The lives of my dad and his family changed dramatically on January 13, 1973. Their house – located in a Protestant area of East Belfast – was attacked and set alight, causing damage to the interior. Many of the family possessions were ultimately destroyed. Luckily, they escaped physical harm, but in the blink of an eye – the striking of a match – they went from homeowners to homeless.
So began the hunt to find a new place to live, in an area my grandparents perceived to be “safer”. They eventually settled in a Catholic neighbourhood, in Andersonstown, West Belfast, and attempted to return to life as normal. My dad went on to sit his first major set of school examinations several months later.
Regrettably, their story is not unique. As a result of the outbreak of what has become known as the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, some 45,000-60,000 suffered a similar fate, becoming what many refer to colloquially as “burnt out”. According to historical analysis conducted by researchers Sean Connolly and Gillian McIntosh, this was the largest movement of civilians in Europe since the outbreak of World War II. Those forced to leave their homes either crossed the border and became refugees, or stayed in Northern Ireland and became what we would now consider officially as “internally displaced persons”.
A row of burnt-out houses in Conway Street, Belfast.
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In 2019, the legacy of this displacement remains pronounced, with segregation and division resolutely a feature of the “post-conflict” landscape.
Many of Belfast’s Catholic and Protestant communities remain separated by a network of oxymoronically named “peace walls” – physical barriers erected to literally “keep the peace”. These barriers are not unique to Belfast, with segregated communities evident in other urban centres across Northern Ireland, including in the city of Derry.
Some families moved south to the perceived safety of the Republic of Ireland. Others left the island altogether, resettling in cities in the UK or further afield. As my ongoing research has revealed, whereas some readjusted to their new reality despite often moving from urban to rural environments overnight, others found adjusting more difficult. For many, family break-up, loss of labour, and associated socioeconomic issues, added yet further layers of trauma.
Tourists write messages on the Peace Wall in Belfast.
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In the 20 years since the signing of the historic Good Friday agreement, multiple attempts to deal with the legacy of the past have been mooted. Oral memory archives, grassroots story-telling projects and historical inquiries have all been attempted.
As social activist and artist Casey Asprooth-Jackson and I have argued, although violent displacement ultimately provided the backdrop to segregated Belfast and beyond, relatively little work has been done to examine the long-term effect on those who were “burnt out”. There has been little by way of formal acknowledgement of the trauma and hurt that this rupture caused families. And there are also questions to be asked surrounding the state response to what was happening at the time.
While debates surrounding the designation of “victim” and “survivor” are often polarising in Northern Ireland, it is nonetheless important to remember that those who were violently displaced are entitled to some form of justice, however conceived. And so it could be argued that those families who were violently displaced are indicative of the “everyday” victim and survivor in Northern Ireland, whose experiences will remain hidden behind a mask of stoicism.
Protestant children on route to school, 2001.
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Ongoing violent displacement
The violent and forced displacement of individuals and families that characterised the past continues in the present day. Figures released in 2017 point to the ongoing role that paramilitaries assume in forcibly evicting those they perceive to be undesirable residents in “their” area. Importantly, those most impacted by this present day violent displacement are usually people living at the sharp edge of Northern Ireland’s transition.
Attempts have been made to de-segregate and to foster a climate of better community relations through the creation of “shared communities”. But these too have largely failed. In September 2017, a number of Catholic families who had opted to live in a shared housing scheme in the predominantly Protestant Ravenhill Road area were forced to move out of fear of threat of attack.
This is not an isolated incident. Statistics from the Northern Ireland Housing Executive note that between 2013 and 2015, some 1,285 families were looking for homes due to housing intimidation. Internal displacement and intimidation of civilians in Northern Ireland remain issues that are impossible to relegate to the history books.
Northern Irish citizens protest in solidarity with contemporary refugees.
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In 2013 – as a result of the unprecedented levels of displacement emanating from the Middle East – Ireland (both north and south) pledged its support to resettling those who were fleeing violent theatres of war. Belfast, perhaps somewhat ironically given what has been discussed above, was designated a “city of sanctuary”.
The legacy of violent displacement in Northern Ireland has yet to be fully examined. Forced displacement continues to occur on our doorsteps in the so-called “post climate” era. So just what sort of “sanctuary” is Northern Ireland really capable of providing?