Reinvigorated Belfast still bears scars of past conflict

During the height of The Troubles, people were searched on buses crossing visible and invisible lines between Belfast's warring communities. Today, residents "can go anywhere... and take pride in this city", Mayor McAllister said

Belfast (AFP) – In the 20 years since a peace accord ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland, its capital has changed radically but hopes of a prosperous peace are still far from being realised.

Nuala McAllister, the 28-year-old Lord Mayor of Belfast, told AFP that while the city is now safer and opportunities abound, stigmas dating far into the past remain rooted in everyday life.

“The city itself is becoming transformed,” McAllister said.

Hundreds of millions of pounds of investment have poured in since the 1998 peace deal, including from big US firms.

“Now it is a very much happening city… This is only possible because we had that sustained peace,” she said. 

Northern Ireland’s unemployment rate is relatively low at 3.2 percent but its growth rate of 1.1 percent is far below the average for Britain as a whole — 1.8 percent last year.

The mayor recalled that during the height of The Troubles — as the conflict is known locally — people were searched entering central Belfast and on buses criss-crossing visible and invisible lines in the city between warring communities.

Today, residents “can go anywhere for food, for entertainment, able to have a social life and take pride in this city,” she said.

McAllister pointed to record visitor numbers and the opening of the Titanic Museum, a major attraction, as further evidence of the progress made.

Tourism “is growing exponentially and the reason why that’s significant is people didn’t come to Northern Ireland for such a long time.”

But success must be measured by the city’s ability to heal its divided communities, according to McAllister. 

“You can’t have a changed society for tourism when you don’t have a changed society for the people that live there.”

– ‘Peace walls that separate’ –

The mayor noted the continued building of “peace walls” — barriers between Protestant and Catholic communities — since 1998 was “one of the negative aspects of our legacy”.

“We have peace walls that separates streets. We have peace walls that block the quickest street to our hospitals.

“I think segregation is wrong, integration is the way forward in terms of changing hearts and minds and making a more inclusive society.”

McAllister, who is from the centrist cross-community Alliance Party, believes local politicians could do more but do not because divisions boost their electoral chances.

“A truly integrated society would not have a voting system that was based on tribalism,” she said.

The mayor said that continuing violence can only be defeated with stronger leadership.

“We didn’t actually deal with the past appropriately… and they still control some communities unfortunately.” 

Noting around 35 percent of the province’s population is aged under 30, the mayor said her generation were increasingly aware of the potential fragility of its hard-won peace.

“It’s only now that the conversation is really starting to open up because of Brexit to make sure that the GFA (Good Friday Agreement) is still there and means something today,” she said, referencing the 1998 peace accord.

“But I’m finding more and more young people who want to know more about opportunity, that’s what’s in their agenda.”