Socialist Worker

Belfast: the real divide

After last month’s riots in Northern Ireland Simon Basketter looks at what the peace process means for ordinary people

Issue No. 1971

The gate of one of the segregation walls that divide the Falls and Shankill roads in Belfast

The gate of one of the segregation walls that divide the Falls and Shankill roads in Belfast

A pipe bomb exploded at the home of a Catholic couple and their three year old boy in Ballymoney, County Antrim, last week. Steel fragments burst through the window destroying their living room.

Fortunately, the family was asleep upstairs and escaped unhurt. But the message of the attack was clear — Loyalist paramilitaries are attempting to drive the family off a predominantly Protestant estate. Another day of “peace” in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland has suffered a summer of such attacks on Catholic homes, churches and schools. Catholics in north Belfast have suffered 358 sectarian attacks so far this year. This comes on top of a running feud among Loyalist paramilitaries and rioting breaking out across Protestant areas of Belfast last month.

The worst rioting was concentrated in the areas of the city with the highest fatality rate during the Troubles. These are areas that had suffered the most from the war — and gained the least from the peace. And far from coincidentally, they are all areas of severe poverty.

The new Catholics?

“The problem is that politicians and the paramilitaries are trying to convince working class Protestants that they are the ‘new Catholics’,” says James, a Protestant community worker in West Belfast.

“It’s rubbish — we’re just all poor. We’re living in the poorest part of Northern Ireland, the poorest part of Britain — and people are fed up. It says a lot about Northern Ireland that the increase in the minimum wage meant 50,000 people got a pay rise.

“The DUP (Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party) is making a fuss over how many Catholics are on the library board. I’m more bothered about why so few people get a decent education.”

Northern Ireland still uses the selective grammar school system that was largely replaced by comprehensive education in Britain in the 1970s. Students sit an exam called the 11 plus, with the minority that pass it being creamed off into grammar schools.

James notes that in practice this system effectively excludes working class children from grammar schools. “Schools round here don’t even bother teaching the 11 plus, never mind kids failing the exam,” he says. This is borne out by the figures — in the Protestant Shankill area less than 2 percent of students sit the 11 plus.

“The politics of ‘Blame the Catholics’ works, because there is a real anger bubbling under the surface,” he adds.

“The rumours rumble on, that Catholics are buying houses using money from the Northern Bank robbery, or that Catholics are buying houses just so they can object to the routes of Orange marches. Of course, there is no proof for any of this stuff.

“So the political vacuum is filled with violence. The loyalist paramilitaries are at a loss, and when they aren’t turning on each other, they go back to what they know. The best way for these guys to assert their authority is to kick the Catholics.”


John, another Protestant community worker, points out, “All the papers since the riot have been talking about ‘why are poor Protestants angry?’ Well, we’ve been angry for years — it’s just that they didn’t notice. Protestants used be able to get jobs in industry. Even as that declined, they could get jobs in the security industry. But all that is going too.”

Some 38,000 people used to be directly employed in Northern Ireland’s security forces and prison service. In 2001, this sector accounted for some 34 percent of male Protestant public sector workers.

“What’s worrying is where this all goes,” says John. “What gets around is that we’re losing out — which suggests that we had something to lose in the first place. I don’t want to be watching repeats of the same thing year in and year out.”

Neil, a postal worker in North Belfast, feels much the same way. “Sectarianism hasn’t gone away you know,” he says. “This summer felt like every other summer — awful. There were lots of attacks that didn’t make the headlines. While the politicians are playing their games, we are left where we always are.

“People are complaining that the Catholics are being all triumphalist — but what’s an Orange march if it isn’t triumphalist? On the riots there was a combination of attacking the cops because they are the new ‘Catholic’ police force, together with the fact that people on my estate have always hated the cops.

“But the real bitterness is just going into a dead end. I don’t think the paramilitaries have anything useful to say, but do any of the politicians? There are a lot of issues we should be rioting about — but having Orange marches isn’t one of them.”

Segregated estates

Some 90 percent of social housing estates in Northern Ireland are segregated. And the poorer you are the more likely your estate is to be segregated. There are 17 segregation walls in Belfast — seven of them have been built since the start of the peace process.

The Short Strand in East Belfast is a long established Catholic enclave with a wall more or less completely round it. There are 800 homes in the area, housing 2,500 people, some 1,000 of whom are under 25. Unemployment is over 40 percent, and across Northern Ireland Catholics are still more likely to be unemployed than Protestants.

Mary is a nurse who lives in the Short Strand. “Everything is very expensive for our kids in the Short Strand and the rest of East Belfast,” she says. “So they just hang out, because they don’t have money.

“All the hotels and calls centres are on the doorstep, but we can’t get jobs there. People then exploit that as a Protestant-Catholic thing. But the real problem is the class thing and the money thing.

“The whole point of the peace process was to get equality. We need a leisure centre. There’s one five minutes walk away—but we can’t use it because it is in a Protestant area.

“Our kids don’t feel they are part of a community, and that contributes to the high rate of suicides and the like. But the Protestant young ones are just as badly off. Everyone is frustrated because the hopes of the peace process have not materialised.

“We are very much still a divided society, and all the old fears remain. It affects our access to basic amenities. When there’s trouble people can’t even get to the post office safely. And even when there’s no trouble, the divide is a barrier to normal life.

The same problems

“I feel it most for the young people. You’d almost think that nothing much has changed over the past 30 years, because young people are still facing the same problems their parents faced.

“Aside from all the problems caused by disadvantage, our two communities haven’t really moved any closer to one another. I grew up with all the hatred being directed at me, either by the Protestants or the Brits, and there are times when it makes you feel bitter. But what scares me more is that my children are growing up in the same old divided society.”

Sean, her son, is an unemployed teenager. “It’s just dead here,” he says. “All the big fancy areas get all the money. We’re not a fancy area—so we don’t get money. And so you’re hanging around on corners, waiting for riots.”

On the Catholic Falls Road, however, there is more optimism. “I think the IRA decommissioning will move things along,” Ciaran, a local community worker, told Socialist Worker. “I think it forces everything forward.”

But there is a generational divide, he adds. “My father just mumbles about Bombay Street,” he says, referring an the area of West Belfast where Catholics families were burnt out of by Loyalists at the start of the Troubles.

“The problem is we are all sat waiting for Paisely to die. Instead we should be realising that everyone’s life in Northern Ireland is made worse by the divisions. We need to be attacking poverty and sectarianism now, not waiting for the return of Stormont.”


There is an growing sense of cynicism about Northern Ireland politics from both Protestants and Catholics. Since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the number of people who don’t support a political party has more than doubled from 12 percent to 26 percent.

Some 37 percent of people support neither Unionist nor Nationalist parties. One constant figure is that a third of the people refuse to describe themselves as Unionist or Nationalist.

“I think the majority of people are fed up with the whole process, the political to-ing and fro-ing of the politicians,” says Conor, a Belfast student. “Young people turn away from what they see as politics — but at the same time most people are against the war in Iraq.

“People are angry about things like the introduction of water charges, but the ‘peace process’ leaves them cold. People come together on the anti-war protests, or against the G8, in a way that cuts against all the attempts to pull us apart.

“The Good Friday Agreement was supposed to bring politicians from the main parties together in a new deal for peace. But there was, and still is, a huge gap between the aspirations of working class people for peace and the aims of the sectarian politicians.

“On both sides, it’s those at the bottom of the pile that are left behind. But the new movements offer an opportunity to lift our aspirations above the sectarian divide.”

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