Experiencing Belfast

July 27, 2001

Northern Ireland has to be experienced to be believed.

We’ve read about the “Troubles” for years. Persistent reports of bombs, angry clashes on the streets and failed peace talks stir a tired sense of déjà vu. Secretly we’re glad this all happens in a remote corner of Europe separated from most of us by a lot of water. We’re resigned to the idea that the “Troubles”, like the poor, will always be with us…

Last week Romkje and I experienced Belfast and other hot spots in Northern Ireland for the first time. We’re still a little in shock.

Mike and Ros Oman, YWAM leaders on Northern Ireland, met us at the ferry and whisked us away to West Belfast’s two most intransigent working class communities, on the Protestant Shankill Road and the Catholic Falls Road. Workmen were scraping up debris as we entered “the Village”, the Protestant neighbourhood, surrounded by a large scorched patch spreading across the road, onto the pavement and up the wall of the brick row houses. Clearly a vehicle had been recently set on fire here.

We wound our way through a maze of narrow streets ablaze with British Union Jack flags and red, white and blue pennants strung across the road. Vivid popular art wall murals shouted political allegiances at all who passed: “No Surrender”; “For God and King”; “UVF” (for Ulster Volunteer Force). Menacing larger-than-life figures were painted on one gabled wall, wearing balaclavas, black leather jackets, jeans and boots with automatic rifles at the ready, standing guard over the neighbourhood – and Ulster’s future.

Stopping outside one house deep in “the Village”, Mike and Ros explained that it had just been purchased by their son and daughter-in-law-to-be, YWAMers who felt a definite calling to move into the area.

A few hundred metres away we entered the Falls Road district lavishly decorated with green, white and orange flags of the Irish Republic. Murals announced that we were in IRA territory: “For a New Ireland, vote Sinn Fein”.

Such territorial demarcations were not limited to working class districts, we were to discover. As we drove out of Belfast towards Banbridge and the countryside location of the YWAM centre, we passed through middle class housing areas where either Union Jacks and UVF flags were fixed to the lamp posts, or the Irish Tricolour declared Sinn Fein loyalties.

Perhaps there were more flags than usual. Our visit to Northern Ireland happened to coincide with the annual season of clashes. Each year in July, tensions rise as Orangemen celebrate the victory of the Protestant William of Orange over the Catholic James II in 1690 at the Battle of the Boyne. Desperate talks were also being held last week in London to rescue the very fragile Good Friday Agreement of 1998 which had promised a way forward.

The most infamous Orange Order march occurs in Drumcree, Portadown, a town not far from the YWAM centre, where the Protestants insist on marching through Catholic territory. This year’s march had been relatively peaceful thanks in part to the massive presence of police and soldiers. When we retraced the route a few days later, workmen will still clearing away damaged public property. Elaborate metal archways spanning the road carried some of the same slogans we had seen on Belfast’s walls, including the anachronistic “For God and King”!

Where does one begin to change such deeply-rooted bigotries and hatred? Mike and Ros were struck by the parallels with their home country of Zimbabwe when they first followed God’s calling to Northern Ireland eight years ago. The attitudes of whites towards blacks was often echoed in Unionist rhetoric. As outsiders they realised they could relate to both sides as they appealed for reconciliation. Both Catholic and Protestant spiritual leaders welcomed YWAM initiatives for Reconciliation Walks and prayer events in the north. These had in turn encouraged other ecumenical expressions including mixed Alpha groups, prayer groups and prayer walks organised by the Irish Churches themselves.

In addition to running YWAM schools in the rural centre looking out towards the Mourne Mountains, YWAM runs a youth centre in the town of Banbridge called the Hang Out (severely damaged by a bomb explosion some time ago), a radio ministry called Shine FM (run by Nathan and Annmarie Asiimwe), and some embryonic outreach ministries among students in Belfast led by Johnny Clarke.

Later, as Ros drove us to the station to catch the train to Dublin in the south, we passed again back and forth several times from Unionist territory into IRA land. I found myself making comparisions with Bosnia where I had just a few weeks ago. There one can also be constantly crossing invisible borders between opposing factions. Despite the deep historical roots of that other European hotspot, I had been encouraged by the presence of believers from all parties united in their love for Jesus.

We left for the south encouraged by similar reports about believers in Northern Ireland – and were to discover more good news across the border, as we’ll share next week.

Till next week,

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