The city of Belfast, once infamous for its seemingly intractable sectarian conflict that claimed more than 3,000 lives, has made a remarkable recovery in the years since the IRA and loyalist ceasefires in 1994. Belfast, which became the capital of Northern Ireland following the partition of the island in 1921, suffered devastating social, political and economic consequences from a campaign of violence orchestrated by the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries. The ‘Troubles’ were at their worst in the 1970s, when Belfast was the scene of daily bombings that targeted shops, pubs, restaurants and other public spaces, and civilians were targeted for sectarian murder. This in turn led to increased segregation in the city, as Protestants and Catholics fled from mixed areas – an internal displacement that was the largest in Europe since World War Two. A landmark accord — the Good Friday Agreement – was signed in 1998, and followed in 2006 by the St Andrews Agreement, and the peace process brought devolved government to Northern Ireland after years of direct rule. While much progress has been made in ten years of peace, Belfast still has a long way to go. It is more segregated than ever. Since the Good Friday Agreement more ‘peace walls’ have been erected, with 82 now in place across the city. Efforts are being made to bring the walls down, with organizations like the International Fund for Ireland being particularly active in this area. In addition to persistent segregation, the devolved government at Stormont now faces tremendous budgetary and political pressures, and relations between the two biggest parties, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin, are quite poor. Despite these challenges, there is much hope. The number of tourists visiting Belfast has increased from 400,000 in 1998 to 1.6 million in 2011. And two very significant, if largely symbolic events in recent years show just how far Belfast has come: in 2012 First Minister Peter Robinson (DUP) attended his first Gaelic football match; and in the same year Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness (Sinn Fein) met and shook hands with Queen Elizabeth. These two gestures would have been unthinkable even ten years ago.
The colonisation of Ireland began in the 1640s when Anglo Protestants and Scotch Presbyterians began to settle in much of what is today known as Northern Ireland. Belfast became a substantial settlement in the 17th century, during the time of the Plantation of Ulster. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Belfast was one of the cities at the coalface of the Industrial Revolution. It emerged as Ireland’s pre-eminent industrial city. Industries thrived, including linen, rope-making, tobacco, heavy engineering, and shipbuilding. At the end of the 19th century, Belfast briefly overtook Dublin as the largest city in Ireland.
The Titanic was built in Belfast in 1912 at the Harland and Wolff (H&W) shipyards, which became one of the largest shipbuilders in the world, employing up to 35,000 workers in its heyday. After WWII, the airplane manufacturer Shorts, set up a plant in Belfast, adjacent to the shipyards. Despite the proliferation of manufacturing in the city, Catholics were discriminated against in various sectors of employment and housing, and were denied opportunities for advancement in both the public and private sectors.
After Ireland was partitioned in 1921, Belfast became the capital of Northern Ireland, a self-governing province of the UK, and communal differences were exacerbated by frequent bouts of sectarian violence. The segregation of Catholics and Protestants became the determining factor in the city’s social, geographical, and political landscape. Generally speaking, Catholics were politically Nationalist or Republican. They yearned for independence from Great Britain and for union with the Republic of Ireland. Likewise, Protestants were politically Unionist or Loyalist, set on preserving the union between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Between 1920 and 1969, all organs of government and policing remained firmly within the control of the Unionist majority. One Northern Ireland prime minister famously called it “a Protestant state for a Protestant people” (in response to Irish Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera, describing Ireland as a Catholic nation). Unionists argue that discrimination was not just caused by religious or political bigotry, but also the result of more complex socio-economic, socio-political, and geographical factors.
Whatever the cause, the existence of pervasive discrimination, and the manner in which Nationalist anger at it was handled, was a major contributing factor to the long-running conflict known as the Troubles. The political unrest went through its most violent phase between 1968 and 1994.
In 1969, when communal violence was at its worst, the British government sent in the army ostensibly to ‘save’ Catholics from what appeared an imminent Protestant pogrom. A ‘peace wall’ was erected by the British Army, cutting streets in two and stretching across fourteen neighbourhoods. Attitudes towards the British Army soured after Bloody Sunday in 1972, when 13 protestors at the Northern Ireland Civil Rights March in Derry/Londonderry were killed and one died soon after from injuries inflicted by the Army. Bloody Sunday is often called a ‘turning point’ in The Troubles as violence appeared to increase after the incident. Furthermore, paramilitary groups proliferated; the presence of the British Army resuscitated a nascent Irish Republican Army (IRA). On the Unionist (Loyalist) side, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) were formed or revived to ‘protect’ Protestant communities from the IRA.
In the 1970s, Belfast was the scene of bombings at restaurants and public places, and bore the brunt of the killings in the following decades. Catholics fled from predominantly Protestant-populated areas, and Protestants from those predominantly Catholic-populated. At the time, it amounted to the largest internal displacement of a civilian population since WWII. The results of this displacement are still visible today: West Belfast is almost entirely Catholic; East Belfast, adjacent to the industrial mega-centres, is entirely Protestant; and North Belfast remains mixed. Besides physical separation, the two communities are divided by separate school systems, separate sports, language, culture, and national aspirations.
The IRA and loyalist paramilitary ceasefires of 1994, the signing of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in 1998, and the St Andrews Agreement in 2006 all brought a form of peace to Northern Ireland, a devolved Northern Ireland Assembly with 108 members, and a cross-party Executive. Both Irish and British identities are accorded parity of esteem: citizens may choose their national identity. Binding decisions require concurrent majorities of Unionists and Nationalists. Cross-border bodies handle issues common to both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Human rights and equality are underpinned by robust legislation and strong agencies.
Thus the minority Catholic population gained a share of political power in Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland gained a voice in Northern Irish affairs. In return, Catholics agreed that a united Ireland would require that a majority of Northern Ireland voters give their consent. In a dual referendum held on 22 May 1998, Northern Ireland approved the accord by a vote of 71 percent to 29 percent, and the Irish Republic approved the accord by a vote of 94 percent. This led to a period of sustained economic growth and large-scale redevelopment of the city centre and the waterfront.
In 1997, Unionists lost overall control of Belfast City Council for the first time, with the balance of power held by cross-community Alliance Party ever since. There have been six Nationalist Lord Mayors of Belfast, three from the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and three from Sinn Fein.
The Catholic community now makes up the majority of Belfast’s population, with many Protestants having moved away. The reason for this exodus appears to be related to socio-economic factors. Northern Ireland has a population of 1.75 million people. In the late 1960s, the Protestant proportion was 60 percent and the Catholic proportion 40 percent. In a 2001 census, 53.1 percent of the Northern Irish population came from a Protestant background and 43.8 percent came from a Catholic background. Belfast witnessed a similar haemorrhaging of Protestants. The City of Belfast has a population of 276,459 and lies at the heart of metropolitan Belfast, which has a population of approximately 800,000. In 1961, the Protestant population of Belfast was 63 percent; it has fallen in every census since.
In 2009, the Consultative Group on the Past – a commission set up in 2007 to consider the best way of dealing with the past – published its Eames/Bradley report. Among its recommendations is a Legacy Commission, which would sit for five years and be headed by an international commissioner. Its remit would cover: (a) helping society towards a shared and reconciled future through a process of engagement with community issues arising from the conflict (the Reconciliation Forum); (b) reviewing and investigating historical cases; (c) conducting a process of information recovery; and (d) examining cases linked or thematic cases emerging from the conflict.
Sadly, after ten years of peace, it is noted that Belfast is more segregated than ever. Since the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement of 1998, more peace walls have been erected, now numbering 82 across the city. Even though so far none are coming down, in September 2011, Alexandra Park’s peace wall was reopened after 17 years for a few hours every day. Other efforts in this direction are being made, and among them one especially important: the International Fund for Ireland (IFI) announced in the early 2012 a first stage of its IFI project called Peace Walls Programme, which is to help tear down non-physical barriers. Its final goal is to break down peace walls.
In short, despite the persistent segregation and the step backward in cross-community relations, there is still hope. Nearly 15 years ago, Belfast was considered as dangerous as the most dangerous places in the world. Now, the number of tourists that visit to Belfast has increased from 400,000 in 1998 to 1.6 million in 2011. Moreover, the Titanic Belfast, a brand new building marking 100 years after the ship’s sinking, sheds light on a future that, even if it still has some shades, can give Belfast back the brightness that it once had so many decades ago.
Among the beneficial consequences of Northern Ireland’s political agreements, two recent events are particularly of note. The first is the attendance in early 2012 of First Minister Peter Robinson, a Democratic Unionist Party leader, at his first Gaelic Football match. The second is the handshake in mid-2012 between Catholic deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and Queen Elizabeth II. This symbolic gesture is a sign of reconciliation and healing taking root.
The relative political stability in Belfast began to unravel in 2017 when Sinn Fein’s deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, resigned due to a green energy scandal. This led to the Northern Ireland Assembly holding fresh elections in March 2017. While the DUP remained the single largest party, nationalist parties won thirty-nine seats while the unionist parties won thirty-eight, this result was indicative of the increased minority Catholic population in Northern Ireland. The DUP gained further influence in London in June of that year when UK Prime Minister Theresa May lost the Conservative Party’s majority and formed an alliance with the DUP to remain in power. For almost three years now there has been no functioning government in Northern Ireland. Government budgets, Education, Health and Community sectors have been affected the most.
Concerns over Brexit and the fallout any agreement will have on Northern Ireland are rampant. For Belfast, Northern Ireland’s educational and commercial hub, continued economic growth and continued peaceful stability are hinged on a positive Brexit result. Almost fifty-six percent of Northern Ireland’s population voted for the UK to remain in the EU. Many in Northern Ireland and south of the border both attribute membership to the EU and the ability for the Irish government and British government to meet there on equal terms as one of the main reasons for diminished tensions. The most contentious issue is the reestablishment of a hard border, which has become essentially invisible since it was heavily militarised during the conflict. Many are concerned that the UK’s impending departure from the EU will threaten the Good Friday Agreement, igniting conflict. Sinn Fein leaders have called Brexit “the most serious threat in the history of the peace process.”
Dissident republican violence remains a constant presence in Belfast. Since 2012 there have been regular attempts on the lives of police officers in Belfast. Bombs, rockets, gun and mortar attacks are just some of the ways these have been carried out. IED’s have been placed in busy shopping areas threatening lives on a larger scale. In May 2016, after the murder of a police officer in East Belfast by a booby trap car bomb attack the threat level from Northern Ireland related terrorism in Great Britain was raised from moderate to substantial (current level as of Jan. 2020 is moderate). Home Secretary Teresa May stated that it ‘reflected the continuing threat from dissident republican activity”. In January 2017, according to police figures the number of paramilitary style shootings in west Belfast doubled in 2016, compared to figures from the previous year. As recently as June 2019, similar style of attacks have continued intermittently.
Belfast today is still a thriving port town with a growing population. Investments into the redevelopment of areas such as the Titanic Quarter are aiding this growth. Although, overall economic growth is on a slower trajectory compared to other UK cities, an increased focus on job creation and envioronmental improvements, shows there is reason for optimism in this upward trend continuing.