The Troubles have left a legacy which won’t let people forget

You don’t hear bombs in Belfast anymore. Over two decades since the Good Friday Agreement, one could talk of relative peace. But in areas like Shankill, The Troubles have left a legacy which won’t let people forget about the conflict for long.

By Ula Chylaszek

It’s midnight. The first seconds of the 12th of July, Conway Street, Belfast. A moving flame appears out of the blackness. One petrol bomb flies over, smashes against wooden pallets and ignites them faintly. The second one joins, its impact a few meters further. Soon thereafter come the third and fourth. Altogether about a dozen, just to be sure. Darkness slowly retreats. A crowd of thousands welcomes the hot light with another sip of beer. Loudspeakers swell with rhythm, a sea of heads floating to the beat. Street lamps are still the strongest source of light, but soon the enormous 100 foot bonfire will take over. It will warm the bodies and spirits of those assembled.

Light for the king

Arrangements for the bonfire started a few months earlier. In Shankill, on Conway Street, right next to the biggest peace wall in Belfast, people start gathering torn sofas, broken windows and old mattresses. Annual bonfires are a good occasion to burn unwanted stuff. You burn anything you want to burn. Even if you shouldn’t.

“It’s private property, no-one will forbid it,”  Ian is in charge here. He’s over 50, and wears a golden ring with the UVF symbols on it.

“What about tires?”  I just want to be sure, as I read on Belfast City Council’s website that it’s not allowed to burn them.


I visit the site where the bonfire will take place a couple of times in June and July, each time during the week, in the evening. There’s always someone there. During the bonfire season Ian takes on the role of guardian for dozens of builders; boys, aged 11-20 and a bunch of younger kids, who eagerly help in building.

“They’re all my kids now, I look after all of them.”

And not only after them.

“Why don’t you make the girl a cup of tea?” Ian scolds Tommy, his right hand at the bonfire.

Photos taken by the author.

“The kettle’s broke!” Tommy cracks up. He speaks quietly, he’s under 30 and he’s tattooed all over his body. Together with Ian he works in a pub as Security.

Kids come to build the bonfire every day, after school, even instead of school. There’s someone in the shed on the night watch as well. A bad penny always turns up. You start with the shed, as only later can you actually build the bonfire. For the first few months purely with the strength of muscles, in the last few days with a little help of heavy equipment. The equipment lays the highest tiers of the column, which resembles Bruegel’s The Tower of Babel. Today, early in the morning, the guards prevented the burning of pallets gathered for the bonfire. It could have been republicans, who don’t appreciate The Twelfth.

The celebrations commemorate the Battle of The Boyne from 1690, where William III of Orange defeated James II after which commenced a period of time known in history as Ascendancy. It meant political and economic domination of the Protestant minority over the Catholic majority on the island of Ireland. A century later King William’s supporters created an association to promote Protestantism and protect Protestants from the Roman Catholic Defenders. That’s how The Orange Order was born. Each year members of all orange halls march in parades alongside with the bands. The most important of all parades takes place on the 12th of July, the anniversary of the battle. The night before, bonfires are lit in the whole of Northern Ireland; one of the most important traditions of loyalist culture, next to loud and colorful parades.

Ian and Tommy are hoping to open a youth club for the kids, where they could pop in any time, have a cuppa, talk or do something together

“We used to have hundreds of bonfires in Belfast. Each year there are less and less. This summer, only 40.” Ian believes the city is taking their tradition away. A tradition dating a few centuries back, referring to the beacons lit up along the coastline to guide King William’s army. “They come up with new restrictions all the time. To lower it cause it’s too high. To move it cause they need the land for buildings. To root it out cause they’re too close to nearby houses.”

This is probably the last year of the bonfire on Conway Street. There is a plan to build new houses here. Everybody hopes for social housing, otherwise no one will be able to afford it. But there is some apprehension that instead of homes for the working class, who dominate this area, it might turn out to be a private investment for more wealthy, middle-class Catholics. That could spark off tensions.

Troublesome legacy

The wall near the bonfire is one of 97 peace lines dividing Protestants and Catholics within the territory of Belfast. It cuts through a couple of streets. Gates are closed at night so as not to tempt fate. Interface – the land between the two conflicted districts – is an area where most tensions arise. During The Troubles, Protestant Shankill and Catholic Falls were among the most dangerous zones. Today, two decades after the Good Friday Agreement, ending the 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland, not everyone is pleased with what peace looks like.

“We don’t accept the GFA. The only good thing about it was releasing the prisoners, on both sides. But apart from that, we got nothing.” Ian lights his cigarette. “Republicans got all the rights they fought for, we got none.”

They’re most disappointed with the British government.

“They betrayed us, I don’t trust anyone anymore.” Tommy is searching for something on his mobile, after a while he hands it over to me with an article from The Guardian displayed. “187 IRA members got ‘letters of assurance.’ Loyalists never received anything like that.”

Tony Blair’s government tried to allow IRA fugitives escape prosecution for crimes they had been accused of. But other parties in the peace process were opposed to it. So instead, Blair's mediators offered the republicans a deal to grant immunity to the fugitives via these secret letters of assurance. These letters ensured that the fugitives would never be prosecuted for crimes like the Shankill bombing in 1993. The story came forward in 2014 and shocked most people, not only unionists. But it’s only a drop in the sea of disappointment.

“What they build for Protestants, they’re not proper houses, they’re greenhouses!” Ian is not the first one to notice that. Houses built for Catholics seem more solid.

There’s no government in Northern Ireland at the moment. Politicians from the two leading parties, DUP and Sinn Fein, are not able to reach an agreement, so they’ve been on paid holiday for the past three years. Meanwhile the country lacks funds and problems keep piling up. One of the biggest issues is the high suicide rate and the lack of proper mental health care. Westminster seems to ignore that. During the past two decades, more people took their own life than died during 30 years of The Troubles. Everyday life is difficult both for older people, who don’t know how to cope in the times of peace, and younger ones, who inherit the trauma from their parents. Easy access to drugs leads to addiction and depression, which the NHS can’t keep up with. A potential suicide who seeks urgent help in a hospital gets an appointment in a few weeks. They can only find rescue in helplines or grassroots initiatives.

Music soothes the savage beast

“Every family here has some problems, nobody is rich. Kids don’t see perspectives for themselves. They don’t even believe they could actually get out of here and study at the University.” Tommy would like to change the kids’ mentality. Thus the flute bands. They often comprise the same boys who build bonfires. The team from Conway Street plays in The Shankill Protestant Boys, one of the biggest bands, with around 150 members. They rehearse once a week, all year long. “It educates them, they learn music and discipline. They stay away from drugs and spend time playing instruments instead of roaming the streets.”

Tommy is one of them, in the SPB he plays the flute. He often highlights the bands make a huge income for the city, each year a lot of money goes onto uniforms, transport or hotels for bands from outside Belfast who perform here.

In Belfast alone, there’s about 50 bands, in the whole of Northern Ireland – hundreds. They are considered to be the biggest youth movement in the UK. But they also cause disputes, e.g. amid the routes of their parades. Sometimes they march through Catholic areas which is seen as offensive to them. Loyalists don’t see it that way. They believe they walk on main thoroughfares which belong to everyone.

“We would always walk down these streets, to go past our orange hall on the way.” Tommy defends their tradition and he has a  valid point. To get to the Whiterock hall you have to march down Springfield road which is formally on the Catholic side now. “They keep changing our routes because it offends someone.”

On the day when the SPB marched down the Springfield road, I walked with them. They engaged and protected me just in case a riot was to break out. Luckily, this time nothing happened. For the first time, according to Ian. Nobody protested, a couple of people, here and there, would just stand aside and observe the colorful parade. The police had nothing to do.

Ian and Tommy are hoping to open a youth club for the kids, where they could pop in any time, have a cuppa, talk or do something together. There’s no such place in Shankill. Wherever you go, you must pay for attractions. Nobody here can afford it. In the past the city would pay for the swimming pool for kids here in Shankill, once a week. The funds are gone now, kids haven’t been swimming for a few years. Bands and bonfires are dominated by boys. The youth club will be for all: boys and girls.

“But how do we encourage the girls?” Ian is frowning “We’d have to put in a sunbed, they would all join the club at once!”

Women across boundaries

Shankill Women's Center has a bit more to offer. It’s one of 14 institutions of its kind in the country. It traditionally serves women. But it’s a place anyone can come in, regardless of their background, religion, hometown or even sex. Classes for men are also available here. It’s a cross-community organization, gets everybody together, beyond all divisions.

“During The Troubles women were very active, they had the whole household to manage, kids, work, they had to do all by themselves when their men were in prison.” Eileen is from Shankill. She’s 65, but her energy is enough for three people. She’s worked at the center for many years. “Today, they look for other activities for themselves, but they also face the trauma of the conflict.”

Some of them have to deal with domestic violence and they find help here. Some just need to talk. Some others want to learn and grow, and the center offers various classes and courses. Shankill Women's Center welcomes  about 300 women weekly from near and far.

Belfast used to be a strong industrial power. Several large plants supplied jobs for the whole area, for example Gallagher’s tobacco factory, where Eileen worked and lost her job in the 90’s.

“After they shut them down there were no other investments to replace them. The city put its money into tourism. The unemployment rate is very high in our area. Is it still working class if you see the third generation without a job?”

Eileen remembers the bonfires from before The Troubles. “They were small and they were everywhere. But they were safe. Entire families would build them, women would provide food. It was great fun. During the conflict paramilitaries took them over. I don’t recall a single flag being burnt in my childhood.”

The right to have a future

Eileen doesn’t visit the Conway bonfire, but Dave does. He’s a community worker hired by one of the local institutions. He’s over 40 and sports a long beard, which he defends each time someone accuses him of looking like a Fenian: “Learn your history, you ignorant, the first Protestant reformers had long beards to oppose to Catholic priests, who would shave their faces like you.”

Dave makes sure that bonfires are safe and that no offensive banners or effigies of republicans are put on them. The Republic of Ireland’s flags are on most, they remind everyone of the IRA.

“I don’t approve of burning the Irish flag. I still detest the IRA but 20 years since the conflict we shouldn’t be burning the flag of our neighboring country.”

Especially if one third of it represents themselves. The Irish Tricolor was designed to symbolize peace between the two communities living on the Island: Catholics (green) and Protestants (orange). The white is for peace. Each year in July, on the 11th night, flags and other republican symbols are being burnt.

“The media only cover the bonfires with such incidents.” Dave, like most loyalists, is biased against local press. But that’s because local press is biased against them. “They never talk about those bonfires where people had great fun and no emblems were burnt.”  

Clouds of black smoke rise above and move towards the peace wall, across to the republican area

On the weekend before The Twelfth there’s the Trevor King Memorial parade. It commemorates one of the late UVF leaders. There’s a dozen of men marching at the front of the parade: all in white shirts, black trousers, carrying floral tribute. I’m told not to take photographs of them. If their picture was published in local press, they might, for instance, lose their job and get 10 years imprisonment. That’s what you get here for being in an illegal organization. No one will ever admit they are members. Not Dave, Ian, nor Tommy.

Ulster Volunteer Force, Ulster Defence Association and Red Hand Commando – loyalist paramilitary organizations associated with The Troubles, don’t exist anymore. Technically. However in April 2018 an official statement condemning crime was made by the leaders of these three organizations. By doing so, the leaders casually confirmed the groups’ existence.

People call them ex-combatants here. They’re not active anymore, they’re a bit like a society engaging themselves in all kinds of community work. It’s a legal work in institutions such as Action for Community Transformation or Alternatives. But not all community workers are ex-combatants and not all ex-combatants are community workers. Dave believes that building the community’s future is impossible without their involvement. “We need them, as they’re the only ones who can reach out to others like themselves and change them. The example comes from above. Besides, the fact that you have a past doesn’t mean you can’t have a future.”

They could be divided into “good” and “bad” guys. The good ones keep up with the times: they help reconcile a Pakistani immigrant and a hooligan who offended her. They mediate between a robbed man and the robber, to the point where the first one decides to offer a job to the latter one. They cover balaclava-style murals with historical or social images. They run a garden for kids where they teach them how to grow plants. The bad guys, on the other hand, do everything backwards. Local media often talk about punishment beatings, kneecapping, extortions or drug dealing. But they don’t say who’s responsible, except that most probably it’s the paramilitaries. You don’t even get to know if they’re loyalists or republicans.

“There are dozens of thousands of people among the ex-combatants, you can’t possibly control all of them. UVF has been strongly against drugs since its beginnings,” Dave has no doubts about it. “But you can always find a black sheep. In the old days the problem would have been dealt with quickly. Now, the only thing one can do is report the drug dealer to the police.”

The Police often cooperate with community workers, as they know their own people best. They can help identify the offender and eventually solve the problem.

The most important day

On the 11th night, at about 1 o’clock in the morning, the bonfire at Conway St. starts collapsing; the top pallets fall down, the tower tumbles making everyone scream with joy. The wind is in favor of the loyalists tonight. Clouds of black smoke rise above and move towards the peace wall, across to the republican area. A couple of hours later the bony slowly tails off and the crowd disperses. The SPB boys need a nap, they’ll have to wake up at 7 am for the parade. They will march alongside with around 60 other bands from Northern Ireland, Scotland and England. They will present their musical skills, colorful uniforms and hearty smiles. The streets will be flooded by small kids with drums, elderly ladies with deckchairs, men with flags, mothers with snacks, girls with red & blue hair and tourists with cameras. They will bag the best seats along the whole parade route, celebrating the most important day in the year from early the morning until very late into the evening.

This story was published exclusively by 360storybank.

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