Falls Road versus the Shankill Road

Note:  Over the summer, I am re-printing a number of columns that are still timely.  Here is one first published June 2013 just before the G8 conference in Belfast but now during the ‘Marching Season’ still worth a read.

Of all the soccer games in the world, this is one of the most symbolically significant: England versus Ireland.   I watched it in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland where next week’s G8 summit will be held.   Any sporting event between these two countries brings up all kinds of memories – Cromwell’s invasion, the Easter Rebellion, the IRA bombings or the Bloody Sunday massacre by British troops.  A thousand years of violent history all represented on one small square field of grass.

This particular match was, potentially, even worse.   The last time the two countries had played a soccer game had been in Dublin in 1995.  A large contingent of English fans had sung vicious anti-Irish songs, halted the game and then trashed the stadium.  Eventually, after they had terrified thousands of people, the police had to disperse them with tear gas.

This next match could have been the kick-off to a violent bloodbath.  So I decided to test the new, official view of Northern Ireland: the one promoted by government bureaucrats that says the area has put its troubled past behind it, Catholics and Protestants are happily living side-by-side and everything is peaceful.  I would watch the first half in a Catholic area and then cross the sectarian community lines and watch the second half in Protestant pub.

The official story may say that all is wonderfully calm, but the streets tell a different story.  The first sense that the official version is incomplete came in the Holywood neighbourhood, steps from the airport.  On every lamppost are flags of the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Protestant paramilitary organization that features AK47 machine guns as their emblem.

This is not an exception.   Almost everything in this city – neighbourhood, shop or pub – is one religion or the other.   Just in case a visitor does not understand, flags hang everywhere either the Union Jack (Protestant) or the Irish flag (Catholic).

This division invades the minds of people.  The next day, I interviewed Mairad McGuire, the Northern Irish housewife who had risked her life and won a Nobel Peace Prize in this troubled land.  However, even with a modern-day saint, the interview started, as almost all conversations do here, by McGuire trying to figure out (but not asking directly) what religion I was.

There is a long and ignoble tradition of journalists ignoring their local colleagues.

When I arrived in the Falls Road, night was falling.  This is a historic Catholic area.  It is just down from where the Unionist paramilitaries hit another pub with a rocket attack and up from where a crazed group of mourners had dragged two innocent British soldiers out of their car and lynched them.

The people in the pub were absolutely friendly.  The game was broadcast on large screens but the sound track was that dreadful musical mix that predominates in almost every Irish pub.  Forget musical genius like Bono, Geldoff or Van Morrison – most drinking establishments in the Emerald Isle feature a soundtrack of the worst songs of Elvis Presley, Percy Sledge with the occasional Robbie Williams track thrown in for modernity.

In general, there seemed little sectarian danger for a Canadian outsider. Like any pub in any poorer part of town, anywhere in the world, it might be a place where someone would thump you for your wallet if you were particularly annoying.  But I had no problems, I watched the game, sipped my drink and left at half-time.

Then came the problem of crossing the lines.   I asked the taxi driver where a good pub would be to watch the game in the Protestant area.

“I have no idea.” He shrugged hopelessly, and stared out the window in a worried fashion.  The Shankill Road is a few hundred yards from the Falls, but for a Catholic taxi driver, it is a foreign country.  In the same way, there are ‘Catholic or Protestant restaurants’ – so too there are sectarian taxi companies that can only go safely to specific areas in the city.

This is Protestant territory.   The Royal Pub, where I watched the game is at its centre.  Across the street is a full-size advertising horde announcing that the ‘martyrdom of five Protestants blown up in 1975’. This is where many of the July parades will form, when hard-line Protestants from across Northern Ireland (some even fly in from Canada), march into Catholic areas accompanied by bands and flags to celebrate the victory of Protestant armies several hundred years ago.  Three-hundred-meters away are the high ‘peace walls’ of iron and barbed wire that separate the communities.   Widespread graffiti announces to the neighbourhood that there should be no cooperation with the new, non-denominational Northern Irish police force.

Here is the key.  There was – to a Canadian – no difference between the two pubs.  This is not Israel settlers versus Palestinians or Kurdish Peshmerguas versus Iraqi Sunnis, where you can tell which side of the sectarian divide you are on right away.   The people in the Protestant pub sounded the same as the Catholic pub.  They dressed the same (except for their football jerseys).  They were for all-practical purposes identical. Even the same soundtrack of American pop hits circa 1962, played in the pubs.  This is why so much of Belfast conversation is about determining which religion you are or so much of neighbours are strewn with flags – there are few outward signs to show the difference so it must be deliberately announced.

In the end, nothing happened.  It was a dreadful shank of a match, which with the exception of one superbly taken Irish goal, was a sleeper.   There were no riots. No burning of tires. No marches.

After the match was over, I got another taxi.

“Where is there a neutral area, a no-man’s land, in this city?” I asked.

The driver laughed.

“This is Belfast. There is none.”


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Comments (9)

  • Seán McGouran Reply

    The city centre (an ambiguous area, admittedly) is ‘neutral’. It was bomb-alley in the 1970s and well into the ’80s. A reason why 90+% of the population of the centre after 6.00pm was Gay / LGBT in that period. Nobody else was crazed enough to go there. Including one’s parents, colleagues and ‘friends’.

    October 16, 2016 at 9:26 am
  • Declan Hill Reply

    Fascinating Sean. Did Gay/LGBT relations fall along the same lines of Protestant/Catholic? Could a gay Catholic date a gay Protestant?

    October 17, 2016 at 5:18 pm
  • Seán McGouran Reply

    No the ‘sectarian divide’ was almost ostentiously ignored. I remember leaving a (very welcoming) east Belfast house and seeing the Brookeborough Hall dead opposite the front door.
    It could cause problems, one – rather innocent-minded Prod – was kicked out of a semi-closeted guy’s A’town house in the early hours of a Sunday morning in the mid-90s. He went to a big local taxi firm and asked for a joe-baxi to a clearly Prod part of east Belfast.
    He got assaulted by – the admittedly stocious – blokes waiting for their’s. The drivers and the counter staff got him behind the counter PDQ. And he got a buckshee, apologetic ride home for his trouble.
    But that was unusual – a straight mate got taxi from the Falls to more or less the same area, and the driver was very nervous, but that was because the UDA had perfected a little trick of summoning taxis from Taig areas and shooting the drivers. Stuart hardly had time to pay the driver before he went off — in a BG hurry.

    October 17, 2016 at 6:38 pm
  • Seán McGouran Reply

    Actually – in heavily Loyalist areas being queer could cancel out being a Taig. The UDA in particular were easy going about the matter. The Provis didn’t care, but accommodation for queer people was usually in bed-sitter land. My own landlord / lady combo pretended that I wasn’t living with another bloke tho’ it was patently obvious that I was. But even slobby queers like myself are polygons of domestic virtue compared with the average straight student. My partner Mark congratulated me on being a ‘Kitchen Kween’…

    October 17, 2016 at 6:46 pm
  • Declan Hill Reply

    Really, really interesting. Ever read Adrian McKinty? Brilliant dialogue. Superb mystery. Up until the endings and then the plot falls off a stylistic bicycle but very good otherwise. However, I am an outsider… your thoughts?

    October 18, 2016 at 9:55 am
  • Seán McGouran Reply

    never heard of Adrian McK, I’m afraid – will google him – keep meaning to sign up at Falls Road library.

    October 18, 2016 at 9:58 am
  • Gerry Lynch Reply

    Fairly large chunks of Belfast are neutral – the city centre and university district for starters, and many of the better off areas in the city proper. The gay scene was always and is mixed. I think the taxi driver may have been overegging the pudding to have a little sport with a foreign journo, which is as old as the hills in Belfast.

    Big city centre taxi firms will also go anywhere and don’t have any particular ethnic/communal identity – I never found it difficult to get a taxi over nearly a decade, either side of the 1994 ceasefires – of travelling from Loyalist East Belfast to a Republican part of North Belfast almost weekly late at night.

    December 1, 2016 at 9:27 am
  • Catherine Reply

    Your piece was interesting however I feel to get the real feel of an area you don’t get it from those who have been drinking. Sad to say that in most areas that suffer from social and economical difficultis they see their way through these difficulties. How many women did you speak to because the women on most occasions are the ones who are at the forefront of the community called on when there are difficulties and there to keep the family together.
    You got no sense of how people in these areas cross the divide with their neighbour. The community work that goes on the discussion around parades and bands most certainly don’t go right through Catholic estates in this area they use arterial routes which is a main road.
    I think you did yourself a injustice in not getting a true reflection of our our people live on both sides of the devide. Also drive 5 mins out of Belfast you will find all the neutral space you desire.

    January 7, 2017 at 9:51 am
  • Larry Reply

    Love should be the universal language. Egregious behaviour in the past needs to be let go. Otherwise how do we have a harmonious world.I have been to Belfast and Shank Hill to watch my granddaughter in an international competition in Irish Dancing. It has the potential to be peaceful and wonderful. Except everything seemed so expensive.

    April 8, 2021 at 1:19 pm

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