Belfast: Being Young in a Divided City - PhMuseum

Belfast: Being Young in a Divided City

Marika Dee

2015 - 2017

Once the scene of intense violence, Belfast city center has been re-imaged as a place of normality. This new consumer-oriented Belfast with its up-market bars and shops has no place for visible traces of the violent past.

But although not far in distance, the city's working-class areas are a world apart. The legacy of the Troubles continues to cast a long shadow in these areas that witnessed some of the worst violence during the three-decade-long conflict between the mostly Catholic republicans who wanted be part of a united Ireland and the mostly Protestant loyalists who wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom. More than 3500 people were killed during the Troubles, many of them in the working-class areas of Belfast.

Most young people growing up in these areas have not experienced the Troubles firsthand — the violent conflict ended twenty years ago with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement — yet their lives continue to be shaped by its ongoing legacy. The city's working-class areas are still divided along sectarian lines and their Catholic and Protestant communities lead largely segregated lives. Working-class youth are growing up in a deeply divided society with an entrenched us-versus-them mentality.

Physical barriers, the so-called peace walls — a palatable euphemism for segregation barriers — are the most visible reminder of Northern Ireland's conflict. The peace walls separate the Protestant and Catholic communities and were built to reduce violence. But not all spatial barriers are physical, many are psychological, invisible dividing lines used by local people to structure their basic daily routines and practices. People construct mental maps in which space is labeled as "ours", "theirs" or "neutral".

Sectarian divisions in housing, schooling, sports and social life leave few opportunities to meet youth from the other community, making it hard to have real friends across the divide.

Segregation is not the only post-conflict reality young people have to deal with. Paramilitary groups that were active during the conflict retain a grip on their communities. These groups have evolved into criminal organizations engaged in drug trafficking, protection rackets and other criminal activities. The paramilitary groups continue to recruit young people often through coercion or in payment for drug debts. They are also involved in vigilante policing and pretend to protect their communities from anti-social behavior and petty crime with their violent attacks. People, including children and teenagers, from both communities have to cope with the intimidations, beatings, shootings and expulsions out of the area by the paramilitaries of their own community.

Young people face numerous challenges and poor prospects. The working-class areas, the worst affected during the conflict, are among the most economically and socially deprived in the UK. Unlike the city center, these areas have not benefited from the promised peace dividend and have lost out economically. Rampant youth unemployment leaves many young people with low aspirations. Poverty is widespread, academic achievement is low and drug and alcohol abuse among young people has increased. Mental health is problematic and the suicide rate, particular among young males, is one of the highest in Western Europe.

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  • A gate blocks access to the Catholic enclave of Ardoyne in north Belfast. First built in 1969 as a temporary solution to reduce violence, the peace walls — a euphemism for segregation barriers — have increased in number and scale since the start of the peace process.

  • A young man wearing a uniform shirt of the Pride of Ardoyne Flute Band adds an election poster of a Sinn Féin politician to a bonfire. Bonfires are traditionally lit in Protestant areas on the "Eleventh Night" of July to commemorate the victory of the Protestant William of Orange over the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

  • Ryan in the Village area of south Belfast. Behind him a lamp post in the colors red, blue and white of the Union Jack identifies the area as Protestant. Flags, murals and painted curbs and lamp posts are common identity markers in Protestant working-class areas.

  • Young people near a so-called peace wall in north Belfast that separates the Protestant Glenbryn area from the Catholic Ardoyne area on the other side.

  • Young people celebrate Saint Patrick's day in the Catholic Ardoyne area of north Belfast. The young man on the left has a tricolor flag, the national flag of the Republican of Ireland, draped around him.

  • Caitlin (right), 17, and Tigernach, 14, get ready for boxing practice in the Divis Immaculata boxing club in the Catholic Divis area of west Belfast. Caitlin who already won several national and international medals, is an inspiration for the younger Tigernach.

  • Shrine to a teenage suicide victim in the Catholic Ardoyne area of north Belfast. Northern Ireland's suicide rate is the highest in the UK and it continues to rise. Disadvantaged areas, in particular north and west Belfast, experience higher suicide rates and young men are particularly affected.

  • A republican mural depicting former north Belfast IRA volunteer Martin Meehan on a housing estate in the Catholic Ardoyne area of north Belfast. Northern Ireland has a long tradition of murals with paramilitary and historical narratives as dominating themes.

  • Surrounded by Irish flags, teenagers hang out in the Catholic New Lodge area of north Belfast.

  • Tigernach (right), 14 and a friend in the Catholic Falls area of west Belfast. Behind them a mural commemorating the 1916 Proclamation of the Republic, a document written in the name of the self-styled Provisional Government of the Irish Republic that proclaimed Ireland's independence from the UK.

  • Young people watch a parade from the roof of a derelict building in the Protestant Woodvale area of north Belfast. Parades are an important part of the culture of Northern Ireland, particularly — but not exclusively — in the Protestant loyalist community.

  • Seanalee, 17 and her daughter at the front door of their home in the Catholic Ardoyne area of north Belfast. After having her baby, Seanalee dropped out of school but hopes to return.

  • Demi, 15, at her friend's home in west Belfast. Education is segregated with 95 percent of children attending single-identity schools. Most schools have their own uniform and since schools are overwhelmingly either Protestant or Catholic, these uniforms identify a person's community background.

  • Best friends Demi (right), 17, and Briege-Anne, 16, get ready for a party, in Demi's home in the Protestant enclave of Suffolk in west Belfast. The two friends come from different communities and frequent each other's houses, still a rather exceptional situation.

  • Lewis (left), 16, and Daniel, 15, sit outside the Corpus Christi Youth Centre in the Catholic Upper Springfield area of west Belfast. The youth center organizes a cross-community project in which youths from both communities participate.

  • A mural indicating the presence of the UDA (Ulster Defence Association) paramilitary group in a housing estate in the Protestant Lower Shankill area in west Belfast. Next to it a smaller sign with the acronyms UFF and UYM can be seen. The paramilitary group UDA was proscribed as a terrorist organization in 1992. Earlier on, in 1973 the UFF (Ulster Freedom Fighters), a cover name used by the UDA when conducting operations, was outlawed. The Ulster Youth Militants (UYM) is the youth branch of the UDA. UDA/UFF terrorists were responsible for hundreds of deaths — most of them Catholic civilians — during the Troubles.
    Paramilitary activity is an enduring legacy of the Troubles. Paramilitary groups are involved in drug trafficking, protection rackets and other criminal activities. The paramilitary groups continue to recruit young people, often through coercion or in payment for drug debts. They also engage in vigilante policing and pretend to protect their communities from alleged anti-social behavior and petty crime with their violent attacks. People, including children, from both communities have to cope with the intimidations, beatings, shootings and expulsions out of the area by the paramilitaries of their own community.

  • Teenagers play near an open fire hydrant in the Protestant Lower Shankill area in west Belfast. Educational underachievement and unemployment are high in the estate.

  • Young people participating in a cross-community project of a youth club in the Catholic Divis area in west Belfast decorate both sides of a gate between Protestant Shankill and Catholic Falls road. Every night the gate closes at 6.30pm.

  • Young people hang out on discarded furniture in the Protestant Lower Shankill area of west Belfast.
    Working-class youth from both communities grow up in a risk-laden environment where they are exposed to poverty, barriers and paramilitaries.

  • The Ulster Banner, the former flag of the Northern Ireland government (1953–1972), is seen on a bonfire-under-construction in the Protestant Lower Shankill area of West Belfast. The flag no longer has an official status but has become a contentious symbol representing Ulster loyalism.
    Bonfires are traditionally lit in Protestant areas on the "Eleventh Night" of July to commemorate the victory of the Protestant William of Orange over his Catholic father-in-law King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Preparations start months before with the collection of pallets and other materials like rubber tires. The bonfire is followed on July 12 by a large parade held by the Orange Order — a Protestant fraternal organization — and loyalist marching bands. The "Twelfth" as it is called is a tense period. Many Catholics consider the celebrations a display of sectarian triumphalism whereas for many working-class Protestants they are an essential expression of their cultural identity.


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