As is so often the case, I must caveat this post. My understanding of Northern Ireland is, like my understanding of Bosnia-Herzegovina, partial at best. But I believe we do not address problems by keeping silent. As always, I welcome feedback, especially from people better informed than myself.
Recently, I was able to spend a few days in Belfast for work. While there, I was able to take some time to explore the city. Far too little time learn what life is really like there, but nonetheless I was struck by similarities between how Belfast and Mostar, a city I visited back in 2014, have addressed the divisions which led them to internecine sectarian and ethnic conflicts.
One thing which stood out while I was in Mostar was the number of buildings which had not been rebuilt after the Bosnia War came to an end in 1995. While the west side of the city (the half which is ethnically Croat), has been largely rebuild, many buildings on the east (Bosniak) side remain in ruins. Walking through the city, you are constantly reminded of the conflict – in some places, you could be forgiven for forgetting it ended over 20 years ago.
You do not see buildings in ruins in Belfast. No walls are marked with bullet holes. The longer, less intensive nature of the Troubles perhaps left less massive destruction than the siege and counter-siege of Mostar in the Bosnia War, and the UK was far better resourced to rebuild afterwards than was Bosnia-Herzegovina. Nonetheless, physical reminders of the war remain. Walking down Falls road or Shankill road, you see murals emphasising local Unionist or Republican identity, through depictions of key figures from the Troubles (and earlier history), military symbols, and slogans like “prepared for peace, ready for war”. In other places, the colour of the kerbs marks out local sentiment.
The nature of the reminders are different between Belfast and Mostar, yet both force recollection of a painful past; they prevent wounds from properly healing. They normalise the idea of conflict, entrenching ideological differences.
Worse still, in both Belfast and Mostar, the two side are physically divided from one another.
As a result of the 1992-95 war, the vast majority of Bosniaks live on the east side of Mostar city, while most Croats live on the west. Between the two lies the main North-south road and the river, a no-man’s land over which civilians were forced, under threat of snipers, in order to make the two sides homogenous. The divides in Belfast are less clear cut, with pockets of Republican or Unionist affiliation spread across the city, but those pockets are often homogenous, and physically divided from each other by ‘peace lines’, walls and fences often 6 meters high or more, which exist to prevent violence.
These divisions do not seem to be going away. Despite a stated goal of the devolved administration in Belfast being the removal of all peace lines by 2023, the number of peace lines has actually risen since 1998, and many residents feel they provide security. With no devolved government in Northern Ireland at present, the chances of the 2023 target being met look slim.
Again, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, young people from different ethnicities attend schools separately, and are taught different curriculums, giving them little or no opportunities to interact across ethnic boundaries. The divisions in Belfast are not set in stone as they are in BiH, but the majority of young people from Republican communities attend schools run by the Catholic Church, while most Unionist children attend state schools; just 7% of children attend integrated schools.
It seems to me that, rather than committing to the painful, risky business of building peace, both Belfast and Mostar have instead opted simply to prevent any kind of contact which could lead to a breakout of hostilities. Given the harrowing events of the war in Bosnia, and the intractable nature of the Troubles, it is perhaps unsurprising that both countries focussed on armistice, rather than trying to address the underlying causes of the war. Yet this ‘safer’ path leaves open the possibility of a return to violence. It entrenches divisions, it prevents real reconciliation, and it passes the conflict on to the next generation.
You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught