There is one main reason why Belfast attracts visitors and tourists. People come because they are fascinated by the decades-long sectarian conflict between the city’s Protestants and Catholics. Belfast’s many walls, murals, and street art are probably the best visible reminder of this conflict and history. Before coming to Belfast, I was a bit critical about all of it. I’m not usually into art and even history can sometimes put me to sleep. But then I saw my first mural, and I was hooked.
I started out the day walking around Shankill, a notoriously Protestant neighborhood in Belfast. Nearly everywhere, I could spot “the Union Jack,” also known as the British flag. That’s because many Protestants are unionists, meaning they believe that Northern Ireland should remain separate from the rest of Ireland and part of the UK. Many unionists feel an affinity with the UK and say that their ancestry comes from England and Scotland.
Walking a bit further, I came to one of the many walls located throughout Belfast. This particular wall divides the heavily Protestant neighborhood of Shankill and the heavily Catholic neighborhood of the Falls. This section of the wall had become a place of peace on which many people had grafittied and written messages calling for the walls to be torn down and calling for peace between the two sides.
As I made my way into the Falls, the British flags suddenly disappeared and were replaced by flags from the Republic of Ireland. I also noticed that suddenly all of the street signs were bilingual in Irish Gaelic and English. These were all signs that I was now in nationalist territory, where many people feel that Northern Ireland should join up with the rest of Ireland. Interestingly, many of the murals weren’t about Ireland at all. Many of the murals made political statements about other groups around the world whom the artists feel are fighting for their rights in a similar way to Northern Ireland.
In the end, I felt that Belfast is still divided in many ways. The walls are proof of that. But I also felt a sense of hope, and the messages of peace were evidence of that. I would have to say that Belfast is one of the most interesting cities I’ve visited in the UK. It reminded me that the West isn’t immune to conflict, violence, and sectarianism. It can happen anywhere.