Belfast city delegate, Laura McNamee, addresses audience at outdoor reception of annual gathering of Forum for Cities in Transition, Kaduna, Nigeria,

Belfast city delegate, Laura McNamee, addresses audience at outdoor reception of annual gathering of Forum for Cities in Transition, Kaduna, Nigeria

Learning from others at Nigerian conference
by Laura McNamee
18 December 2013

Speaking in Nigeria, Councillor Laura McNamee reflects on the current state of Northern Ireland, hidden barriers that still remain, and how punk played a pivotal role in the darkest days of the Troubles.

At the start of November I attended the Forum for Cities in Transition conference in Kaduna, Nigeria, on behalf of Belfast City Council. At the event I met with delegates from other cities who have been through conflict, and who are involved with mediation and peace initiatives.

Sharing and learning from each other’s experiences, I took part in a panel debate and gave a presentation on Belfast, aiming to outline the underlying tensions and evolution of the conflict within Northern Ireland.

I explained how our conflict was initially driven by tensions along religious lines arising from discrimination, which gave way to a war focused on national identity, and has now settled on a new chapter. Gone are the days of dissident republican and loyalist paramilitaries engaging in direct conflict, to be replaced with the latest round of discussions focussed on dealing with the past and expressions of cultural identity.

Identity versus perception

Perception goes to the heart of everything in Northern Ireland as we obsess with our identity, based on our religious background — even if we do not practice a religious tradition. There is a need for us to challenge this and understand that religion, if we practise it, or national identity, whatever it might be, are mere facets of our identities. They do not wholly define us as a person.

There is a growing number in Northern IReland who chose not to define themselves as Irish or British — but Northern Irish. At the last census this figure registered at between 20 and 30 percent, depending on the ward in question. Speaking in Nigeria, I fell into this category, describing myself as Northern Irish, as a reflection of my dual nationality, the composition of Northern Ireland, and my right.

Before my trip I had met with two leading punks, who are in the process of editing a book charting the rise of the punk scene across Belfast and North Down. They explained how punk played a pivotal role in transcending the divide during some of the darkest days of the Troubles, where people from North Down would end up in bars in West Belfast and vice versa (not necessarily advisable at the time, but commendable all the same).

They also explained how young people redefined themselves, perhaps even dropping their surnames in favour of stage names, so as not to be painted in one hue or another. They forged their own identity regardless of religious background or political ideology. They all belonged to the same scene. Indeed, one of the guys explained that, had it not been for that diversion, he would have undoubtedly become involved with a loyalist paramilitary organisation.

Educating the future

As we continue to move forward, youth intervention and education remain the keys. We are aware that loyalist paramilitaries continue to actively recruit young boys in east Belfast. The presumption is that they are being radicalised; however, we have also been in discussion with older members of loyalist paramilitary organisations who want out. They want to warn future generations against joining paramilitary organisations, and to promote education of our shared history from multiple perspectives. It is only once we address the elephant in the room, as opposed to burying our heads in the sand, that we can really learn from the past and hope to move on towards a brighter future.

One final note I wish to share is an issue that was brought to my attention by a lecturer at the University of Ulster’s architecture department, and that is the issue of hidden barriers (reaffirming the need to explore fully our history in order to understand our present, and learn lessons for the future).

He had undertaken a pilot project within east Belfast, and discovered a number of barriers that could be considered peace walls, which the security forces had erected to contain neighbourhoods during the Troubles. Mostly this consisted of streets behind closed off at one end, or pedestrianised so that cars could not pass through.

I had assumed that these were perhaps road safety measures, but they have had the effect that people living adjacent to one another in neighbouring streets had never met or spoken to one another in 30 years. They were hiding in plain sight. It is imperative that we proactively break down barriers, both perceived and real — whether in the landscape, or in our own minds.