Reverend Paul Twomey met us outside the Farset Hostel early Friday evening with a borrowed church mini-bus. I knew we were in for a lot when I heard his responses to questions ricochet of the questioner and flood us with a blur of history and acronyms for paramilitary and sectarian groups.
He took us to the Shankill Road (derived from the Irish: Seanchill meaning "old church") area which is strongly protestant and home to the loyalist paramilitary groups, such as the UDA (Ulster Defence Association) and the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force). This area was built up in the mid-19th centruy when Belfast had many jobs making linen. When linen manufacture declined in the mid-twentieth century, high unemployment and the Troubles followed.
We saw a fair number of murals and he explained the murals were a healthy outlet at the time they came to be, relative to the violence which they superseded. The murals by the sectarian or paramilitary groups laud and commemorate the fallen in the past struggles. They show hooded and masked gunmen with automatic weapons pointed at the observer. They also lash out at the opposition labeled as murderers. The murals make it impossible to forget the past, and would make it uncomfortable for someone who is Catholic to come into the vicinity of murals from the group of which he or she does not belong.
Reverend Twomey showed us some mainly Catholic areas as well but because of his own faith he had the most contact with protestants.
We saw schools built with one side of the school yard being the wall of separation. Nothing like concrete walls topped by metal bars or barb wire on one side of your school wall, eh?
Reverend Twomey is in favor of peace and reconciliation.
He told us how extreme the violence got during the Troubles. Not only were bombings done, gun battles erupted, or assassinations carried out, but groups would grab or kidnap someone from the other group and torture them horribly before killing them.
The violence became consuming to some. One group thought they had captured someone from the opposition, so they tortured him. Word got back to them that the person was a “civilian” from their own side, but they still killed him.
The violence got so bad, sometimes one protestant group would turn on another. People would have to move. Lines demarcating the subgroups were adopted.
Still, he asked us many hard questions he had faced or watched people face. These questions included:
How would you feel if you had not taken sides, but one side hassled you in the street, left crank calls, threatened your family, demanded you move?
How would you feel if your teenage child was taken from the street and tortured by your sectarian opposite. Would you support your own paramilitary group taking revenge.
How would you feel if you fell in love and married someone from the opposite religion? Would you take being spat upon in the street? A brick through your window? Beatings? Death threats?
How would you feel if a sectarian group made your neighborhood function with protection against crime and with provision of services, even if they did smash a few knee caps?
How would you feel if the sectarian groups enforced a strict no drug policy on your neighborhood when the local police had been unable to stop drugs?
How would you feel if a sectarian group got you a job after months or years of unemployment?
In the midst of the trip about, we saw up close one of the highest walls of separation (they are often referred to as Peace Walls because it was thought they would bring peace, but they didn't, so I try not to refer to them that way). We signed our names to the wall of separation as witnesses we were there, and left messages to the leaders and people of Belfast.
After this heavy duty excursion, Paul was able to relax a little and bring us to Bishops for fish and chips. Some of the trimmings were freshly cut deep fried chips, choice of peas, mushy peas, beans & pan, plain or brown bread, tea, coffee or soft drink. We hadn't had much time to absorb the emotional questions Reverend Twomey posed, but seeing and thinking about so much in a brief period of time had drained us of energy, so the food and drinks were brilliant.