Chance of accord on Ulster may be near, but the people grow farther apart


BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Twenty-five years ago, Irish nationalists took their cue from the American civil rights movement and began marching for change, provoking bloody clashes with authorities that pushed Northern Ireland to the brink of civil war.

Now, in one of the most hopeful developments in two decades, politicians and even hard-liners appear to be inching toward accommodation. But the people -- the 1.5 million Roman Catholics and Protestants who live amid this long and bitter conflict -- are inching farther and farther away from each other.

Most opinion polls show that people here want to live in peace. But census data and anecdotal evidence show that they want to live apart, raising questions about whether people here are prepared to reconcile their differences.

Saturday's bombing by the Irish Republican Army, which killed 10 and injured 58 civilians in Belfast's staunchly Protestant Shankill section, will severely test the strength of recent olive branches.

Gunmen critically wounded a Catholic in front of his young son after yesterday's funerals for the bombing victims.

But as politicians argue whether this Connecticut-sized region, known as Ulster, should remain part of the United Kingdom, be merged with the Irish Republic or somehow be jointly governed, Northern Ireland is becoming more Balkanized than ever. While many hope Northern Ireland will follow the example of the Middle East, where a peace process is under way, people here are retreating to enclaves defined by religion and national identity.

Still, violence here is no more prevalent than in most American cities. With three times as many people as Boston, Northern Ireland has only half as many murders annually, most of them, like Saturday's bombing, politically motivated.

Because of a $5 billion annual subsidy from the British government, there is a good standard of living for many people. And despite its image, Northern Ireland remains a beautiful place, with rolling fields and rocky, rustic coast lines.

The demographics, however, reveal a divided society drifting farther apart, making the prospect of reconciliation for the next generation even more dubious.

Data from the 1991 census show that housing segregation is more pronounced than ever. Population shifts of the past decade have left nearly half of the populace living in areas that are more than 90 percent Protestant or Catholic. Integrated education remains an option exercised by few.

And while there is still some mixing of Catholics and Protestants among the middle classes, the poor and working classes are completely separated. The gap between rich and poor has widened dramatically over the last 25 years. A seemingly permanent underclass is in place, and from it comes an endless stream of young people willing to join paramilitary groups like the IRA or its loyalist counterparts.

A quarter-century after Catholics took to the streets demanding civil rights, a sizable Catholic middle class has sprung up. But many Catholics, most of whom consider themselves Irish, have found that upward mobility does not mean equality.

Sheila McKeown, an American who runs a restaurant with her Northern Irish husband in Rostrevor, a seaside village 40 miles outside Belfast, says she is now seeing what she saw a decade ago, when blacks began moving into her previously all-white neighborhood in Tennessee.

"There is this assumption of inferiority, this feeling that, 'Oh, they're moving in. The neighborhood's gone,' " she says.

A woman who lives in Bangor, outside Belfast, says middle-class Protestants and Catholics will sometimes refer to each other jokingly by epithets.

"They'll call each other taigs and orangies, as if to say, 'Oh, this doesn't bother me.' But often it does." The woman, a Protestant, says many Catholics are patronized. "People say, 'Let's invite them over,' like they're a novelty."

A report released this month by a coalition of major churches found sectarianism surfaces in subtle ways. In rural areas, Protestants simply stop talking to their Catholic neighbors during the height of the summer "marching season," when parades commemorating the birth of the Protestant ascendancy in the 17th century highlight the sort of triumphalism that is common here.

Prejudice is a two-way street. A Catholic woman said that when she told a friend she had joined an ecumenical group, the friend replied indignantly, "How could you pray with that lot? Didn't they kill our priests and destroy our monasteries?"

Discrimination in public housing, most responsible for launching the civil rights movement, has lessened considerably. But the gap in job opportunities has not. Catholics are twice as likely as Protestants to be unemployed; the latter tend to be managers, while the former more often hold menial jobs.

Catholics have not benefited from one of the few growth industries in Northern Ireland: security work. In the public sector, traditional resentment of state authority and threats from the IRA make becoming a police officer daunting for any Catholic. In the private sector, security companies are wary about hiring someone who comes from a neighborhood where the IRA is entrenched.

The preoccupation with political violence and personal security, meanwhile, makes it difficult to address other problems, including unemployment and social deprivation, which feed the climate in which extremism flourishes.

Colin McIlhenny, a researcher for the Fair Employment Commission, said that as segregation intensifies, it becomes more difficult to close the gap in joblessness.

"People tend to work near where they live, so workplaces mirror the communities where they are, and are just as segregated," he said. "It is difficult for people to cross over lines, outside communities in which they feel safe."

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