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Belfast's Peace Wall

Before traveling to England last month, Deborah and I took a bus tour around Ireland. It circled the island counter-clockwise beginning at Dublin. The first day we went to Belfast, capital of Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK. Had our guide not announced it, we wouldn’t have known when we crossed the border. It’s been open since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. What will happen to the border when the UK leaves the European Union is but one challenge Brexit poses to relations between the two Irelands.

Our tour gave us a free afternoon in Belfast. Recommended was a tour of the Titanic museum at the Harland & Wolff Shipyard, which built it. H&W employed over 10,000 workers at that time. Shipbuilding and linen manufacture had made the Belfast area highly prosperous, one reason the British government insisted on retaining the six northeastern counties in 1921 when two years of guerrilla warfare forced it to free the rest.

We skipped the Titanic exhibit and walked out Falls Road to see the Peace Wall, a less visited attraction. Not having done our homework, we thought it was erected to celebrate the Good Friday Agreement. But unlike the peace wall in front of Ashland’s library, this one is meant to keep the peace. We later learned that there are similar walls elsewhere in Belfast and in three other Northern Ireland cities. Each runs through a working-class neighborhood.

The agreement ended the “Troubles” that began in 1968 with the Catholic minority’s struggle to end discrimination against them. It included a power-sharing arrangement in the Northern Ireland government, reconstitution of the police forces that had oppressed Catholics, a human rights commission, and disarming of paramilitary forces on both sides. The Republic renounced its claim to the six counties of Northern Ireland. Voters in both Irelands approved the agreement. And then there were the peace walls.

Catholics live on Falls Road. They fly Irish flags. Shankill Road, on the other side, is Protestant. British flags fly there. The wall, more than 20 feet high, runs the equivalent of several city blocks. Some of the panels seemed officially decorated. Most were done spontaneously, often with beautiful spray-painted lettering. Visitors write messages. Though the wall witnesses to abiding tensions, the tone of its decorations is almost uniformly peaceful.

At first we didn’t see the wall because it’s behind the abandoned linen factories that face Falls Road. Only when we found the sole passage between them did we cross to the wall side.

When we finally understood what we had come to see, one thought I had was that people on both sides of the wall used to work in those mills. The closings left them all in economic distress. They differ in national allegiance — the Catholics still want unification with the Republic — but they share a class experience. Why had the former so completely trumped the latter? Internationalism was a dream of the Communist movement: Class consciousness would unite workers across borders. That dream was dashed by the nationalistic fervor of World War I and erased by Stalin. It was finance that globalized.

Aggrieved working-class Brits were decisive in the Brexit vote. Were they repudiating an international order they believe is hostile to their interests or choosing a regressive nationalism? Both, I think. We’ll see how they fare.

Herb Rothschild's column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.