The VICE Guide to Belfast
GOD SAVE BELFAST
HE'S THE ONLY GUY ANYBODY HERE CAN AGREE ON
By Michael Moynihan
Photos by Stuart Griffiths
A bonfire party organized by some amazingly friendly people from the loyalist community who treated us very well.
There was a time when the conflict in Northern Ireland suffused popular culture, with its easily explicable cast of Catholics and Protestants and its deceptively simple narrative of joining the Republic of Ireland versus remaining under the protective wing of Great Britain. The IRA loomed large—an irregular force giving the Brits hell, a pre-Al Qaeda byword for terrorism.
The Troubles, as the Cranberries called them, were everywhere.
But in 1998, after a furious but low-intensity war that claimed almost 3,700 victims over 30 years, the two sides suddenly called it a draw. Political representatives of paramilitary groups and mainstream political parties hammered out the Good Friday Agreement, outlining a cessation of major sectarian violence, the decommissioning of weapons, and the release of prisoners affiliated with groups like the IRA and its unionist analogue, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). There would be no land swaps, no significant concessions made to those demanding a united Ireland, just a tenuous and long-overdue "peace process." It marked, as an Irish journalist once told me, the effective surrender of the IRA.
But in the unionist communities of east Belfast and nationalist enclaves of west Belfast—working-class areas where militant sectarianism is one of few birthrights—there is little sense of peace and much talk of being "sold out by the tea-drinking politicians." And every year on July 12, when unionists of the Orange Order celebrate the victory of Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic King James by marching through Belfast, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Troubles never ended.
In the lead up to this year's Twelfth parade, tensions were running higher than any period in recent memory: It was only a few months since a 25-year-old Catholic police officer was murdered by dissident republicans (to dissuade others from joining the force) and just weeks after altercations between nationalists and unionists in east Belfast ended in riots and multiple shootings, including a cameraman. What better time to explore Belfast and marinate in the divisive hate?
Arriving a few days before the festivities, I quizzed a handful of young parade attendees, some from as far afield as Toronto, about the significance of the July 12 celebrations. A few offered platitudes about the brilliance of "King Billy" and the need to assert the primacy of unionist culture; the historical particulars of the march seemed almost irrelevant to its participants. It was odd, though, to listen to drink-sodden teenagers employ squishy political rhetoric rather than just nakedly sectarian slogans. They stressed that the march is a celebration of "culture," one that is hamstrung by bigoted politicians and a needlessly aggressive police force. It's the familiar language of multiculturalism, adapted for a schizophrenic religious conflict.
But others were articulate, passionate, clever—although no less strident in their views. When I asked a group of local loyalist teenagers whether they planned on attending university—and at first blush, they seemed perfect candidates—all agreed that if forced to choose between earning an advanced degree and staying to "defend their community," they would, without hesitation, choose the latter. That economic opportunities are scarce in Belfast's working-class regions is beyond dispute (almost every young person I spoke with was out of work; a precious few worked in call centers), but these politically involved and mostly unemployed kids would forgo higher education for the higher calling of protecting the tribe.
It isn't uncommon to see the Irish tricolor flag in the staunchly republican areas around Falls Road in west Belfast. But nestled in among the Catholic estates, surrounded on all sides by hostiles, I stumbled into a tiny redoubt of loyalism, oddly adorned with both Union Jacks and the colors of the Irish Republic. Packs of kids scuttled about, constructing a July 11 bonfire: a pre-Twelfth march ritual in which Protestants fashion wooden pallets, tires, and various other bits of flammable scrap into a pyramid adorned with ornaments—the flags and campaign posters of their Catholic enemies. Burn, Edict of Worms, burn.
Having asked whether I would assist in building his temporary monument to Catholic hatred, a cherubic 11-year-old kid, born a year after the Good Friday Agreement, provided me with a potted history of the bonfires ("something to do with the king") and wanted my opinion of the pope. His line of questioning wasn't designed to precipitate a conversation on Pius XII's diplomatic relations with the Third Reich, but rather an opportunity to offer his preteen objections to the Catholic Church's conduit to God: "The pope's a fucking cunt."
If bonfire nights and Orange Order marches are manifestations of Protestant grievance, their Catholic equivalents can be found in Ardoyne, a rabidly nationalist area in north Belfast that straddles one side of a sectarian fault line (what the locals dryly call an "interface area"). In 2010, when the Orange Order passed in front of Ardoyne on their way to an abutting estate, young people responded with a shower of Molotov cocktails, rocks, and bricks. The police were expecting a repeat this year. It was a well-informed prediction.
As the march approached, heavily armored police divisions penned in protesters (and those of us who preferred being with those throwing, not absorbing, flaming bottles), preventing a hastily organized countermarch from confronting the Orange Order. Behind the police lines, away from the media gaggle and embedded with the protesters, an odd scene developed—an incongruous combination of the battle-ready balaclava set and middle-aged protesters invoking the American civil rights movement. There was a requisite singing of "We Shall Overcome," a march organizer quoting Martin Luther King into a bullhorn, and a wild-eyed kid using his mask to obscure a bag of glue he was huffing.
In a moment more reminiscent of the 70s anti-busing riots in Irish Catholic South Boston than civil disobedience on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, veteran protesters and republicans quickly ceded ground to the young and agitated—rocks and paving stones flew, Molotov cocktails exploded, and police fired plastic baton rounds and water cannons.
The neighborhood refrain in Ardoyne is that troublemakers are bused in and that the locals have little control over what these teenage interlopers hurl toward police lines. But it quickly became clear that a few dissident republicans—imposing men with fading prison tattoos and mangled teeth, and all keenly aware of the presence of journalists—have the power to turn off the spigot of violence at a moment's notice. As I chatted with one local who, I was reliably informed, had rather close ties to a dissident terrorist group, kids wrenched cinder blocks from a house under construction, smashed them on the pavement, and distributed the resulting pile of ammunition to their friends. The police held their line, a few people were hit with plastic bullets, and Northern Ireland remained under the dominion of the United Kingdom.
After a few days darting between enemy camps, conversing with experienced murderers and those who seemed interested in murdering nosy journalists, I realized that there are only two ecumenical truths in Belfast: Adidas tracksuits are the clothing choice of men from both communities, and if one asks "Catholic" or "Prod" kids when they last attended a church service—or to expand on the theological divide separating the two camps—prepare for a mumbling nonanswer. No one agrees on anything else.
In Belfast, you either allow various factions to spin you in exchange for access or you return home with nothing—and every person, regardless of confessional affiliation, bombards you with his or her narrow version of "the truth." This is, of course, expected. But Catholics and Protestants appear to be working off the exact same script: We're second-class citizens who get stiffed by the politicians, the private sector, the shriveling welfare state, and our masters in London. All denounce the terrorist tactics of their enemies, while offering convoluted defenses of the terrorism perpetuated by their friends. When cameras and tape recorders are switched off, the balaclava falls and the discussions of "culture" and trampled rights make way for the more unambiguous denunciations of fucking taigs (Catholics) and fucking huns (Protestants).
Even more jarring are the calls to "KILL ALL TAIGS" daubed on brick walls in loyalist areas and spray-painted on bonfire pallets. When I asked one community representative whether this slogan wasn't perhaps a bit much ("Surely not all of them?"), I was assured that while there was no impending Catholic Holocaust, one had to look at calls to murder in the context of the conflict.
A graffiti tour of west Belfast demonstrates that 12 years of shaky peace haven't exactly dampened nationalist enthusiasm to "KILL ALL HUNS," either. I asked a young Catholic kid, who likely last saw the inside of a church when relieving his local parish of Communion wine, what he thought should be done about his Protestant neighbors, many of whom, he claims, menace the kids on the Catholic end of the street. He snarled that they should be dispatched to shallow graves or, perhaps, simply ferried back to England or Scotland. With a grunt, he clarified that his fantasy commando division of tracksuit genocidaires might allow the women to stay—a concession unlikely to assuage the young Protestant ladies of east Belfast.
There are, though, causes for hope. With a shockingly high instance of teenage suicide (one young Catholic related that five people he knew had killed themselves in the past year), chronic unemployment, and the still-present allure of paramilitary organizations in Belfast, some veterans of the Troubles are offering their cautionary stories to the young and aimless. My two fixers—one Protestant, one Catholic, because everything in this city requires negotiation—both served long spells in the infamous Long Kesh prison on terrorism charges, and both provided smart, nuanced takes on the entire sweep of recent Northern Irish history. And while they agree on few political issues, they work together—often to the consternation of their former comrades—in an attempt to disabuse kids of the twin notions that armed conflict is both glamorous and part of a viable solution.
To those divorced from the reality of a dirty war, one in which Catholics and Protestants killed their coreligionists with equal frequency and ferocity, the Troubles were an uncomplicated morality play: occupied versus occupier, liberationist movement against imperial aggressor. Those who lived through the darkest days of the Troubles, and who have regrets about their participation in what many now view as a pointless civil war, talk about their past without romance.
I asked one former prisoner how many members of his republican paramilitary group were flipped by British intelligence—something they did with remarkable success. He says that he couldn't count, "but in the leadership? Around five."
"How did you know?"
"You just start putting the pieces together. They never confessed, but..."
One knows the answer but must still ask the question: "What happened to them? Did any manage to successfully go into hiding?"
He paused, breathed, and said, "We took care of them."
There was also the disarmingly casual conversation with a former UVF prisoner who, at the tender age of 17, shot a Catholic man three times in the head based on "intelligence" that later proved to be inaccurate.
Did he regret what he did?
Does he apologize to the family of his victim?
The moral and political complexities of this war are often lost to reductionist slogans—in Irish America, the IRA are the good guys, the alphabet soup of loyalist paramilitary groups more or less the bad guys. In England, which suffered deadly mainland bombing campaigns, they were all bad guys, but those who blew up Canary Wharf were surely the worst.
And while the vast majority of Northern Ireland, as demonstrated by polling and voting patterns, wants nothing to do with (and has little sympathy for) the dead-enders and dissidents in either camp, there is a reluctant understanding in Belfast that while the war is over, the conflict isn't going anywhere.
INTERVIEW WITH THE FUCKING EX-PARA WHO TOOK ALL THESE PHOTOS
INTERVIEW BY ANDY CAPPER
VICE: What's your history with Belfast?
Stuart Griffiths:I was a British soldier there. I came when I was 17 and was a Parachute Regiment soldier in 3 PARA. At first I was kept in the canteen, as I was too young to go on the streets. When I reached 18 I was posted to B Company, 3 PARA.
What made you join the Paras?
At the time, there was a TV program called The Paras, and at school there was a big thing about joining up: Join the Marines or the Paras and all that macho bullshit. It looked cool.
What was it like in Belfast as a teenage soldier during the Troubles?
We got up about six and went out all day patrolling. It'd be four hours on, two off, and then we'd get food in between. People would shout, "You fucking Brit, shit, scumbag, bastard!"
What would you say to them?
Nothing. I took it on the chin. Early on a really fit girl said something nasty to me, but I didn't really mind that.
What was the worst abuse you got?
We got shot at. Actually, the worst might have been having shit thrown on us. We had potties emptied from out of windows at us. It took a long time to get rid of the smell. It's not you they hate, though; it's the uniform you wear. That's why I got out, I think.
What was it like going back to Belfast?
It was cathartic, an emotional release. It was all about facing my ghosts and demons of the past and exorcising them. In terms of therapy, it was a good thing to do. It was a very moving experience.
How did you feel when we were in Ardoyne and the rioting kicked off?
Well, I'd been in riot situations before, but I wasn't expecting that. I was thinking, "What if a brick or a rock falls on my head, because this time I haven't got a helmet on?" But when you're out there trying to get good pictures, it's the photography that takes over. And I guess it showed me how far photography has taken me in my life. As the photographer Patrick Zachmann said, "You photograph your own history. Everything else is tourism." So I took that on board. But yeah, when they started hurling stuff, I thought, "These guys really know how to riot."
Yeah, that's what I was thinking: "They're pretty good at this."
It's in their blood. And I don't condemn it. You can see why they're frustrated and angry. There is no work, the economic situation is bad, and the peace process is there but it's gonna take a long time to see results. I saw this little kid, about ten or 12 years old, and he had this massive green bottle, and this other kid was saying, "Go on and throw it!" And the little kid was spitting on the floor trying to be the hard guy, but he couldn't bring himself to throw it. And I really felt for him. When you're in that situation you're expected to go along with the crowd, or else people turn on you. I came away thinking, "Well, this situation is still very much a live wire."