Tim Kirk: On a trip to Belfast, facing up to a still-festering wound


  “Better an hour early than a minute late,” my Dad used to say. 

My principal concern in planning a day trip to Belfast on March 25 was that I arrive at the inaugural in-person event of the John and Pat Hume Foundation on time.  I prefer the train, but the buses from Dublin run earlier and they delivered me to the Belfast Europa Center at 8:45, early enough that I could walk from Belfast’s grand city center to Crumlin Road. 

The Europa Hotel was the most-bombed target of the Troubles – hit 36 times.  Across the street is the Crown Tavern, reputedly the birthplace of the Society of United Irishmen in the 1790s, whose rebellion failed in 1798.   

A couple of blocks north is the “Royal Belfast Academical Institution,” known as “the Inst.” It was founded in 1806 with the motto Quaerere Verum [To Seek the Truth] by some of the same Irish Republican Presbyterians who had founded the Society of United Irishmen. Among the radical-for-the-time concepts of the school was that it would be open to boys and to girls of all denominations and would not use corporal punishment. Over time it became an all-boys school with an overwhelmingly Presbyterian student body and ethos. In addition to prejudice against Catholics, the Catholic Church itself forbade its faithful from attending what they considered a “Godless institution.” To attend “the Inst.” would have been worse than Catholics choosing Harvard over Holy Cross or BC during the reigns of Cardinals O’Connell and Cushing in Boston.  Today, the school is for boys between 11 and 18 years of age and is 40 percent Protestant, 30 percent Catholic, and 30 percent other. 


An elevation to city status per the queen

 Belfast grew rapidly in the 19th century with the linen industry, shipbuilding (both Harlan and Wolff attended “the Inst.”) as well as the tobacco industry.  The great famine in Ireland drove many Irish to migrate within the island to Belfast in search of work. In recognition of Belfast’s growth, Queen Victoria elevated Belfast to city  status in 1888.

Across the street from the school sits the Assembly Building, once the seat of the Presbyterian Assembly in Northern Ireland.   Completed in 1905, it is used today as a convention center.  One block away is the magnificent Belfast City Hall,  completed in 1906. Among the important events to take place there were the signing of the Ulster Covenant (resisting home rule in Ireland) in 1912, and the first meeting of Northern Ireland’s Parliament after partition in 1921.

The Belfast Public Library is built with Glasgow’s distinctive red sandstone, City Hall with the light gray ‘Portland Stone’ quarried in Dorset and transported from the west of Britain rather than using the darker gray granite found in Ireland.  In Belfast, it seems, even stones have to pick a side. I walked north until I came to Clifton Street, turned northwest onto Crumlin Road, and checked Google maps to make sure that I was still on course.


Crumlin Road: Neither This Nor That

Crumlin Road is known as an “interface area,” meaning an area that is neither predominantly Catholic nor Protestant and that has no Peace Wall separating the two groups.  I walked by a baptismal party posing for photos on the steps of a Catholic Church, the modern Mater Hospital, the ruin of an Orange Hall, one portion of which has been saved and repurposed as a community center for Indian immigrants. Farther up, I encountered The Crumlin Road Gaol [Jail], built in 1846 and closed in 1996.  Gaol alumni include Eamonn DeValera, Bobby Sands, and Martin McGuinness. It is now a museum where you can buy tickets for a “Troubles Tour” of Belfast’s last 50 years from conflict to a peace architected by, more than any one person, John Hume.  Across the road from the gaol, and connected to it by a tunnel under Crumlin Road, stands the condemned ruins of the neoclassical Crumlin Road Courthouse, built in 1850, 4 years after the gaol. Many Troubles- related trials took place in the courthouse, which now awaits demolition and a hoped-for redevelopment as a hotel.  No buyers yet. On Crumlin Road, ruins and vacant lots are interspersed with urban renewal projects (some funded by the European Union).  It looks like Detroit. 


A gathering at the “Epicenter of Pain” during The Troubles

I arrived at the Houben Center, a cross-community center on the grounds of Holy Cross Catholic Church, situated between the Ardoyne neighborhood, which is Catholic, and the Nationalist and the Shankill Road section, which is Protestant and Unionist.  Father Gary Donegan greeted me and the other guests with a hearty handshake.  Up until now, the meetings of the new John and Pat Hume Foundation have been virtual because of the pandemic.  

After coffee and a bacon bap outside in the fine weather, we entered the hall and took our seats. Father Gary welcomed us and explained that this neighborhood had been the “epicenter of pain” during the Troubles.  More people died here during that period than any other neighborhood in Northern Ireland.  As a percentage of the population, the death toll would have been equivalent to 4 million people being killed in the United States, or 50 thousand people in L.A.  Those days seem long ago, before the 1998 peace agreement began an era dedicated to, in the words of John Hume, “spilling sweat, not blood, together.”  

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney was scheduled to give the keynote address, “Building Common Ground,” followed by a panel discussion with members of both communities. Minister Coveney began by paying tribute to the Humes, acknowledging how wonderful it was to be meeting in person, and addressing the situation in Ukraine, noting that in the first two years of the Syrian conflict, one million people were made refugees. Four million Ukrainian refugees had fled that country in just four weeks.  Unfortunately, we never heard the rest of his speech.


Dark Suits, Earpieces Interrupt a Minister’s Keynote Address

Suddenly, a bulky bald man in a dark suit and an earpiece approached the minister and whispered in his ear.  The minister apologized for having to leave, said he hoped to return, and then collected the pages of his speech while a phalanx of other big bald men with earpieces hustled him out the door and into a waiting vehicle.


The 50 of us seated were left wondering what was happening.  After a couple of minutes, we were told that there had been a credible threat to the meeting.  We were instructed to move to the center of the building.  Later, we were told to go down a hallway to another room.  Then we were moved through a backdoor into a courtyard.  By then, numerous members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) had arrived and had cordoned off the area.  A helicopter hovered overhead.  We were moved across the street, then down the road. As we milled around trying not to crack any jokes that might seem awful later, depending on how this episode concluded, I had the chance to speak with other attendees, peace activists, members of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and elected officials. Most had long experience in navigating bomb threats, but not recently.  

I spoke with a youth worker from a Unionist background who, at 25, has grown up in a relatively peaceful Belfast. He had been part of the panel, so I asked him what he had intended to say.  He related that he worries that the generation after him is far enough away from the Troubles that they do not appreciate how bad it was before the Belfast Agreement.  Side note: like Derry and Londonderry, the names for everything are determined by the community you represent, including The Good Friday Agreement which is known as the Belfast Agreement to Unionists. Those seeking common ground call it ‘The Belfast – Good Friday Agreement.’  Conor continued: “I am a product of the peace but I worry that the young lads don’t get it.”


Down Shankill Road Where Union Jacks, Ulster Murals Rule


A story circulated that an electrician off the Shankill Road had been car-jacked at gunpoint. At least two devices had been placed in his van, which he was ordered to park outside the Houben Center at 9:45.  He was told that his family was being held hostage and would be harmed if he did not obey.  We were eventually informed that the event had been cancelled and people started to say goodbye.  With Crumlin Road blocked, the police recommended that my shortest route to the city center, and my bus back to Dublin, was down the Shankill Road. 

The Shankill Road is a different world of Union Jacks, murals that celebrate the Ulster Covenant of 1912 and demonize the Northern Ireland Protocol, the EU, and the Irish Republic. A graveyard honoring the Ulstermen who died at the Battle of the Somme in WWI is next to a mural that accuses Irish Republicans, President Biden, the EU, and the Irish Government of committing genocide against Protestants.  Shocking misinformation seems to work in today's confused world.  Putin calls Zelensky a Nazi, and many Russians believe him.  Ted Cruz implies Ketanji Brown Jackson is a racist, and his fans cheer and, more to Cruz’s actual point, donate. Hateful lies are useful to the cynical.

Why did this happen? Is this a reaction to the upcoming May elections in Northern Ireland, or is there something larger behind the bomb scare?  As the election approaches, Unionism is in disarray and the Orange Card, first used by Lord Randolph Churchill, is being played to rally Unionism.  If Sinn Fein wins, as is expected, some wonder if the Unionists will accept the results.  Or are the Russians involved in exploiting the historic cleavage in Northern Irish society to create conflict among the coalition Biden has built?  The Russians manipulated social media in the UK to get Brexit passed and to interfere in the US presidential election in 2016.  The chaos from both electoral outcomes has left the US and the UK deeply divided internally.

Ireland has a seat on the UN Security Council and is a center of the tech industry in Europe.  The diplomatic staff of the Russian embassy in Dublin is the largest foreign delegation in Ireland except for that of the USA and it has long been believed that they are taking advantage of Ireland’s common travel area with the UK to spy on the UK, the EU, and the USA. Four Russian diplomats have been expelled from Ireland since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine. Have Ireland and Northern Ireland become targets for Russian-backed misinformation to destabilize the UK, the EU, and to stoke conflict between Joe Biden and Boris Johnson?  Biden is committed to preserving the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol.  Boris is committed to preserving Boris.



A Nod to Irony Where Threat Turns on Itself

  Footage on the BBC and RTE later showed the PSNI explosive unit removing the devices from the electrician’s van with robots, then blowing them up. The forensics team later determined that they were hoaxes.  Two men and a woman, aged 33, 41 and 38, who are associated with the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force, have since been arrested and the men were charged under the Terrorism Act.  The trio would have been 9, 14 ,and 17 years old when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, compelling evidence that the trauma of the conflict will take generations to truly heal and that the healing will not just happen on its own. Any wound needs to be cleaned, medicated, and the dressing changed, or it will become infected.  The purpose of the John and Pat Hume Foundation and groups like it is to keep the work of peace moving forward, a healing balm that must be consistently applied.

The threat disrupted the event, which is frustrating, but, as Father Gary said to me as we were awaiting instructions from the police, “Whatever those responsible hoped to accomplish, they have achieved the opposite.”  

James Joyce’s character Leopold Bloom said something similar:


“Force, hatred, history, all that, that’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life… Love… I mean the opposite of hatred.”