I had the enormous privilege of helping Professor Shaul Cohen teach Conflict in Northern Ireland at OSP nearly two years ago. Our conversations ranged from historical context to modern political realities. We talked about ethno-political identity in conflict, and the reason why enormous violence took over the region for nearly three decades. The highlight of the class was a visit from two individuals from Northern Ireland: one of Protestant background and one Catholic, to talk about their perspectives on the conflict and what it meant for their lives. Now I live in Belfast, and witness the conflict every day.
I think the topic worked so well in the Inside-Out context because the idea of identity, space, and power all maps onto the prison setting: the way gangs will mark off territory and control swaths of the population, and the way that violence often spills into innocent lives. Here in Belfast, I walk around the University and downtown and see a beautiful European city, with quirks both Irish and British, and full of kind and welcoming people. But I walk down Donegal Pass near my home and suddenly I see the Union Jack flying from every storefront, every lamp-post, and from the windows of homes. I walk into sectarian space by turning a corner. In West Belfast, I take a tour past the conflict murals: paintings the size of buildings that celebrate the paramilitary dead and host inflammatory accusations at the other side.
This is a city still living its divisions, and still struggling to create a unified identity. The peace agreement happened in 1998, and yet housing is segregated, votes split along ethno-political lines, and a general sense that violence will not return but that the city is not headed toward a dramatically more unified future.
Thank goodness I had that experience with an Inside-Out class. It matters that I now witness this conflict with the context which allows me to ask the right questions. Just as I carefully did not wear bright red or blue shirts at Serbu, I don’t wear bright green or orange when walking through Belfast.
I think of our Inside-Out class daily. I want to share the stories, the slang, and the on-the-ground reality as I’m living it. I want to know what people would think about the massive “peace walls” dividing neighborhoods, or the sectarian parades, or the roles that ex-political prisoners now play in politics and the peace process. There’s so much left to discuss at the end of a ten-week class, and I wish I had twenty-four people’s opinions of my new home.
Instead I’ll just walk around with eyes wide and an open mind. That’s the best of what I learned in Inside-Out anyway.