Belfast Diarist

Jonathan Foreman
Fractured, yet Whole
Spring 1998

I expected Beirut: chaos and rubble. I found instead a quiet city, similar to what working-class London must have been like a half century ago. Though Belfast lies under the daily dread of terrorism, almost no other crime takes place. Terraced houses huddle against incessant rain. At bus stops, drably dressed people form orderly queues. One sees few restaurants, no glamorous stores, no big chains catering to cosmopolitan aspirations: no Gap, no Body Shop, no sidewalk cafés serving croissants and cappuccino. Even McDonalds has just opened here.

Belfast's shipyards, which once sent scores of battleships and the ill-fated Titanic out onto the world's oceans, now sit eerily silent. Protestant and Catholic workers had bitterly contended for jobs on the docks; now no jobs exist to contend for. The rusty cranes stand motionless above the city, sad monuments to its flourishing past.

Some parts of Belfast society escaped shipbuilding's collapse. Upper-middle-class Belfast, Protestant and Catholic, prospers. And since the early seventies, the construction, window repair, and law enforcement-related businesses have all done well, as have the paramilitaries. Each paramilitary gang runs its own little criminal empire, selling drugs and shaking down businesses for protection money. In townships where few people hold regular jobs, big new houses have gone up, with expensive cars parked proudly in front. The biggest houses, the swankiest cars, belong to paramilitary gunmen; the rest belong to the beneficiaries of London's effort to solve Ulster's problems by flooding it with money. The British government has poured billions of dollars into the province, especially into Catholic areas, and those administering and those receiving the subsidies have long since shaken off poverty's grip.

One has to look hard for obvious signs of "the troubles." No craters, no rubble, and few military patrols confront the eye. Since the cease-fire, the troops remain barracked. The famed paramilitary murals on the Falls Road (Republican) and the Newtownards Road (Unionist) are fewer than I had expected, and less impressive. Still, razor wire and bomb nets surround police stations, and the police sport firearms and drive ar-mored cars, unlike their counterparts in England. Otherwise, though, the most obvious sign of conflict is the flutter of small flags that hang from working-class district streetlights: in Loyalist quarters, the Union Jack; in Nationalist neighborhoods, the Irish Republican tricolor. And one sees sidewalk curbs painted in tribal colors.

These symbols mark a religious hatred that burned out in most of Europe by the middle of the nineteenth century. But they also manifest something not entirely evil, something that we in Lon-don or New York have lost. The Ulster air somehow preserves the solid working-class propriety of the 1950s, as well as a residuum of folk culture that has withstood the homogenizing effects of global pop.

Even in Shankill Road's bleak housing projects, people show none of the anomie of the prosperous West. They belong. They believe. They know their history and connect to it viscerally. Their music and their myths are their own. Strangely, the traditional melodies of both sides are almost identical; only the lyrics and martyrs differ. Because of these folkways, working-class Ulstermen, for all their suffering and for all the economic problems of the province, don't seem lost. Life may be hard, but it doesn't lack meaning. No need for crystals, astrology, or watered-down Tibetan Buddhism to make it worth living.

Visitors to Israel before the seventies also found a whole, if harsh, culture. Perhaps knowing your way of life is threatened makes it seem all the more valuable. It is not a consoling thought that the same forces that feed sectarian violence may be those that fill people's spiritual, psychological, and communal needs. Perhaps we need to look again at why unattractive figures like Louis Farrakhan have struck a nerve in the U. S., and think carefully about what our culture fails to supply.

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