My friend Paolo from Naples came to visit me here in Belfast on July 28. A sunless and wet Thursday. But there was a mood of celebration in the city. Earlier in the day the IRA had made an important statement about arms and armed activities. Paolo felt he was hitting town on the day that history was being made. A new era. Hope for the future. A definitive end to violence and the threat of violence.
Just over six weeks later I was about to leave California after a short holiday. Another Paul left some pages at my door. A BBC report from the net about weekend violence in Belfast. The worst in seven years. Buses burned and automatic weapons fired at the police. In the wake of a re-routed Orange parade. My American friends were confused. Had this not all ended? Had a new era not begun? Was it really about a march?
Returning on Sept 14, I soon experienced for myself something of the unrest and uncertainty of the troubled days. On a tour of Belfast’s former gaol with a cross-community group of clergy we found ourselves sent home early. The security people advised us to leave. We were to exit by a different gate. We could not use the one by which we had entered. That street was blocked by protestors. Mainly women and children.
Why were they protesting? The situation is complex and is read differently by people living here. The protestors whose background is Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist feel alienated, left out, excluded. They claim that the benefits of the peace process of recent years are going to ‘the other side’. The Catholics are getting everything, they say. Catholics who have in recent months experienced attacks on homes, schools, churches and persons disagree with this. In any case the changes had to come about to redress a pattern of discrimination that had prevailed for several generations.
There can be little doubt that there is a strong sense of alienation in parts of the Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist community, especially in the working class areas. We can debate the whys and the wherefores but the alienation is there and is real. What can be done to address it and to begin to move it on?
Dialogue is essential. Their representatives need a space in which to tell their story and express their pain. They need to be heard. They have to acknowledge that they do not have a monopoly on pain and exclusion. Other parts of the community are affected by it also.
One friend of mine said recently that she feels the people in these areas feel like sheep without a shepherd. Who really cares for them? I know one or two of these areas reasonably well and when I visit I notice the deprivation, social and cultural. An absence of hope among young people. Old people living in fear. A sense of community that used to be stronger now diminished. Healing is needed. Plain talking and respectful listening.
Leaders need to emerge who can articulate the pain and the dreams of those they represent. And at the same time showing respect for other parts of the wider community with differing allegiances and identities.
What can we do? We can pray asking the Lord to bless all those who have suffered in recent days. Also asking the Lord to bless all those who engage in speaking and listening away from the glare of publicity. May we all be inspired by a vision of a shared, inclusive society in which everyone can feel safe and at home.