Protestants and Catholics Live Separate Lives

Belfast City Hall.
A mural commemorating imprisoned Catholic IRA member Bobby Sands, who died while on a hunger strike in support of IRA-linked prisoners’ rights in 1981.
A so called “peace wall” in Belfast.
Mural depicting armed men of the UVF, a unionist- or Protestant-linked paramilitary group active during the civil war.
Mural with a peace message.
A Protestant marching band in Bangor, Northern Ireland.

In Northern Ireland today there is still a sharp divide between Protestants and Catholics, or if you will, unionists and nationalists. People from the two groups, generally, live in separate neighborhoods, go to separate schools and socialize mostly with people from their own community. Furthermore, in the large cities, there are high walls, euphemistically called “Peace Walls”, separating ethnically divided districts. These barriers have been erected to keep the opposing communities from throwing stones and attacking each other.

Reasons for separation

The reason why people began living segregated lives, which then produced the separation we see today, include past housing allocation policies, displacement due to sectarian intimidation and personal choices. There may, in other words, exist logical reasons for ethnic separation, but far from all inhabitants are comfortable with living this way. For this reason, the Northern Irish devolved government work to achieve so much integration and peaceful exchanges between the neighborhoods that the “Peace Walls” could be safely removed in the future and inhabitants of different religious persuasion could live anywhere. Citizens themselves, moreover, also contribute to increasing contact between people of different backgrounds, particularly by starting integrated schools.

The many efforts to achieve peaceful progress has led to important cross-culture relationships being built, but quite naturally, fears and aspirations linking back to the Troubles are not gone. Many Protestants, for example, believe that Catholics, and sometimes even their own unionist political leadership, are underhandedly trying to undermine British culture in Northern Ireland in order to stealthily usher in Irish rule. The joint decisions by Protestant and Catholic politicians to remove the British flag from Belfast City Hall and to put restrictions on Protestant marching bands — two issues of major symbolic importance for Northern Ireland’s Protestants — are often pointed to as examples of this.

Murals

Apprehension in the Protestant camp, around issues such as those previously mentioned, is not the only political powder keg in Northern Ireland. Catholics, too, have their concerns that could cause old conflicts to flare up, such as the group’s relationship with the region’s police force. In part, the Catholics’ beef with the police regard transgressions during the civil war, where crimes where the police or the military are implicated appear to have been partly or completely covered up. In addition, Catholics generally distrust Protestants, and vice versa, making it hardly surprising that large, colorful murals painted on walls and on houses in both Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods indicate that all in society is not calm. The murals, which reflect the mood of the local communities, for example, depict tributes to fallen heroes and show images of weapons, revealing that the past is not forgotten and that people are ready to fight again.

Governing Northern Ireland together

Nevertheless, recently, peace messages in the form of sports icons, doves and happy colors have begun to crop up on the murals too. Creators of these new murals hope that depictions of friendly and unifying symbols will make people think less about sectarianism and more about a shared future. A general weariness of conflict today is also slowly drawing people of different backgrounds closer, and inspiring hope, since the late 1990s, nationalists and unionists govern Northern Ireland together, something that was inconceivable before the Troubles.