(Retrospective) Observations on a Troubled City

This post comes from Johan Boxstaens, one of the Belgian members of the Action. In it, he reflects on visiting Belfast, and on the work we did there at out recent meeting.

Belfast International Airport – Wednesday October 22th, 8PM

A special moment: thanks to the COST action I finally set foot on Northern-Irish soil for the first time. Although I’ve visited the nearby Republic of Ireland numerous times, for some reason I never made it to Belfast. If I think about it now, that is kind of strange. To me, Northern Ireland, the ‘Troubles’ and especially the city of Belfast have always had some kind of mythical aura thanks to music from U2 & Rory Gallagher, but especially because of Tom. When I was a teenager, Tom – who lived in Belfast – would come over to Belgium every year for the summer holidays. He used to stay at my best friend’s house and for a few years we spent most of the summer together. Every year, Tom had new stories on what was happening in the Conflict between Republicans and Loyalists in the whole of Northern-Ireland but especially in his hometown. He was the first to introduce me to the concept of ‘the Troubles’. Tom was a very passionate storyteller. Of course he only told us his side of the story: Tom was Catholic and to him all Protestants were the enemy. He spoke about the IRA, the UVF and how they fought their war on the streets of Belfast. At first I thought it was pretty exciting. In the small Belgian village where I grew up in nothing ever happened and, as a 14-year old, I was attracted to the romantic idea of ‘fighting for a just cause’. But all that changed abruptly on a sunny day in the summer of 1991…

My best friend Hans, Tom and myself were out riding our bikes when all of the sudden we heard a very loud bang. When I looked behind me to see what was going on, I only saw Hans on his bike. A few moments later, we realized that Tom had dived instinctively into a ditch on the side of the road as soon as he heard the noise. We found him shaking all over, terrified and not able to speak for several minutes. That’s when it hit me: there was (and still is) nothing ‘romantic’ about the Troubles at all…

Belfast wall

West Belfast – Thursday October 23th, 5PM

After a productive meeting in our working group on practicing supervision and the three subgroups, Nicola Carr arranged a visit to West Belfast, an area of the city most profoundly affected by the Conflict. Sixteen years after the signing of the peace agreement, Coiste, an organization of former political prisoners is giving guided tours through what used to be their battlefield. More than twenty years after the ‘Tom-incident’, I hear both sides of the story: the first guide gives us the Republican insight on the Troubles, the second one tells us the Loyalist version. Different style, different story but also shared emotions, a shared ‘peace wall’ and similar memorial sites. When we step out of the bus for a short stop at an IRA memorial, kids who are playing in the street don’t greet us with the traditional request for sweets or a penny, but by shouting ‘peace, peace’…  After a short tour, the bus takes us back to the city centre with plenty of things to think about. Back in my hotel room I struggle with an ambivalent feeling: apparently the Troubles as we knew them really are history, but on the other hand the physical environment of West Belfast (the gates, the ‘peace wall’, the cages to protect people’s houses, the murals, …) very much keeps the history alive even after sixteen years of peace. My goodness folks…

Belfast tour

Belfast – Youth Action – October 24th, second day of the meeting

After the traditional dinner of the night before, the start of the second day of the meeting is a little slower than the first one. Before lunch, every working group works hard to finish what they planned to do and new plans for the future are made. In the plenary session after lunch every group presents the progress they’ve made. In my opinion, all presentations show that the COST action really begins to bear fruits: special issues of journals are being planned, methodological issues are being addressed, abstracts are written, tools are constructed, questions are starting to get answered and we could even applaud the fact that the first funds have been found to do (small scale) research. In the next weeks and months researchers and practitioners in the 22 participating jurisdictions will be very busy following up on what we achieved so far. So the COST-story continues and although it seems relatively far away and a lot of work has to be done in the meantime, I’m already looking forward to our next meeting and the conference in Athens in April 2015. I hope to see you all again there and then!

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