(originally published March 17/2009 in the Aquinian)
John McLaughlin comes from a very different Ireland than most of us see through our St. Paddy’s Day green beer tinged binges. It’s not a place of giddy good times, limericks and leprechauns- his is an Ireland that segregates Protestants and Catholics with towering walls, barriers that run as deep as old scars that won’t heal.
“I didn’t really meet my first Protestant ‘till I was about 17,” the youth officer for the Belfast Education and Library Board said softly in his slight brogue. “Before that, I had a very simplistic understanding of what the Troubles were about.”
Those troubles broke out in 1969, far removed from any summer of love, when McLaughlin was only 9 years old. It was a political as much as religious war between Catholic nationalists like the IRA, and Protestants loyal to the Crown- a war where snipers, riots and car bombs claimed thousands of victims. At the time McLaughlin thought the Troubles were all about Protestants wanting to inflict hurt and pain on the Catholics, that the Catholics were only fighting righteously for better housing. Then he saw the other side, after joining a youth work troupe made up of teens from across the county.
“It was only when I did meet them, to be quite honest, that I realized they live in the same type of housing as me, they listen to the same music I do.” he said. “Okay we go to different churches and they think they’re British and I think I’m Irish, but we do have allot in common, allot of the same concerns- about our futures, about what jobs we could possibly have.”
He devoted that future to helping the next generation make the same discovery. The key to that break through was finding common ground in every sense of the word- taking kids from both sides out of their comfort zones to Saint John N.B. in an annual program called the Belfast Children’s Vacation Project. There they stayed with host families, catching glimpses of a society without such blatantly deep divides.
But as the conflict in Belfast simmered, and as the Canadian economy skidded to a hault, funds for the program dried up. The summer of 2008 was the first in 21 years that those in the program couldn’t afford to bring a new troupe of children to Saint John. Many thought the war was over, that the fight against those old hatreds had been won. McLaughlin ventured across the pond to the Port City last week, to tell them that notion couldn’t be more wrong.
“I wanted to come across (the Atlantic) to meet with the host families and donors, to let them know the time and money they had invested was making some sort of impact,” McLaughlin said. “But the kids still grow up in polarized communities and there’s no need or no reason to meet anybody from the other side. Now to me, that is not a normal society, but for many young people growing up it is.”
McLaughlin said that neutral ground is needed now more than ever- especially after the March 8 murder of two British solders, and later an officer with the Police Service of Northern Ireland, at the hands of IRA dissidents. McLaughlin said those tragedies were radical and rare in this age of tense peace on the Emerald Isle, but it’s proof the old hatreds still run strong. He added it hasn’t been that long since such bloodshed was an everyday occurrence.
“Those three deaths caused millions of outpourings,” McLaughlin said. “Our politicians, the trade unions and the churches all spoke out against them. And there were a number of mass rallies held in cities all over Northern Ireland last week just for people to show their revulsion. We wanted to say those days are gone, and we do not want to go back to them.”
He said since that time leaps and bounds have been made- leaders from both sides meet regularly when they would’ve refused to be interviewed in the same TV studio a decade ago. But in order to keep from going back to those days McLaughlin said the next generation will have to take equal strides, because their hate runs just as deep.
“At a very grass roots level nothing much has changed in those communities, the kids are divided by peace walls that are not coming down for the foreseeable future,” he said. “The confidence isn’t there in those communities that we can trust the people on the other side. That’s why we need projects like this in Saint John to expose young people from Belfast to a kind of society where you can be neighbours with almost anyone. The need is still there and it’s still as relevant as it was 22 years ago.”
McLaughlin said to this day many Belfast kids think children from the other side literally have devil horns, fangs, and a hatred infinitely deeper than their own. When those kids do meet for the first time during their stay in Saint John, the first thing to roll of their tongues are questions about family names and neighbours, digging for clues as to whether they’re friend of foe- and when he was that age, McLaughlin wasn’t much better himself.
New Protestant youth groups are never too eager to welcome him when he ventures to their side of town. “You worship Mary,” they’ll hiss at him. “You want to take our land, that’s what our minister says.”
“And it’s no better on my side,” McLaughlin said. “When I ask Catholic kids about Protestants they say, ‘We don’t know them and we don’t need to know them, because we hate them.’”
Once a Catholic boy at least gave him a reason: “My grandad was killed by Prods.”
“Did you know your Grandad?” McLaughlin asked him.
“No, they killed him 20 years before I was born.”
“They don’t know why they hate each other, it’s just an old fear of the unknown that’s been passed on and on, long before the Troubles,” McLaughlin said.
The trouble is it’s not safe for children to face those fears and venture to the other side- stones are lobbed over the walls, jagged shingles are torn off roofs to be thrown at others. If a kid finds himself in the wrong neighbourhood he’s often jumped, beaten within an inch of his life, his cries muzzled as the muzzles of pistols are pressed against his knee to ‘cap’ him, leaving a limp as the best reminder to never return.
“Young people naturally, be it in L.A., London, Birmingham or Belfast, are territorial about their areas. That’s doubly complicated when those areas are segregated because of religious beliefs,” he said. “In Belfast, if you’re seen walking from a certain direction you’re coming out of the opponents’ territory, so it’s not a safe thing to do.”
He said the only safe places are certain pockets in the center of the city. And just as the youth groups begin to make progress inside, many of McLaughlin’s staff find themselves undermining that work by telling kids they can’t walk home with their new found friends. He said that’s why having a safe haven again in Saint John is so crucial, so those bonds can be built naturally rather than in inches over weekly meetings.
McLaughlin said the walls went up alleviate people’s anxieties during the conflict’s climax in the 70s and early 80s. For years they looked like the Berlin wall- stark, grey, old and cold. Now the maligning graffiti and barbed wire have been scraped off most of them, replaced with marble insets and dainty designs that are no doubt softer on the eyes, but still only serve a purpose of division.
“They’re massive physical barriers of segregation, but I think the biggest barriers are in people’s minds and people’s hearts,” he said. “And I think projects like the Belfast children’s vacation are about bringing those barriers down so kids can perceive their community as a whole.”
“I certainly know my children will see it, but I’d like to too- so it’s something for me to look forward to.”
Photos submitted by Terry Mullin