Two heavy iron gates cut Northumberland Street in two. In the north, the Unionists, mainly Protestants and attached to the United Kingdom. In the south, the nationalists, Catholics and in favor of a reunified Ireland. In the no man’s land businesses and wasteland that, in addition to walls, separate the communities of Belfast, the Protestant New Life City Church has settled, straddling the demarcation line.
At the beginning of the month, violence broke out a few dozen meters away. Disgusted by Brexit and their living conditions, young unemployed unionists attacked the police before provoking the nationalists. “It took us by surprise, admits Pastor Jack McKee. On the first night, the gates that separate the quarters closed earlier than expected. Impossible to walk home for the young people who were still in church. We had to escort them home by car ”.
The second night he was outside, “Just behind the bus that burned down”. With other volunteers, the pastor accompanied a dozen teenagers to their parents. “We immediately opened the doors of the church, served tea to those who needed a chat, suggested that young people come and play football …”. That night and the following, the place of worship closed much later than usual.
A fragile peace
Religion is not at the heart of the North Irish conflict but it remains a strong marker of identity, Irish or British. Known among Protestants as among Catholics, Pastor McKee sometimes carries a large wooden cross decorated with an inscription in reference to the Gospel according to John. “For God so loved the world, he specifies. This message allows me to remind communities to extend this love to the other side of the wall ”.
If Northern Ireland has been at peace since 1998, there is no confidence in these areas where communities live side by side. The recent disorder is worrying, but the reopening of schools and youth spaces have given community workers a voice.
Jack McKee manages to be heard by young people because his church runs multiple clubs, playrooms, daycares and intercommunity programs: “Many associations are still controlled by former paramilitaries. Church clubs are safer, ”he explains. If the demonstrations resume, he is thinking of setting up stands in the parks: “We must go and meet the young people where they are”.
In the aftermath of the violence, the Catholic bishops called for calm in a joint letter. And fifteen religious leaders gathered in front of large metal doors controlling access from one district to another and which had been set on fire. After an ecumenical service, they marched through the streets. Among them, Gordon McDade, pastor of a new church Anabaptist which opened its doors on Springfield Road, another area of riots.
“By coming together, we try to set an example and show that the religious of the city have good relations. We know each other, we work and we pray together, ”he insists. For him, the response to agitation should be “through human relationships and not through sermons.” “As Christians, we already represent peace and reconciliation,” he says. It’s about bringing these values to the streets. “
“Nothing should be taken for granted”
A vision shared by Father Michael Canny, who officiates at the church Catholic St Columba in the Waterside, Unionist district of Londonderry where the unrest began. “We organize inter-church meetings for Halloween or Saint Patrick’s Day, to set an example. When the clergy get along well, it is a sign for the faithful that there are more things that unite us than things that divide us ”.
For him, “if we do not move forward, we regress” And the work must be constant: “There is no room for complacency in Northern Ireland, nothing should be taken for granted. We could easily go back. ”
For now, the violence has given way to peaceful marches and actions of civil disobedience. But all eyes are on the centenary of Northern Ireland, in May, and on July 12, the official feast of the Unionist community.
Brexit rekindles tensions
1er January 2021: new Brexit rules enter into force. Checks are carried out on certain British goods arriving in Northern Ireland and subsequently entering the European common market. This “border” in the Irish Sea is contested by the Unionists.
March 30: first violence in the unionist district of Waterside in Londonderry. Riots continue in Newtownabbey, Carrickfergus and Belfast. They left a total of 88 police officers injured.
April 7 and 8: riots around the walls that separate communities in Belfast.
April 9: return to calm in the context of the death of Prince Philip.
May 3: centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland, by a British law dividing Ireland between a Northern Ireland and a Southern Ireland.