Belfast, Under the Surface

BELFAST, Northern Ireland—The stark white walls of Conflict Resolution Services Ireland were interrupted by a small, sooty stain right across from Jim Auld’s office. “Sorry for the mess here,” Auld said. He let out an irritated sigh. “We were bombed a couple of days ago.”
Located on Falls Road, the epicenter of Irish nationalism in the city, the organization promotes community peace building by developing non-violent responses to personal and community disputes.
“Scratch the surface here and there’s violence,” Auld said with a shrug. The retired director of CRSI explained that the small petrol bomb thrown through the building’s window was the result of a personal disagreement between a staff member and their friend.
Petty bombings and paramilitary-style violence continue outside Belfast’s city center, the most obvious remnants of the Troubles, a 30-year period of choreographed conflict that killed over 3,600 people.
Twenty years after Northern Ireland’s Troubles officially came to an end with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, community workers like Auld are left re-evaluating what good actually came out of the historic legislation.
On the surface, the peace deal addressed Northern Ireland’s political issues by structuring a power-sharing assembly. What it failed to do, however, was address the country’s deep-seated ideological differences—the same differences that have put Northern Ireland’s government in deadlock for the past 14 months. At the community level, “the dividends of the peace process haven’t appeared,” said Jim Watt, a community worker with Belfast South Community Resources on Sandy Row, a street synonymous with the Protestant, pro-British community in the city.
In a way, the agreement put the onus of conflict resolution squarely in the hands of communities. In the past year alone, CRSI mitigated 145 interpersonal and paramilitary conflicts. “How would it look for the peace process if an extra 145 people were shot?” said Auld. This would be on top of the 35 Republican paramilitary-style assaults and shootings recorded in the past year.
What the agreement also failed to do was address the legacy of trauma that has now come to characterize Belfast. The Troubles left 200,000 people with conflict-related trauma and 34,000 people with PTSD. In total, 500,000 people were directly affected by the conflict. That’s nearly one third of Northern Ireland’s population.
In a lot of ways, Belfast’s continuing violence is a byproduct of the Good Friday Agreement’s inability to bring communities together and force ground-level conflict and trauma resolution.
This divisiveness is palpable once outside Belfast’s city center. Walk 20 minutes west and blocks become littered with Irish flags and murals of armed IRA members. Walk another 20 minutes north and towering murals of masked Ulster Volunteer Force soldiers and British flags dominate. “Communities are more divided now than at the head of the Troubles,” said Watt.
This is somewhat a structural issue—opposing communities are physically insulated by towering peace walls topped with barbed wire. A Loyalist may never meet his Republican neighbor across the wall. Intercommunity dialogue is forced and only moderately successful.
This divisiveness is also a psychological issue. The normalization of high amounts of violence creates a culture of fear and anger that only perpetuates itself. Auld recalls a CRSI case that illustrates this clearly:
On a Friday night at a pub just up the street from CRSI, the doorman was going through two patrons’ bags. He was looking for alcohol but instead found “treble hooks welded together on a chain, and a Stanley knife with two blades and a matchstick head between the blades.” The fact that someone felt the need to carry such gruesome weaponry with them to a pub illustrates not only a sense of fear, but also a readiness for violence. Auld said that a gash from the modified Stanley knife “would be nearly impossible to stitch.” The double bladed weapon was meant not only to injure, but to scar for life.
Actions like this one “are exaggerated because of the stress and trauma people have gone through,” said Auld.

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But the violence that results from lack of conflict resolution skills also manifests itself through mental health issues, specifically suicide.
Northern Ireland has the highest suicide rate in the UK with nearly 297 people dying from suicide in 2016 compared to 150 in 1998, the year of the peace deal. The number of suicides in Northern Ireland since the peace deal—4,500—has more than surpassed the death toll of the Troubles.
The country’s suicide epidemic has more people dying in times of peace than war.
The lack of resilience that prevents meaningful conflict resolution also prevents personal conflict resolution and stress management. If this could drive someone to bomb his friend’s workplace, it could certainly escalate thoughts of underrepresentation and hopelessness to self-destructive behaviors.
There is never a singular reason for someone to take their life. The decision is a deeply personal one, so to generalize Northern Ireland’s suicides as exclusively a result of poverty, violence, or trauma would be deeply insensitive.
But there’s obviously something unique to Belfast that’s exacerbating already existing mental health issues.
According to Dr. Siobhan O’Neill, professor of mental health sciences at Ulster University, “the areas of Belfast where suicides are highest are the same areas that have experienced the most violence during the Troubles.” These areas are also characterized by high levels of deprivation and economic instability which compounds mental health issues.
“Poverty is one of the highest predictors of suicide, but is also recognized as a legacy issue from the Troubles,” O’Neill said.
Especially in Loyalist communities, this poverty represents a social and economic trend of disenfranchisement that’s been sustained by the peace deal’s ineffectiveness. Watt sees this in his community every day.
“This division in this area has a severe effect on people’s own self-respect, on people’s ambition,” he said. Belfast’s political divisiveness “chips away at the culture and the identity” of the Sandy Row community.
Despite the fact that Belfast’s suicide rate is dangerously high, little can be done legislatively with Northern Ireland’s government in gridlock. According to O’Neill, “there’s a suicide prevention strategy ready, but there’s no government to sign it.” As a result, community organizations like Watt’s find themselves shouldering the weight of suicide prevention and the social issues that contribute to the issue.
Many of these organizations are severely underfunded and overtasked. “We don’t have the resources to plan out programs,” said Watt. The funding that does come in isn’t secure enough to allow organizations to plan long term programs. “We can’t do the 3-year, 4-year, 5-year plans that we really need to be effective,” said Watt.

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On the surface, Belfast is a vibrant metropolitan city that attracts upwards of 7 million tourists per year. Its city center is a dazzling mix of Victorian architecture and posh eateries which, combined with the smallness of the city, makes Belfast one of Europe’s top tourist destinations. It almost seems as if Belfast is in denial about the fundamental issues that plague its population.
Tour guides take visitors around contentious neighborhoods, pointing out peace walls and bombing sites as if they were relics of much older times. Black taxi drivers tell lofty stories of IRA campaigns that they themselves were involved in. While the peace process largely hasn’t dealt with social and economic consequences of the Troubles, people have no problem profiting off the idea of peace.
In a lot of ways, Belfast is reluctant to admit that the much of the effects of the Troubles haven’t been resolved.
But eventually, Belfast needs to reconcile its past with its present. “We need to unite hearts and minds,” said Watt. “It’ll require a lot of sacrifices, but that’s the only way,” he continued. Whatever the solution, Belfast community workers make it clear that their city must find a way to overcome its ideological differences for the sake of individuals, communities, and Northern Ireland as a whole.