Beginning to See the Connections

I have finally been able to sit down with Mr. Jarman after emailing each other over the course of the last few months. He generously offered time and space for a meandering line of questioning. I really wanted to know more about issues with the youth, how communities deal with overlap at Interfaces and general political/economic trends in Northern Ireland. Neil was the man to see for sure.

Violence is trending down in Northern Ireland and Belfast specifically. This is due in a large part to the nature of violence itself. It is seen as more of a nuisance than it is a threat to community stability. Adults are not supporting the youth, or inflaming the excitable nature of young troublemakers into something that would catch on. The struggle remains though. The use of  force has been legitimized by society over the course of the last generation or two. Think of it as riot as socializing. That’s why, I suppose, some people have told me that Belfast is boring now, and at least there was something to do during the Troubles.

Thankfully, cross community, and increasingly intra-community violence, is widely condemned and contained. Tomorrow I’ll be going to the Whiterock parade in the Shankill. There I’ll see how the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has managed contentious events like marches. Reaction to community events such as these is proactive, not reactive, as Neil says. And the focus is on relationship building prior to the event, much like Billy Moore expressed in Derry.

I asked about youth counter culture. I am wondering if more and more communities are seeing young people avoid politics and religion altogether, thus avoiding sectarian associations and reminders. This question stems from my conversation with Chris Gaskins, the gentleman who helped me travel from Belfast to Derry. Neil used music as an example. Many young people are musicians in their traditional cultural way. But it is not an avenue to strike it rich or earn a record deal. Many Protestant youths are forming their own flute and drum bands and parading, while not necessarily affiliating with the Orange Halls or their parents and grandparents means of playing music. These bands are doing more touring than staying within their community. On the other hand, Irish traditional music is a session sport, and young musicians are finding this type of community to connect into. Once again the focus is not to make it rich.

These examples serve as a reminder of how young people are using the culture around them to create their own identity. And these examples of the music are unique to Northern Ireland.But I see connections with my students. It would be much like the youth from Taos forming drum groups on the Pueblo, or mariachi bands on their own. This happens regularly, of course with their own sense of flare and voice. Iwish I had more links for youth from the Pueblo and mariachi sounds. Lot of hip hop and drumming coming down the mountain.

Economically, Belfast is riding a wave of financial support from international sources to fund the peace process. This money is not going to last forever. Community posts like Sean Montgomery’s in Skegoneill are examples of this. Some people think the money trail will derail by the end of 2013, but no one really knows. Long term unemployment is high for the UK. But the City Centre is booming. Tourism is most definitely up. As my tour guide, Michael Rock, explained about the use of glass for store fronts. No one would have used glass during the Troubles. Bombs, right? Makes sense. The Riverfront district is no longer a smelly bog. The Cathedral Quarter is a shared space for commerce and foodies.

But Belfast is a ‘two-speed’ city. The service industry and related jobs are up and strong. The class divide is widening though. And the community residential divides are still alive and strong as evidenced by pictures from this week.

Politically speaking, with sweeping generalizations as Neil and I assured one another, I have noticed the Protestants feel a bit threatened by the peace process and fall out from 1998. In the sense that their political majority and hands on the steering wheel of the country are shaky. Catholics outnumber Protestants in the North, I think. But leading up to the Troubles Protestants held office and political power. That is changing very quickly.

Protestants, on a number of occasions with me, have expressed the concern that their culture is compromised. Neil thinks that is related to the call for communities to rein in the use of symbols and flags to combat paramilitary culture. Do you really need a masked gunman on a mural to celebrate your Protestant culture? Or is that a way to glorify violence and community terrorism? This seems like it would be akin to the Spanish community in Taos demanding their cultural images should be of the conquistadores, or the Anglos celebrating Kit Carson in public places.

Also the communities have been encouraged to gear their events, such as the bonfires, towards the family and not destructive, volatile, sectarian events. Address the use of alcohol at such events, as well. And as a shopkeeper told me in regards to the parade culture being under attack, Neil estimates of the 2,800 parades across the North, only about 100 are highly contested, meaning their route, timing, communication has to change. Once again, cheers to Billy Moore in Derry for addressing these issues through dialogue.

I am thankful for the time with Neil. He helped me form a picture of my own community as I think about the connections with Northern Ireland. But as he said, or something like it, if you try to understand Northern Ireland, you won’t understand Northern Ireland.

I wonder how our tiny town of 10,000 people reflects that sentiment. I wonder how yours copes. Is your community a collision of contradictions, divides and gulfs? Has your community used sport, or music, or public art to address shared identity? What are the next steps to grow together? This city is made of a fabric with deep neighborhood divides. I think everyone is just getting used to the peace, and quiet, and change. That’s more than enough, light years of progress, before they start looking at commonality. They may never.

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