Shared Spaces Workshop: An Educational Tour of Belfast, Northern Ireland
| 2019 | 09:00
Shared Spaces Workshop: An Educational Tour of Belfast, Northern Ireland
- Invites Only
- Belfast, North Irelamd
- Invites Only
- Belfast, North Irelamd
In July 2019, a four-day educational tour of Belfast, Northern Ireland, was initiated by the Institute and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. Community workers of the Jerusalem municipality who participated throughout 2019 in the Jerusalem Institute’s shared spaces workshop took part in the tour.
The group comprised 16 municipality community workers, of which six were secular Jews, six religious Jews, three Arab Muslims, and one Arab Christian. The composition of the group was not the focus, and the purpose of the tour was not a Palestinian-Israeli encounter, the type of group that often comes to Northern Ireland to learn about the local conflict. This was a professional group and based on the fact that it operates in Jerusalem, it included the diverse populations that reside in it—the same diversity that moved the Jerusalem Institute to engage with the issue of shared spaces in Jerusalem, several years ago.
About the Conflict in Northern Ireland
In brief, the conflict is the struggle between a Catholic population with a Gaelic identity and a Protestant population with a British identity, over the identity of the Irish island. This conflict has officially ended in 1998 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed and the island of Ireland was divided into a sovereign Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of Britain.
According to the speakers that presented to the workshop participants, the trigger for the outbreak of violence (the years of violent conflict that are called “The Troubles” by the North Irelanders), was significant discrimination that Catholics experienced at the time in housing and education. A specific event in which a small Protestant family was preferred in public housing over a Catholic family with numerous children brought about violence by the Catholic side. British police forces that were brought in to calm things down, and which were dominated by Protestants, escalated the violence by both sides (an important and well-remembered event in this context is Bloody Sunday). Thus, the North Irelanders embarked upon two and a half decades of violent struggle.
The Good Friday Agreement declared the end of the conflict and the disarming of all the parties. It anchored several important decisions intended to increase equality between the groups. These included a significant reform of the police, which initiated massive recruitment of Catholics, so that now both sides are more or less equally represented in the police force. In addition, sharing of government power was also agreed upon, forming a kind of permanent unity government that is committed to representing both sides. Parliament indeed is representative, but for the past two years there is no active government, as the sides cannot agree on its establishment.
Former Terrorists Engage in the Promotion of Peace
During the four-day tour, meetings were held with various Protestant and Catholic activists—people who experienced the conflict themselves. They took part in the violent struggle and paid many prices for it: the death of relatives, years in prison, injuries, isolation. Most of them work these days as community workers, and when they relate to their violent past, they describe themselves as ‘volunteers’.
Gerry McConville, a former fighter in the IRA (or as he put it, “a former IRA volunteer”), described coping with the current tensions between the two sides:
“Representatives of both sides are sitting at the table, people who in the past had directly attempted to kill each other. They talk, clarify, raise issues, elucidate, and write together policy papers, which they send to the government. Even today there are times in which it is difficult to sit at the same table. Then you step away, cool down, and come back to the same table when you feel it’s possible once more. There are steps that politicians cannot take because it will be perceived as weakness, but community workers can take them.”
Gerry spoke a lot about the violent struggle: He was in jail for 8 years, 15 months of which he spent in isolation. At the end of the meeting with him he was asked whether he still views violence as a legitimate way of struggle for minority groups and whether he regrets his past. His reply was:
“Do I regret my violent past? No. I had no other tools with which to fight for my rights and my identity. Would I go back today to a violent struggle? No. I have representation today. I have other ways to get my voice heard and to fight for my rights. If that changes, and violent struggle will be my only option, I would not hesitate to return to a violent struggle. I am not a pacifist.”
Another activist said the following:
“Thirty-thousand people were imprisoned during the years of violent struggle (‘The Troubles’). Many experts claim that according to the statistics, 10% were on the path to become criminals even if they were born in a country that was not immersed in conflict. We have to ask ourselves what are the special and political circumstances that caused 27,000 people to be jailed and what circumstances we think justify this.”
Galit Raz-Dror, deputy CEO of the Institute, relates:
“’Volunteers’ was a term that at first was difficult for us to accept in the context of the violent past of the activists. From our talks with them we understood that the motivation that moved them during the years of struggle—responsibility and caring for their community—also moves them today in their community work. These same activists remember very well the price exacted by the war and the violence that ran rampant in the streets, and they know that the relations between the groups are delicate and require much caution and constant maintenance, and therefore they are conducted with due respect to each other. Not without anger and baggage from the past, but with the shared understanding that their children are having a much better childhood than they had, and they wish to make sure that it stays that way.”
For more personal experiences from the tour: From Jerusalem to Belfast and Back
The Power of Community Work: Elimination of Conflicts between Populations
Community work in Belfast is widespread. The Good Friday Agreement is to a large extent a product of the community work of the prisoners-volunteers-terrorists who spent the best years of their lives in jail only to discover, upon their release, that nothing had changed and the sides are still killing each other. When they saw this, they decided to create a change. The sides signed the agreement in 1998, which was a declaration of the end of the conflict but also in many ways merely a starting point.
Currently, the activists promote numerous community initiatives with various aims, but all with the desire to maintain the peace and secure it.
A Complex and Multi-Layered Identity
Looking ahead includes recognizing the existence of a range of identities. The case of Northern Ireland enables separating citizenship from nationality. Everyone holds a British passport but can also choose one or another nationality.
It is possible to include a complex identity: Northern Ireland lies between Britain and Ireland and is a kind of conduit between the worlds, which currently enjoy open borders. Dr. Paul Nolan, an expert on symbols and identity, explained that reality enables sending children to a school identified with one group, while cheering for the sports team of the other group.
In recent polls conducted in Northern Ireland, 16% said that they do not define themselves as either Catholic or Protestant. In parliament, 16% of the members belong to parties that are not identified with either side. Various, complex identities have been formed. According to Dr. Nolan, this trend is growing, and will lead to a situation in which Northern Ireland is not composed of a majority Protestant group and a minority Catholic one, but rather of different minorities.
How Is the Establishment in Northern Ireland Contributing to the Development of Peaceful Relationships?
Parliament as well as the police are the centers of power that are run in tandem by both populations, on the basis of a decision anchored in the Agreement. According to the representatives in the tour, Protestants and Catholics are currently equal before the law and all have an equal opportunity for education, employment, and housing. Besides the centers of power, there are community centers and sports centers that were established in the seam areas between the populations, as spaces that serve everyone. It was quite natural to see community centers with such an agenda during the tour; what was really impressive was seeing the commercial companies that had been established in these spaces. In addition to civil society, which seems to be shouldering the Agreement, and the commercial sector, local institutions are also very involved in keeping the peace:
The local Queens University in Belfast is involved in creating joint programs for both populations, such as the development of a model for joint education in schools. The Good Friday Agreement ruled for joint education, but implementation of this decision failed completely. Currently only 7% of the students learn in mixed schools that operate with an agenda of cooperation.
Professor Tony Gallagher, former head of the school of education in Queens University, created a model aimed at dealing with this failure. In his model, schools continue to be separate, but there are subjects in the curriculum that are studied together. These schools even receive monetary incentives to implement such a curriculum. For example, a physics lab is built in a Catholic school, and both Catholic and Protestant students study there. For chemistry classes, all the children go to a Protestant school where a special chemistry lab has been set up. The university continues to be very involved and measures the effectiveness of joint education on the relations between the groups. We also learned that the local orchestra takes part in community initiatives aimed at keeping the peace.
Implementation of the Irish Model in Israel
Professor Gallagher’s model has been imported to Jerusalem, after configuration, by the municipal education administration (MANHI). In the local version, the program includes occasional meetings of students, teachers, and principals from East and West Jerusalem for science lessons.
The Class Dimension of the Conflict: Urban Renewal and Social Mobility
Originally, Belfast was a city based on the manufacturing, processing, and export of cotton: a city with heavy industry, factories, and ships.
Dr. Jackie Redpath has been a community worker for 30 years in the Shankill neighborhood. It is an unquestionably Protestant neighborhood, in which the former workforce of Belfast industry resides. The Protestants, who arrived from Glasgow, Scotland, are the operators of this industry, in which the work tradition was based on the father transferring to his son the necessary knowledge and skills. No further education was required. Redpath says:
“I belong to the last generation that could have succeeded without an education, because I was employed on the basis of physical skills and family background. But since we did not have a tradition of education, my children and grandchildren did not go to school.”
In 1970 the heavy industries began to collapse, and in 1998 the city experienced intensive development, with education becoming the key to socio-economic mobility. At the same time, the city center, in which mostly Protestants lived, was undergoing a process of urban renewal. According to Dr. Redpath, the renewal process dismantled the community structure of the Shankill neighborhood and its environs. The Catholics, who were not part of the heavy industry, acquired education and thus gained better mobility. Notably, this is how Redpath sees things. Yet traditionally, the Catholics in Belfast belonged to the lower classes. Currently, both Catholics and Protestants in the lower classes are in bad shape: They lack the tools for social mobility, but also feel that they lost the legitimacy of their unique identity. Their sense of belonging has been damaged and they do not feel that they are benefiting from the Agreement. Redpath says that Belfast is the city with the highest rate of suicide in all of Europe. To counter this, there are numerous initiatives aimed at benefiting the lower classes.
Brexit: A threat to the delicate balance
Britain’s desire to leave the European Union (Brexit) is also disrupting plans. The activists who presented in the tour said that the residents of the northern island feel that Britain did not give enough thought to the issue. If and when Britain does exit the Union, the fear in Northern Ireland is that the blessed peace will be violated. The Catholics will find themselves with a stronger British identity than the one that they accepted when the Agreement was signed. The ability to maintain complex identities will be reduced, and there would be a need to create a clear physical boundary between Northern Ireland and Ireland—which may reignite the tensions and violence.
For other personal experiences from the tour: From Jerusalem to Belfast and Back