BY LILY REAVIS ’21
Mount Holyoke’s study abroad program was one of the main factors contributing to my decision to attend the College. As a senior in high school, I dreamed about the semester I would spend abroad: walking along old European streets, visiting tourist sites like Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower and running daily errands in a glamorous city. Now, halfway through my experience, I wish that my prior viewpoint had made room for the less romantic aspects of living in a different country.
I have spent the past three months living in Belfast, Northern Ireland — a city marked by its intense political violence, religious segregation and recurring government collapses. I chose to study here despite my original romantic vision of my semester abroad because, as a politics major, I was excited to witness these conflicting communities for myself. Even so, I was unprepared for the politically violent state I was about to enter.
Between 1972 and 1998, over 3,500 people were killed in Belfast in a period of conflict called “the Troubles.” Today, 30-foot-tall “peace walls” divide Belfast by religion and culture. The country’s government has collapsed several times in the past century and has not functioned in over two years due to conflict between major political leaders.
Before moving to Belfast, I assumed that the political violence had ended, as peace was of officially declared in 1998. Queen’s University (which I currently attend) markets Belfast as “the safest city in the United Kingdom.” But in reality, the city’s issues are far from solved.
On Jan. 20, just three weeks after I arrived in Belfast, a car bomb exploded in the neighboring city of Londonderry. The Anti-British Irish Republican Army (IRA), whose propagandist graffiti can be seen throughout Belfast, later claimed responsibility for this incident. The Europa Hotel, directly neighboring the city’s main bus station, has been dubbed the “most bombed hotel in Europe” due to the many bombings in the late 20th century.
Since Northern Ireland was partitioned from the Republic of Ireland in 1921, two major identities have existed in the country: the Catholic nationalists and the Protestant unionists.
Nationalists have pushed for unification with the Republic of Ireland for decades, while unionists want to remain in the U.K. This issue sparked “the Troubles,” which were allegedly ended in 1998 through the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. This agreement dictated that Northern Ireland must be governed by multiple parties, both unionist and nationalist. However, the power-sharing government has since collapsed multiple times and is not currently functional.
The looming Brexit deadline poses several significant issues for Northern Ireland. One controversy is over the Northern Irish-Irish border. The EU and the U.K. both want the border to remain soft, but the U.K.’s exit from EU- standard trade laws could potentially pose safety risks. The nationalist community still pushes to unite with the Republic of Ireland, hoping to remain a part of the EU.
The country is currently in a state of uncertainty regarding its status as part of the EU. If the border is hardened through Brexit, it is possible that leftover tension from “the Troubles” could resurface, potentially launching Northern Ireland back into a period of violent conflict.
Violence has already begun to increase in the country, as demonstrated by the January car bomb. Britain’s direct rule over Northern Ireland has created more tension between unionist and nationalist communities. Belfast’s “peace walls” still close every night, and the country does not have a functioning government to voice its concerns over Brexit. Conflict is far from over in Northern Ireland, and it is very possible that the U.K.’s exit from the EU could reignite past struggles.
My first months in Northern Ireland have not been what I originally anticipated from my semester abroad. Even though Belfast is now seen as relatively safe, existing in a city with such a violent past can be disorienting. The added potential of re-entering a war-like state post-Brexit is a situation I hadn’t fully considered before choosing to move to Northern Ireland. Although there are also countless good things about my time abroad, I wish I had entered the semester with fewer expectations and a better understanding of real-time political violence.