‘Belfast is not Bosnia’

Alina Utrata brings a personal perspective from studying conflict to an evening of recollections of peacemaking.

Outsiders have difficulty visualizing what Northern Ireland looks like.

I don’t mean they have trouble imagining the beautiful architecture of Queen’s University, where I study; or the stunning coast of Giant’s Causeway; or the bars where the Game of Thrones cast hang out. No; outsiders have difficulty visualizing what Northern Ireland looks like.

Let me explain. I’m an American. Most of my American friends go to school in London. They gasp (in a rather polite, English way) when I tell them about the recent paramilitary kneecappings in Belfast. “There are paramilitaries?” they ask in hushed tones, “Is that scary for you?” I can tell they’re visualizing a landscape more akin to Raqqa, Iraq than Victoria Square. On the other hand, when my American friends come to visit me, and we ramble through Botanic Gardens with our overpriced cappuccinos and artisanal sesame sausage rolls, they have difficulty visualizing conflict. “St George’s Market,” they insist, “is not a war zone.”

The fault lines of a divided society are visible in Northern Ireland — but only if you know how to look.

That’s why the Four Corners Festival, which runs until February 11, is such an interesting initiative, as it explores the relationship between space, people and conflict. The brainchild of Rev Steve Stockman and Fr Martin Magill, the festival originated when the two men realized there were parts of their own city that they had never visited. Now they hope the festival encourages others to cross all types of boundaries.

The festival’s first event, entitled “20 Years On: A Conflict Frozen in Time?”, took place on Thursday night and focused on loyalist contributions to creating the conditions for peace. A nostalgia for the past was almost palpable among the panelists, as they talked about the extraordinary times during the negotiations for the Good Friday Agreement.

Journalist Brian Rowan recalled not believing the negotiations would work, until the peace agreement was announced. Rev Ken Newell, the former moderator of the Presbyterian church, recounted singing Van Morrison at the top of his lungs in a (mostly) empty public bus when he heard the news. Monica McWilliams talked about swinging, Tarzan-style, from a makeshift treehouse press room with David Ervine to calm her delegates. A great respect for the leaders of the past, and the transformations they made, was apparent — especially, the evening implied, when compared to the mess politicians have gotten the region into now.

But for the young people, it might have been too much past. In retrospect, the certainty of living history is compelling. Can you believe it? The Good Friday Agreement worked. It was a moment when all eyes were on Northern Ireland — Rowan told how, when the IRA ceasefire was agreed, the first people to be called included Bill Clinton and the Taoiseach.

But for young people who didn’t participate in the Troubles and who don’t have direct lines to important world leaders, the question of who to emulate and who to admire hangs in the air. The participants lamented how downhill the past twenty years have been. Stormont has collapsed. Entrenched party politics is everywhere. Sectarianism is, allegedly, worse. Loyalism doesn’t have leadership. And, perhaps worst of all, the pain of the past is still present.

The theme of this year’s Four Corners festival is “Here. Now. This.” A quote by Fr Greg Boyle, it’s a call to focus on the present. But as portrait artist Colin Davidson eloquently put it, speaking of the experience of producing his remarkable Silent Testimony exhibition: “For the victims, the past is their now.”

‘How could that still matter?’

As a student of History and the Law, my studies have forced me to wrestle with the same peculiar relationship between past and present. My undergraduate research examined the impact of the Yugoslav Tribunal in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a place where the past is even more insidious and fraught than in Northern Ireland.

The most recent conflict in Bosnia happened during the 1990s, when the breakup of Yugoslavia ushered in a bitter and gruesome war of ethnic cleansing. But the different ethnic groups in Bosnia have a long history — periods of peace and neighborly relations, as well as periods of war and violence. As an American, it is sometimes difficult to even think of an event that occurred before the 20th century; and yet, in Bosnia, the 1389 Battle of Kosovo Polje, where the Serbs suffered a historic defeat at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, was argued about constantly. How could that still matter? But it did.

As Michael Ignatieff observed of the Balkans, the past “continues to torment because it is not past. These places are not living in a serial order of time, but in a simultaneous one, in which the past and present are a continuous, agglutinated mass of fantasies, distortions, myths and lies.” Everyone in Bosnia has a different story about what happened in 1991; but they also have a different story about what happened in 1941, and 1841, and 1441.

Looking at Bosnia, it is easy — especially for an outsider — to simply call for truth. So the UN established the Tribunal as a way to investigate and prosecute the worst atrocities of the 1990s wars. But criminal justice is a very poor mechanism for getting any type of truth — especially historic truth in divided societies.

One of the lawyers I interviewed told me about how he had worked on a case against the Croatian General Ante Gotovina, who was convicted (and later released on appeal) for war crimes. Shortly after he completed the case, he took a trip to Dubrovnik, in Croatia, where he saw stalls selling ‘Support Gotovina’ paraphernalia. “They loved him!” he exclaimed, “He had done all these horrible, horrible things and Croatians loved him!”

Of course they did. And even if they had read the thousands of pages of dry, legal findings of the Tribunal, it wouldn’t have mattered. To most Croats, Gotovina had defended Croatia in the Homeland War.

People in Northern Ireland will not find it shocking that different communities can have vastly different interpretations of people, “despite all the evidence.” Humans have an extraordinary ability to see different stories in the same facts. And while calls for criminal justice in the aftermath of conflict are often described as being about “truth,” I think they are about something more than that. They are an attempt by people to ask: how can you not see what I see? How can you like and respect and let go unpunished a person who hurt me? How can you not see my story in the same facts?

Belfast is not Bosnia, for which I am grateful. Bosnia is a country that tore itself apart, and you can see evidence of it everywhere. You cannot avoid it, even as an outsider. In Northern Ireland, you can miss the conflict — and that might be a good thing.

The day-to-day experience of living life in a society emerging from conflict is difficult to visualize. After the certainty of living a moment of history — what does the next morning look like? What do the next twenty years of mornings look like?

On Thursday night, I walked down the Shankill Road into a church where Protestants, and Catholics, and Republicans, and Loyalists, and even my wee American self, talked about the legacy of the past. There was, in the room, a very real attempt to grapple with it — and look towards a vision of the future. In a closing remark, Rev Chris Hudson told the gathering: “I am not despondent. I believe you lads are doing OK.”

The day-to-day experience of living life can often seem insignificant, and boring, and be difficult to visualize. But to me, moments like Thursday are the most important ones.

So I think you lads (and lassies) are doing OK, too.

You can see the rest of the programme for the Four Corners Festival here

Originally published at Northern Slant.




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Alina Utrata

Alina Utrata

PhD’ing in Politics and International Studies at Cambridge via Queen's University Belfast via Stanford. www.alinautrata.com