I was in Belfast not long ago to see i’s Ireland correspondent, David McKittrick, who’s been reporting on the place since 1971. David gave me “the tour”. What a day. We started in the city centre, gleaming with its publicly funded makeover. Then past the old shipyards, the Crumlin Road courthouse, what used to be Frizzell’s fish shop on the Shankill, the Falls Road, and out to Stormont.
The petrol-bomb attacks on Belfast police at the weekend brought back vivid memories of our trip. It was fascinating interviewing the former IRA hunger striker Raymond McCartney, now a Sinn Fein member of Northern Ireland’s Assembly. But the most striking moment was visiting Bombay Street, in the shadow of the 20ft-high “peace wall” between the nationalist area and the loyalist Shankill in west Belfast.
Residents still live in what can best be described as cages – high metal fences around homes and a thick wire roof over each garden. (Must cause some patchy suntans in this weather.) You digest the stark reality: one of our capital cities, in 2013, riven like some Cold War relic. These peace walls are supposed to be coming down, after London threatened to withhold aid unless more progress was shown in creating a “shared society”. Geography matters: physical barriers enforce mental barriers. But many people who live near the walls say they are not ready. “Far too early,” commented one inhabitant of Bombay Street. People fear a flashpoint.
There’s no point in over-reacting to the weekend’s rioting. But most striking, overall, was the loss of confidence; a sense of momentum lost. Gates between communities remain locked at night. Someone has painted “Love thy neighbour” on one. Maybe. Just not quite yet.