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Names in different places

“See, that’s my real name!”

I am a child in war-torn Bosnia, showing my birth certificate to my friends. On it, I crossed out my real name, and put a different one – one that would be more acceptable than mine. That was the last of my attempts to singlehandedly change my identity; at first, I tried squeezing in different letters to get to an acceptable version, but then I ended up changing it altogether. I was a young girl, desperately wanting to belong, and after countless questions asking if that was my real name, followed by looks of mistrust, I concluded that a) my name was not welcome in the ethno-national milieu I lived in, and b) that I should simply change it; this way, no one would be suspicious of me or my family. They would no longer see me as an intruder, someone who is possibly, but not certainly, a mixed breed that will eventually side with the enemy. It was as absurd as it sounds.

Today, the birth certificate story is just a funny story my mom sometimes recounts. In essence, it is a sad story. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the vast majority of cases, people can tell simply by your name, and often times especially by your last name, what ethnicity, and then by default, religion, you belong to and more importantly, if it differs from theirs. Unlike in the times of conflict, as well as fresh post-conflict period, in many parts of the country it does not matter what people can tell by your name. In some parts, however, it still does matter a lot. It is less common to have a not-so-sure name like mine, so that people can guess, but never be completely sure whose side I belong. The difference today, however, is that it’s just the way I like it.

While the only thing I wanted as a child was to belong, the only thing I wanted as I grew older was to run away from Bosnia, as far as I could. I despised it: nationalism, othering, divisions, politics, the never-ending narrative of them and us. I hated that there were so many people who lost a loved one. I felt bone-crushing pain whenever I thought of a loved one I lost. And so I did run away – and what followed through my teenage and young adulthood years was a life in all the other places that weren’t Bosnia. Today, I am in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

In Belfast, names matter too. It is in most cases relatively simple to determine whether someone is a Catholic, and by extension, Nationalist/Republican, or a Protestant, meaning Loyalist/Unionist, just by knowing their name. Nationality, ethnicity, religion, and political allegiance are all intertwined and co-dependent, creating a very clear sense of belonging either to the Union, meaning the United Kingdom, or the Republic, meaning the Republic of Ireland. At the same time, the two different identities emerging from that predetermined belonging are contested and conflicted.

It seems that I was running away from the same thing I was running towards.

I could have chosen any other country for my Applied Field Experience (AFE). I could have chosen any other field rather than divided societies to research. And yet, here I am, in a place with very different culture, tradition, and history than my own, but a place where everything still somehow reminds me of home. I suppose that perhaps on a subconscious level, I hope that by understanding division somewhere else, I will be able to better process the divisions that have been part of my life.

So let me introduce you to Northern Ireland, it’s past and present, and let me introduce you to Belfast, a beautiful city despite all of its imperfections, where my name, apart from being a little bit exotic, means nothing and does not signify exclusive and excluding belonging – just the way I like it.

Northern Ireland: context, history, and present

Northern Ireland is a semi-autonomous constituent unit of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, situated in the northeast part of the island of Ireland. Often variously described as a province, region, or simply part of the United Kingdom (UK), it is home to approximately 1.8 million people, constituting about 3% of the total UK population and 30% of the island’s population (“Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency,” 2015).

Northern Ireland formally came into existence in 1921, under the 1920 Government of Ireland Act that partitioned the island into North and South. Following the partition, Southern Ireland became the Free Irish State, after the Irish War of Independence and the Anglo-Irish Treaty, but the six counties in the North, today forming the province of Ulster, remained part of the UK (O’Leary and McGarry, 1993). Prior to the island’s partition, there had been three attempts to introduce Home Rule, a rule that would establish extensive regional autonomy within the UK for Ireland, but Protestant Ulster Unionists, who constituted a majority in the North, resisted them. The Unionists saw themselves as a community clearly set apart from the rest of the Ireland with unique economic, political, and religious identity and interests, and profoundly distinct from the Catholic South (Dingley, 2012). The South was culturally, religiously, socially, and economically homogenous – in contrast to the North which was divided from the start.

To clarify and outline all the sociopolitical and ethno-religious affiliations in the North: the main division was between the Unionists/Loyalists, who mainly self-identified as British and/or Protestant and were determined to remain part of the UK, and Irish Nationalists/Republicans, who mainly self-identified as Irish and/or Catholics and preferred establishment of a single, united Ireland (Calame and Charlesworth, 2009). The same ethno-national divisions are still prevalent today.

There is no Joy in Belfast’s Division

John Conroy, an American journalist, lived in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in the 1980s and wrote about the street-level view of the city’s areas most affected by the turmoil of the conflict, which came to be known as the Troubles (1969 – 1994). The result of that endeavor is a book called Belfast Diary: War as a Way of Life, published in 1987. It is a vivid picture of daily life in conflict-torn Belfast and sympathetic description of how ordinary life had changed as a result of the violence.

Conroy (1987) wrote that while living in Belfast, he could never tell when or where the next attack would take place – the conflict in Belfast had no front. It was impossible to tell who would be arrested next – at the time, one did not have to commit a crime to end up in jail. The paramilitary groups could have knocked at the door and inform at gunpoint that the house was being requisitioned for an ambush at any given time. His most interesting account of life during the Troubles, however, was normalcy  of violence and acceptance of war simply as a way of life. For an outsider, it was difficult to comprehend that absurdity. “I spent a lot of time looking out the window,” wrote Conroy, “I watched children go back and forth in their school uniforms. Sturdy women in old coats went past lugging groceries. The postman came up the footpath twice a day. The normality of it all nearly drove me crazy” (p. 51).

A lot has changed since Conroy’s accounts of Belfast, but not everything. There are no random attacks and bombs going off. The paramilitary ceasefires in 1994 and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 marked a much more peaceful era in the history of Northern Ireland. Today, Belfast looks like any other city in the UK – on the surface at least. The division of society into the Catholic or Nationalist/Republican and Protestant or Unionist/Loyalist camps is still very much present.

I am doing my AFE at the Institute for Conflict Research. It is an independent, non-for-profit organization that has been based in Belfast since 1996. It specializes in working on issues related to conflict, human rights, social transformation, and social justice. Its office is situated in Duncairn Gardens in the area of North Belfast, notorious for its patchwork of opposing communities living next to each other, but divided by either visible or invisible barriers. The street of Duncairn Gardens is actually one such invisible dividing line, so each working day, I get off the bus at the bus stop where the sidewalks are painted red, white, and blue, representing the colors of the British flag, and on the other side of the street, I face the Irish tricolor on my way to the office, flying high on the nearby buildings or lamp posts. I spend half of my day, every working day, right in the middle of an interface, the topographic-ideological boundaries that physically, psychologically, and symbolically demarcate one community from the other.

If not war, then division is still a way of life in Belfast. The interface areas are areas that embody that division. They mark safe places for each side of the divided community and provide a sense of security by belonging to the others who share the same religious and political identity, creating a strong feeling of shared culture, community, and solidarity within it – but while they provide safe and secure boundaries as well as a sense of unity, they are nothing but uniting. Belfast today may be peaceful, but it is still like the segregated Belfast of the Troubles. Therefore, one of the research projects the Institute is currently conducting, and the one that I am involved in, is a project that focuses on developing new ways of studying and explaining activity space segregation over time with the goal of informing local initiatives to create more diverse, accessible, and inclusive public spaces.


Division as a Way of Life

A human chain of soldiers who took up position between Protestant and Catholic crowds on August 15, 1969 was actually the first constructed barrier in Belfast. On the same day, the British Army was sent onto the streets of Belfast. One month later, the troops were ordered to construct defense structures in flashpoint areas as a security response to sectarian violence and disorder (Ravenscroft, 2009; Gormley-Heenan et al., 2013). The first material barrier was established between Republican Falls Road and Loyalist Shankill Road (Ravenscroft, 2009). Over the years, many more security barriers and forms of defensive structures have been established. Today, there are approximately one hundred barriers existing across the city (Belfast Interface Project, 2011). It is important to emphasize that one third of them have been established after the ceasefires in 1994 (O’Hagan, 2012; Geoghegan, 2015). In addition to the material, visible barriers, many areas have an invisible dividing line that only local people are aware of (Jarman, 2004).

Belfast’s barriers are contained within thirteen different clusters of defensively used space within the city – the interface areas, flashpoints, or peace-line/peace-wall communities – that are predominantly situated within the realm of public housing and are primarily a facet of working-class urban life in the North, East, and West parts of Belfast (Murtagh, 2002; Jarman, 2004; Belfast Interface Project, 2011).

Contradictory to the original intention of physical partition as a security response to violence, the division by peace-walls generated new problems and, in fact, only intensified the sectarian antagonism. The divided territories in Belfast have become flashpoint communities where intercommunity violence and intimidation still occur. In addition, these communities are today marked by high levels of social and economic disadvantage and restricted access to services and facilities perceived as being located in the other community and are in the top 10% of the most socially and economically deprived electoral wards in Northern Ireland (Belfast Interface Project, 1998; Shirlow and Murtagh, 2006; Byrne, Gormley-Heenan, and Robinson, 2012).

What does the future bring?

The powerful narrative of the need to constantly protect one’s place by securing segregation by material barriers to avoid violence even at the expense of social and economic prosperity is still a factor that makes overcoming sectarian division in Belfast extremely challenging. The surveys conducted in peace-line communities show that there is an overwhelming feeling of the necessity of walls in maintaining security (Gormley-Heenan et al., 2013). Such findings challenge any possibility of the future in which the walls might come down.

However, some of the normative-based questions in conducted surveys provide an interesting insight: more than a half of peace-wall residents would like to see the walls come down – at some point in the future. The problem, however, is that even though they would like to see this happen, they couldn’t imagine how it could ever happen (Gormley-Heenan et al., 2013).

Belfast, along with the rest of Northern Ireland, continues to distance itself from the violent struggles of its recent past. However, the city’s working-class residents remain burdened by the weight of that very troublesome past (Calame and Charlesworth, 2009). They live by the walls that hamper their access to services and mobility, as constant reminders that behind them are those who only want to harm them.

Just a few months ago, one peace wall owned by the Housing Executive was demolished – it is the first wall to be removed. The demolition is deemed as a positive outcome of the relationship building both within and between communities living alongside it (Black, 2016). However, there remains a significant degree of pessimism about what the future physical landscape might look like in Belfast (Byrne, et al., 2012). The government does not plan to build new peace-walls but the future in which 109 peace-walls remaining across Northern Ireland are brought down – still remains uncertain.



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