The rain dripped off my face as I stood looking at the “Peace” Wall in Belfast. Murals of people, international conflicts, inspirational quotes, graffiti art, and the signatures of those who had come before us, perhaps with faces shrouded with solemn expressions and streams of water much like my own.
There was a bloody history leading up to this wall and it’s ever-functioning checkpoints. A history of extremisms: violence and passive resistance. Some died bloody while others died starving in protest. And there were those in-between. Those trying to raise their families while hoping for a better life for them. They died in blood with everybody else.
This wall of separation between the two communities is decorated brightly. A memorandum as much as a vibrant account of histories. Not all the histories on this wall are Ireland’s. Israel is represented among others. The conflict here was a common theme in the world: power and repression within the system. Majorities and minorities who never found a sustainable balance.
Balance. This word is too often misunderstood. Balance is not a stationary state and is constantly battled and stretched. But balance is achieved (also not a stationary word in this context) when the majority and the minorities exert nearly equal pressure to keep the status-quo working in the favor of both. There is never a thing as “perfect” harmony.
The majority is a vast and powerful force often working in it’s own self interest. It should be noted that minorities work in self interest, as well. But they have a much larger fight and the risks to their own, should they loose, are much more devastating. The majority, to give up a little of it’s benefits so that minorities can exists within similar rights and states of humanity, is not at risk of loosing it’s identity. Not at risk of entering into a world where it constantly has to navigate biases and systematic shortcomings that are in opposition to their favor. The majority rarely has to give up anything at all.
So why does the majority fight so hard? Why does it scream “injustice” so loudly? As if they have become accustomed to the power and privilege that they have and any slight loss of these will send their own socioeconomic and cultural identities spiraling into chaos.
They fight so hard to keep the unbalanced status-quo in their favor that it often works against their best interests. It often leads to conflict. Such was the case in Northern Ireland.
There have been steps taken to remedy the imbalance. Much like America’s Affirmative Action for African-Americans, Northern Ireland has created a system where certain percentages of political seats or roles within the police force has to be filled by specific sectors within the diversity of the region. If you are a Catholic woman, chances of getting a good job as a police officer are really good! Not as much if you are a Protestant male.
The brief comments I’ve heard on the matter are similar to those I’ve heard from my parents’ generation in America: You may be more qualified, but the job is going to the other person. Still, in both cases (and perhaps I am lucky in this and it is different elsewhere), the main sentiment seems to be that, despite this shortcoming, the system has benefited the community vastly. It is now a system where both sides of this conflict are represented in those government systems that really count when dealing out policies or punishments or peace.
And while there are still those extremists wandering the streets of Belfast, both sides do not hesitate to call them what they are. Because it seems that both sides have decided that the lives and futures of their children are much more important then continuing a conflict of such a magnitude.
They are nearly there. That balance. Nobody will ever be completely satisfied and both sides will continue to push on either sides of the balance line. Moving it a little here or there. But hopefully the sentiments of “enough” will endure and they can move forward, making a more solid balance.
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I need to note, once again, that I am an Irish-American traveler and have very limited historical understanding of this conflict. That my opinions do not represent any of those who lived or endured this conflict.
I am well aware of my biases and do not seek to hide them, but rather to put them out in front. To me, pretending unbias is dishonest and the only way an honest discussion can be had is to put the biases out front. I am an Irish-American white woman from a fairly middle-class family who tends towards liberalism. Especially in areas of equality and civil and human rights.
I have to note, for the sake of that honesty, that I generally tend to be on the side of the repressed. That’s right. I choose sides. Even as an anthropologist, I choose sides. When researching conflicts or cultures, I try to be as unassuming and neutral as possible. But when all is said and done and the reports are in, I cast aside my neutrality and form my own opinions.
To most often be on the side of the repressed is not to support every action by that group of people. Nor does it mean that I am completely ignorant to the sentiments of the more powerful side. I tend to voice loud opposition to violence. But when violence is wrought, and both sides point fingers, I cannot help but to point out that, had the oppressors not been so uncompromising or indifferent to the suffering and inequality in which they trapped other people in the first place, violence would not have occurred.
When there is no other way to be heard. When you have been silenced and ignored for so long. When your children are dying, starving, hopeless. You create a voice by any means necessary. I may frown on violence, but I understand the need for a voice. And I take the side of those that didn’t have a voice and argue those that stifled that voice.
That is my bias. I do not foresee it changing anytime soon.