I remember the 1997 movie, “The Devil’s Own”. Brad Pitt played a Catholic Irishman from Belfast. He was an IRA (Irish Republican Army) assassin, who was sent to the United States to buy and ship weapons home, where the troubles between Catholics and Protestants raged on for years. Opposite him was Harrison Ford, a New York cop who played a gracious host to Brad Pitt’s character, not knowing of his true identity. However as no secret remains hidden forever, Ford’s character’s suspicions of his Irish guest’s identity grew over time. And before the movie ends, they face each other with who they truly are. Both Pitt’s and Ford’s characters believed they are doing the right thing, based on their own moral code. The former was just fighting for his hometown that is being torn apart by internal conflict, and the latter was just a cop upholding the law, as his job requires him to.
Since then the words “Belfast”, the IRA, and the struggles of Northern Ireland, was eternally stamped in my consciousness. The tension in Pitt’s character, for me exemplified the tension that was being felt in Northern Ireland at that time. He was a murderer in Belfast, but when he got to New York, he was just an ordinary man, like you and me. Belfast in those years, and the preceding three decades, was the most dangerous place in Europe. Conflict between the two sides of the divide frequently raged through bullets and flying petrol bombs in the streets. Both sides felt threatened by the other, and both believed they were doing the right thing by taking the fight to the streets and protecting their neighborhoods. Most of the fighters on either side, I believe, were good men who just got sucked into the conflict that was upon them. Put them in another part of the world, and they might be doing else, something more peaceful.
Thankfully the year after the movie, in 1998, a peace agreement was signed between the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, ending an undeclared civil war that raged on for three decades. Peace was given a chance to build a nest in Belfast, at last. Present day Belfast still bears the visible scars of that conflict, but has moved on, at great pace. The Belfast we landed on in 2016 was no longer the Belfast Brad Pitt’s character came from in 1997.
Present day Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, looks like any other small European capital city. It has a very beautiful city hall, a main shopping street with the latest brands, and an extensive bus transport network. And there’s the one thing the people of Belfast are most proud about, their new hotels. Prior to 1998 they had none at all, because no tourist with a right mind wanted to go there. It is also now very peaceful. In fact I would be more nervous walking alone at night in London, than in Belfast.
Still, even though Belfast has has been at peace for the last 17 years, reminders of its troubled past can still be found, especially in the western side where most of the fighting occurred. There are still walls that divide the Catholic and Protestant areas, and the communities around them are not yet comfortable enough to bring them down. Murals drawn by the various groups that fought during the troubles are still around, alongside memorials of those who perished during the fighting. All these serve as reminders of the past that the people want to learn from, but not live in. As a Northern Irish saying goes, “Look with one eye to the past, and you are wise. Look with both eyes to the past, and you’re a fool”.
*Photos taken February 2016.