A Divided City


The focus of this semester has been the Northern Ireland conflict which, if you didn’t know, was (correct tense is debatable) a period of strife between Nationalists and Unionists during the 20th century. There are many differences between the two groups, but the foremost difference during the conflict was in regard to Home Rule (to what extent should Ireland/Northern Ireland should be a sovereign nation or remain under the control of Britain).

I just finished a paper outlining the “irreconcilable” differences undergirding the conflict so I won’t bore you with a historical account of the differences—religious, economic, educational, political, etc. Instead, I’m going to use this post to outline and jot down some of the ways I’ve seen this cultural division manifested today.

My neighborhood

My neighborhood

I live on the Catholic (i.e., Nationalist) side of Derry, attend classes taught by primarily (if not exclusively) Nationalist professors, live with a very liberal family who I assume is Nationalist, and drink at pubs that do not try to mask the liberal political leanings of their patrons. So what I’ve witnessed, what I’ve come to understand about the separation, is pretty pathetically one-sided. But I suppose that’s a good place to start with this list.

Londonderry (as it’s technically named) is split in half by a river that separates the two communities. There’s also a bridge, called the “Peace Bridge,” that bridges the gap metaphorically and literally. I’m in no position to assess how successful this bridge has been, I just want to mention what is probably the most blatant indicator of separation.

So most of the Protestant population is over there and the Catholic population is over here, but there is also a small pocket of Protestants living in the Catholic area. Again, they’re separated, but this time it’s not by a river. The 2-3% of the population living on the North side are Protestants who live in what looks like a gated community, pretty well removed from the rest of the population.

Integration of the two communities almost never happens as far as I can tell. Most of what I know about the current climate, the moods and opinions, comes from class lectures and conversations and the gist is that a Catholic would never move into a Protestant area (or vice versa) without fearing for their safety. And it’s definitely not hard to tell whose territory you’re in… Sometimes it’s very subtle, but in areas where the population is feeling marginalized or a group feels particularly threatened, it’s everywhere you look. I hear that this is very true in Belfast where we’re going next weekend, but I can’t imagine it’s much more prolific that many of the areas in Derry. Entering into an area in North Derry called “Bogside,” one will immediately notice the massive sign reading “Welcome to Free Derry,” a statement of support for the nationalist movement and solidarity for those who fought/continue to fight for home rule. Only half a mile away is the Protestant area with its tall walls and the colors of the British flag painted on every street lamp, curb, and telephone pole in sight. (Side note: There’s actually an annual Bloody Sunday march going on in Bogside right now.)

Protestant area

Curbside in Protestant area of Derry

The physical violence has decreased since the Peace Agreements of 1998 and I’ve never felt unsafe walking home late at night. There is a pretty large police presence (relative to my tiny town of Bradford) and the police barracks looks like a military base with razor wire and 30ft walls, but I’ve never seen them actually doing anything. But I’m an American tourist living in a very segregated area so when people hear my accent my politics and religion become relatively insignificant so I can’t speak for either group. As far as I am aware, most of the pubs I visit are 100% Catholic. Would a Protestant feel safe grabbing a pint at any of those pubs? Probably not, but I doubt that’d ever happen. Is that the sign of a post-conflict area?