Report Northern Ireland
Protestant side of Madrid Street, Belfast

Belfast ‘living in two different worlds’

For a month and a half Catholic Republicans and Protestants loyal to the crown have clashed over the issue of the flying of the British union flag over Belfast City Hall. But this hostility is latent throughout daily life, as a Spanish journalist discovered in... Madrid Street.

Published on 18 January 2013 at 12:29
S L James / Flickr  | Protestant side of Madrid Street, Belfast

In Belfast, 99 “peace lines” silence the daily war between Catholics and Protestants.

In Belfast there is a street named Madrid, which ends abruptly at the "Berlin Wall". The wall consists of one part brick, one part iron, and one part steel. More than seven metres high, it's topped with spikes and barbed wire. Its purpose is not just to stop people jumping from one side to another, but also to stop them from throwing cobblestones, nails and petrol bombs. They call it the “peace line” to avoid calling it the wall of shame. Its function: to keep Protestants and Catholics apart.

Residents of the east of Belfast have woken in [recent days] to burning cars, shattered glass and broken cobblestones hurled at the police. In the desolate landscape after the battle the walls still stand tall, unchanged, not such distant relatives of those in Gaza and the West Bank, with that excruciating air of concentration camps, scrawled over with graffiti in honour of the hooded Ulster loyalists or the Republican martyrs of the IRA.

The capital of Northern Ireland is literally walled up by barriers like the one in Madrid Street. At the last count, the number of the walls of shame has reached 99, and they have been multiplying since the day the Good Friday Agreement came into effect. (And they call this peace?).

Receive the best of European journalism straight to your inbox every Thursday

Belfast’s ‘tourist attraction’

Without the “peace lines”, police say, the city would be permanently at war. Taxi drivers speed you out straight off to the fortifications, against which the residents unleash their helplessness and anger; they are the main tourist attraction of bloody Belfast.

The wall in Madrid Street is a bit out of the way and not included in the tours. It's across the river Lagan - that is, in the violent east. Six thousand Catholics are confined to the Short Strand district, one of those urban ghettos of melancholy brick, surrounded by 60,000 Protestants who remind them they are living on borrowed time in a Loyalist area.

On a Sunday morning, not a soul stirs in Madrid Street. Out for a walk, we hear distant voices, closing shutters, the barking of a dog. Finally an older man steps out to light a cigarette. We have reached Number 123 - at the foot of the imposing wall.

“True, it's imposing at the first sight of it, but since they put it up we do feel safer and more secure,” admits Phil Fermanagh, a retired bricklayer, quick to show us the marks left by the nails that frequently rained down on his home.

Sleeping easier

“Now at least we can sleep easy and not see fighting in the streets every day, or hear shots at night. I've thrown a few good punches in the neighbourhood myself, especially when I was young. I know it's not very Catholic, but we grew up hating our neighbours, and vice versa. Madrid Street was one of the hottest areas during The Troubles (the most contentious period in Ulster's history). I don't know, but I'm sure if you ask on the other side they'll tell a different story.”

To get to “the other side”, the Protestant neighbourhood, you have to walk along the half-kilometre wall along Bryson Street, and cross yourself in front of the church of St. Matthews (scene of a famous battle in 1970 between Catholics and Protestants that left two dead and dozens injured).

‘The police are provoking us’

“Loyalist East Belfast,” we read on the wall, from which we are watched by the thugs of the Ulster Defence Association, following us wherever we go with the barrels of their painted rifles. On all sides there is a drunken, incessant fluttering of Union Jacks.

“What they have done with the flag is an insult, and that's why we're protesting,” says Heather Murray, 37, a neighbour from Susan Street, on the Loyalist side of the wall. “What happened [during the riots] was the fault of the police, who weren't letting our people go back to their homes. I wasn't there, my husband was. I have two small children and I'm afraid to go out, what with everything that's going on. The police are just provoking us. The world has flipped upside down: they've turned against us.”

Like the other 68 per cent of Protestants from Belfast, Murray admits that she doesn't talk with her Catholic neighbours. “We live in two different worlds. We want a different future for Ulster, and we believe in other things,” she admits. “Even though in the background I think we're praying to the same God and that some day He will hear our prayers.”


Unionist power loss behind violence

The Belfast protests are linked to the new demographic, political and economic reality in the city, says The Independent’s Irish Correspondent David McKittrick. New census returns reveal the city, which was once a “proud bastion of a Protestant work ethic” has now lost its Protestant majority, explaining why “the city council decided flying the flag should be reduced: unionist councillors were outvoted.” He continues –

Northern Ireland is today run by a new political dispensation, pioneered by Ian Paisley, which brings unionists and republicans together in government. [...] Since the loyalist narrative was already one of steady nationalist gain and steady Protestant loss, the reduction in flag-flying produced the rage among loyalists, who saw in it a simultaneous loss of power and an attack on their Britishness. That rage has produced the red, white and blue mist, which is now prevailing over the normal rules of society, pushing into second place any thoughts of better economic prospects, more jobs, freedom of movement and even personal safety. Instead, an extended bout of self-destruction is under way.

Was this article useful? If so we are delighted!

It is freely available because we believe that the right to free and independent information is essential for democracy. But this right is not guaranteed forever, and independence comes at a cost. We need your support in order to continue publishing independent, multilingual news for all Europeans.

Discover our subscription offers and their exclusive benefits and become a member of our community now!

Are you a news organisation, a business, an association or a foundation? Check out our bespoke editorial and translation services.

Support independent European journalism

European democracy needs independent media. Join our community!

On the same topic