I stared at the man in front of me; he stared back. His cheek was pressed up against the stock of a compact assault rifle. The barrel pointed directly at me. Whenever I moved it would track my course. The man was unwavering.
His face was hidden behind the black of a balaclava, only his narrowed eyes visible. Dressed in camouflage, face hidden, he seemed out of place in the quiet neighborhood. But with the gun jutting forward as he peered over the entire area, the man was a clear reminder to anyone who dared enter the gated community that this neighborhood was controlled.
I turned away from the painting on the wall. Six buildings overlooked the park; five ten-foot terrorists made of lead guarded it. The area was all grays and tans: the deep gray of the roads, the tan of the buildings' bricks, the gray of the eddying storm clouds, the tan of the children's play structures. What little color existed in the neighborhood came from the murals, the Union Jacks, and the flags of Ulster that decorated the houses. It was a place dominated by a twisted sense of singular identity, an identity that blossomed from a hodgepodge of terrorist support, national identity, and militant hatred.
Next to me was an Irishman, Belfast-born and raised. He was a cabby and a man of indecipherable religion. He had five days worth of stubble on his square 50-year-old face and the contented look of a man at ease with his life. He spoke with a rich Irish brogue in the heavy-accented style of Northern Ireland. Gesturing at the painted walls, he mumbled, “These are fighters from the various organizations. That one”– he gestured at the mural whose gun was still trained on me – “is UVF most likely. In Protestant neighborhoods this close to the wall, the UVF is the most common.” He fell silent again and looked around the neighborhood disinterestedly. He seemed comfortable among the paintings; my skin had not stopped crawling since entering.
Looking back at us, the cabby began walking back to his cab. It was a small, glossy black sanctuary, a vehicle that could cross the borders unaccosted. My entire family and I piled into the Volkswagen that quickly backed out and left the quiet Protestant neighborhood behind. As we departed, the barrel of one of the mural's guns tracked us, silently following us as we backed away.
We passed through the community's gate without seeing another person. The 13-foot sheets of chain link and steel plating hedged us in on each side as we exited the arch in the wall. After we were gone, they remained open. Since it was considered a time of relative peace, the gates would remain open until another inevitable act of violence occurred.
Safe inside the black cab, we coasted along the road, a sort of no-man's-land before the Catholic side actually began. To one side stood the towering stone face of the Belfast Peace Wall. Silently it snaked between houses, neighborhoods, and neighbors, marching across the eastern quarter of Ireland's most infamous city. Four feet thick, made of construction-grade concrete and Belfast steel, it was Western Europe's response to the Berlin Wall. What does it mean when you need a giant stone wall to keep neighbors from killing each other?
Often considered Northern Ireland's political thermometer, it has become a pseudo-tourist spot in the years since the country became relatively peaceful. Pulling into a Catholic neighborhood where many of the houses touched the wall, we once again exited the cab. We stood and peered up at the hulking monstrosity. The cabby, having taken the time to smoke a cigarette, turned to us. Pointing at chicken wire that bridged a two-foot gap from the roof of a house to the wall, he explained, “They put that up to stop fire bombs. Sometimes the sides will throw Molotov cocktails over the wall, hoping to hit a house.” His matter-of-factness left me chilled. How much anger would it take for someone to blindly throw a bottle of flaming alcohol 13 feet in the air in an attempt to kill someone they had never met? I wondered what it took for a place to be considered a war zone, because this clearly wasn't peaceful.
The cabby walked up and pointed at a patch of wall near the gate we'd entered. It was covered in countless crayon signatures scribbled over, around, and on top of each other. “The tradition is for anyone who visits to sign their name somewhere on the wall. It's to say that you want to see peace in Northern Ireland.”
It had been over a decade since the ceasefire; peace agreements had been signed, yet there was still no peace. There were still murals to “martyrs” on both sides of the wall. There were still giant steel gates separating neighbor from neighbor in some strange sort of self-imposed segregation. There was still a need for this protective segregation. What was happening in Northern Ireland? These were supposed to be the good times. The sides were finally disarming.
Belfast is still a war zone. There may have been a ceasefire, but that did not change the facts. For half a century the IRA, the UVF, the UDA, have been killing each other – over what? Religion and allegiance to Britain. Standing there, I thought, America thought it could pacify the Middle East. It thought it could end the fighting, do away with the terrorists, and make it peaceful. Why did America think it could change Iraq and Afghanistan when, after more than 200 years, Britain couldn't change Ireland? Standing there, staring at thousands of signatures, I reached down and added my name.
My family left Belfast the next day. A week later the Real IRA burned down a Protestant-run shopping center. The IRA admitted they had turned over none of their explosives and only a third of their assault rifles. The UVF, UDA, and UDF all refused to continue disarming. What is happening in Northern Ireland? A decade after “peace,” and everyone is ramping up for war.