Belfast Renewal

by Caroline Ryan / Jul 10, 2011 / 0 comments

June and July are historically contentious times for the Northern Ireland, the season when Protestant marching bands parade through the streets, blaring music and banging large Lambeg drums. The marches often travel through proudly Catholic nationalist neighborhoods, whose residents resent the reminder of the 1690 battle that their Catholic King James lost to the Protestant King William, which kept Ireland under the British crown.

Young people don’t like being left out of the fun, and rioting, much of it “recreational”, can happen. This year saw two days of rioting, beginning on June 21.

On that evening, I stood with my best mate Emmie on the lower Newtownards Road in east Belfast—the neighborhood where we both live—watching teenage boys throwing petrol bombs, rocks and bricks at police vehicles and setting off fireworks across the streets. Occasionally we would hear gunshot.

The riots were in reaction to Catholic nationalists invading Protestant loyalist streets, throwing rocks and breaking windows. That behavior was in retaliation for the 80 or more UVF men in black dress, balaclavas and surgical gloves who had that night marched into the small Catholic enclave of the Short Strand, and attacked Catholic homes. The old cycle revived, with defense of one’s own streets the constant justification for reprisal.

East Belfast has seen many changes over the past year or two. The development of the Titanic Quarter, soon to be opened as a major artistic, historic and social center. The development of the £21 million Skainos Centre, a groundbreaking community resource offering housing, child care, youth and adult community programs, classes and events, a new church, and public gardens.

Add to this the ongoing cross-community work of area churches, Belfast city council’s PEACE III initiatives, community workers and artists who have joined Protestant and Catholic in cooperative art and community projects. Under these plans, friendships have been forged across the peace lines that would have only been a pipe dream even six years ago.

It sounds like progress, and it is. But to the old guard, the Protestant paramilitaries the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), this is a bridge too far.

Though their former leadership signed up to the peace process over a decade ago, many resent having to give up the authority and sense of purpose that being in a band of armed men represents. They also believe that the Catholic neighborhoods have received more—more jobs, government monies and community resources from the peace process, while Protestant communities languish.

Within the current UVF leadership also sit a few crime lords, gangsters posing as peacetime warriors, interested in keeping the UVF sharp while its men and boys are used as the muscle behind their business interests.

To that end, two new murals went up a few months ago on the lower Newtownards Road. The murals, black and white paintings on the end walls of two buildings, picture UVF men in black, wearing balaclavas and brandishing large guns, beside which is inscribed the angry oath of “the right of every man” to defend himself and his territory.

Instantly that the murals appeared, they were reviled by the local people, who openly disowned the images as belonging to a terrible past, and commented on how they were frightening their Catholic friends away from visiting the area, and frightening their children.

Loyalist leaders were quoted in an east Belfast weekly that the Progressive Unionist Party (traditionally the UVF’s political arm) had not been voted back to the Stormont Assembly this past election, due to its leaders’ interest in supporting cross-community programs.

Meanwhile, Belfast tourism is still buzzing, the bars and pubs still brimming with punters. The June rain has given way to July sun and breezes. And the rioting ceased after only two days, due to the round-the-clock work of local politicians, community workers and clergy, who immediately held private and public meetings all over the city to ensure that the UVF called it off, and returned the streets to the new normalcy that Belfast’s young children now accept unquestioningly.

There are no accidents, a character notes in CS Lewis’s Narnia tale, The Silver Chair.  Lewis himself, Belfast born, is pictured on a number of murals in east Belfast, and a sculpture of Narnia character Professor Diggory peering into the wardrobe stands on the Newtownards Road.

Only a week after the riots, on June 28, the brave and brilliant Mary McAleese, president of the Republic of Ireland, made visits to two east Belfast community centres—one the Short Strand Community Centre, where she met with local Catholic folk and encouraged them in their cross-community connections with local Protestants. The other, the Short Strand's Protestant friend and neighbor, the East Belfast Mission, whose cross-community work is well respected, even by some UVF.

During her visit, President McAleese spoke movingly of looking forward to the day when anyone of any color, creed, religion or background could walk through east Belfast with shoulders back and head held high, unafraid and feeling part of the life here.

Though the riots got more actual air time on the news, the president’s visits seemed to resonate far more powerfully.

Another mural was erected in east Belfast recently. Called “Moving Forward,” it was created by the young people of the local Dee Street Community Centre. There are no men with guns. Just colourful depictions of east Belfast and its people—their lives, their childhood memories, and their hopeful dreams.



Caroline Ryan, author of AN OLD CASTLE STANDING ON A FORD: One Yank’s Life in an Almost Peaceful Belfast (Eloquent Books, 2010),, is the Northern Ireland Editor for Wandering Educators