[McSweeney’s is proud to present the following very real account of the author’s recent visit to Belfast, Northern Ireland, as a timely reminder that politicians occasionally do something other than bicker. It is long. You should read it. Thank you.]
[Although matters of historical record have been objectively, albeit smugly, rendered, the names of personal acquaintances have been changed and affiliations censored to prevent readers from keeping score. —J.R.]
CITY OF SYMBOLS
It’s my first visit to the Apartment — a swanky new cocktail lounge and restaurant in the heart of the city center. Once I’m past the bristly-haired bouncer, a staircase takes me up to the lounge proper where I’m invited to sit in an oversized leather chair pressed up against the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Donegall Square and take in the dazzling view. City Hall is lit up like a castle in a fairy tale. An enormous Christmas tree bedecked in silver balls and white lights enhances the festive mood. It’s Thursday night — the shops are open late — and with Christmas coming on, the sidewalks are crowded with smartly dressed professionals sauntering about with the aimless jocularity of the well-to-do. They stroll past DKNY ads, drift through overpriced boutiques, duck into pubs for a pint with their mates, and then hustle to catch the next train home. Every third person has a mobile phone pressed to their ear, ringing friends for a night out on the town. A soft rain falls, giving the bright holiday lights a surface off which to reflect, and after a few drinks from the Apartment’s perch it seems as if the streets of Belfast are slick with the golden light of prosperity.
A few years ago, it would have been impossible to conceive of a place like the Apartment in a city like Belfast. Shopping downtown meant being subjected to random searches and having one’s bags checked. Roadblocks were not uncommon. If a suspicious device was found or an incident occurred, a security alert was sounded, clogging the streets and motorways for hours. Until recently, Belfast looked and felt like a war zone. Soldiers patrolled the streets in full battle dress. RUC barracks loomed over the streets like castle keeps, bristling with razor wire. Yet even the most stringent security measures couldn’t — and still can’t — defuse the running feud between extremist factions within Northern Ireland’s two traditions.
That climate is why, in the early ‘80s, my parents got involved in an exchange program that brought a pair of kids — one Protestant, one Catholic — over from Belfast to spend the summer with an American family in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. We were a host family two years, during which time our family shared a roof with Johnny, Frankie, Matthew, Peter, and Francis (Francis stayed with another family, but he soon became close to ours). Eighteen years later, I’m here to hold up my end of the exchange. Belfast is not at all what I expected.
“Beijing,” Francis tells me, “had a bleedin’ McDonald’s before Belfast.” But since the Good Friday Agreement, money has been pouring into the city, opening up new possibilities for foreign investors. A new pub or nightclub opens every other week. Restaurants and shops are proliferating like never before. There’s a KFC in every neighborhood. Gap sweatshirts are ubiquitous. The new Hilton Belfast offers special packages for couples looking for a romantic getaway.
Perhaps the greatest symbol of the flourishing economy is the Odyssey Complex, the brand new £93 million waterfront arena. The Odyssey is also home to an interactive Science Center, an IMAX theater, a 12-screen multiplex, and a Pavilion replete with restaurants, bars and shops. A few weeks ago the Belfast Giants played their first hockey game before a capacity crowd. This Wednesday, President Clinton will make his third visit to Belfast and give a keynote address at the Odyssey to a crowd of 8,000 (U2 has been invited to perform). When Clinton is introduced and the crowd cheers in rapturous adulation, we should all savor the moment, because Clinton’s role in bringing peace and prosperity to Belfast cannot be underestimated.
Northern Ireland’s plight first caught Clinton’s attention while he was a student at Oxford. Back in America the Civil Rights movement was burgeoning. The ideological landscape seemed to change on a weekly basis. But in England Clinton’s curiosity about the Irish question was met with indifference and apathy at a time when Amnesty International was finding the British government guilty of the worst human rights violations in Europe.
Campaigning for the Presidency, Clinton made Northern Ireland a priority, and once elected he wasted little time in forging an Irish policy, effectively mobilizing the untapped political might of the 45 million Americans who designated their ancestry as Irish on the 1990 census (many of these voters, it should be noted, were Democrats and instrumental to Clinton’s rise to power). No other President had done this. Ever since World War II, when Ireland rankled Roosevelt with its stubborn insistence on remaining neutral, the U.S. State Department developed an equally stubborn blind spot with respect to Ireland’s “internal affairs.” For years, the policy toward Northern Ireland was to deflect attention away from Westminster and shine the harsh light of recrimination upon the IRA, whose numerous terror campaigns were easy targets for political pundits and policy makers.
Clinton’s determination helped orchestrate an overhaul in Irish-American policy. He did not, as he was accused of doing, get in bed with the Nationalists. In fact, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams’ request for a visa to visit the States was promptly refused by the President — a move that earned Clinton considerable clout with Westminster, which he shrewdly leveraged to bring Sinn Fein to the negotiating table. Slowly, Clinton formed alliances with all parties involved, forging bonds that were instantly strengthened by the force of his personality.
When Clinton made his first historic visit to Belfast — no other U.S. President had visited Northern Ireland while in office — he shocked even his most stalwart critics with an impromptu walking tour of the Falls Road and Lower Shankill, scenes of some of Belfast’s grisliest sectarian violence. The gable-end homes in these neighborhoods are inscribed with Nationalist and Loyalist slogans, and murals memorialize martyrs to their respective causes. They are somber reminders of the old fears and ancient animosities that permeate the streets of Belfast. That night, Clinton shared the stage with Van Morrison, Belfast’s favorite son, and seduced the masses assembled in Donegall Square with the prospect of peace, at last, in Northern Ireland.
The President, however, has had his share of gaffes. He once likened the situation to “two drunks in a bar at closing time,” a gross and galling oversimplification that plays to the worst stereotypes imaginable. During his second visit, he revealed his compassionate side by meeting with families of the survivors of the brutal Omagh blast. This occasion, however, coincided with the ugly fallout of the Lewinsky scandal, and for many here, his return to Washington and a skyrocketing approval rating was tainted. Nevertheless, to appreciate the magnitude of Clinton’s achievement requires a rudimentary understanding of the forces of separation at work in this part of the world for the last twelve centuries. To wit…
A RIDICULOUSLY CONCISE HISTORY OF NORTHERN IRELAND IN WHICH MOST OF THE BORING STUFF HAS BEEN TAKEN OUT AND PEOPLE KILLING EACH OTHER LEFT IN
For centuries the islands that comprise modern-day England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales were little more than a commando training ground for adventure-seeking Norsemen. Around the end of the 12th Century, Anglo-Norman invaders began to test their luck against the Irish warrior clans and cattle barons of the northeastern corner of the island. The strongholds and fortifications they built up and down the coastline are a testament to their success. The next several hundred years were characterized by armed struggle, hostile repression and uneasy cohabitation among English Anglicans, Scottish Presbyterians, and Irish Catholics, complicated by rivalries and petty treacheries from within.
In the 15th Century, the Protestant Reformation legitimized England’s paranoia toward France and Spain, its Catholic neighbors across the Channel. With England seeking to protect its flank, Ireland was suddenly a prized piece of geography. Anachronistically speaking, Ireland became England’s Cuba, only rainier. So in 1688 King William set out to conquer Ireland and achieved this objective within three years’ time, decisively defeating Uncle Jimmy at the Battle of the Boyne. Catholic holdings were confiscated and Ireland was thereafter largely governed by Protestant landowners.
Hampered by strikes, bedeviled by uprisings, and marred by ceaseless conflict, Ireland limped into the 20th Century. She was a nation of poets, scholars, and statesmen who grew up alongside rebels, freedom fighters, and insurrectionists. The Great War descended, plunging England into conflict with the Kaiser, and Nationalist militants formed a secret organization called the Irish Republican Brotherhood and plotted to overthrow the British government in Ireland. “England’s difficulty,” they whispered, “is Ireland’s opportunity.” On Easter Sunday, 1916, the IRB launched a rebellion in Dublin. It was swiftly, easily, and brutally put down. From a military perspective, it gained nothing for the Nationalist cause, but it served to polarize political opinion in Ireland. After the uprising, one was either unequivocally for or against a sovereign Irish Republic.
The subsequent Anglo-Irish Treaty, which had been vigorously campaigned for by Michael Collins, officially divided the six counties that constitute the province of Ulster from the 26 counties in the south. The partition, as it came to be called, divided not only Ireland but the Republican movement as well. In 1921, Belfast became the capital of Northern Ireland.
The bombings and bloodshed that became synonymous with Belfast and have since been tagged with the understated sobriquet “The Troubles” began, arguably, in 1972 when British soldiers opened fire on Nationalist protesters, killing 13 men and injuring many more. Belfast erupted in a contagion of riots. Bombs rocked the city. The streets were steeped in blood. For an entire generation the violence continued unabated. For the kids who stayed with us in America, it was all they knew.
Right away we recognized the difference: Johnny shaved his head so the police would have nothing to grab (police and soldiers frequently singled out redheads). Peter taught us to punch your opponent in the nose first, so that his eyes water up and he can’t properly defend himself. At the swimming pool one afternoon a local kid called nine-year-old Frankie a “mommy’s boy,” an insult that we as jaded suburbanites frankly didn’t find all that offensive any more. But Johnny took exception. He told the kid to take it back or he’d punch him in the nose. The kid laughed and Johnny sent him home — literally crying to his mother — with a bloody nose. We learned a great deal from our Belfast friends.
I saw Francis briefly at Christmas last year, so I’m not taken aback by the six inches and 120 pounds he’s added to his frame since he was 14. Francis works in the Post Office and is among the most generous people I know (although trying to differentiate degrees of hospitality in the Irish is like quibbling over the wetness of water). Francis moonlights as a bar bouncer and has nominated himself social director during my stay. Within a few hours of my arrival, I’m sitting before a fire in a pub having drinks with Frankie, whom I haven’t seen since 1982. Like all the kids who stayed with my family (save Mark, whom I am unable to locate), Frankie is vibrant and successful, and hates to see me actually pay for something (he acts as if the sight of my wallet causes him physical pain). For most of his adult life Frankie worked in the shipyard where the Titanic was built, but now assembles airplanes. After reminiscing long into the small hours, we agree to do it all over again the following night, and the night after that as well.
In Belfast it is not uncommon to arrive at a club and not be able to get in; not because of who you are or where you come from, but because of your clothes, your demeanor, your style. (To aid the enforcement of dress codes, most Belfast bouncers are well-dressed, and when a couple of drunken hambags get after a scuffle, it’s delightful to watch young men wearing tuxedo shirts and bow ties rush in to break it up.) Thankfully, Francis’ affiliation with the fraternity of bar bouncers spares us the ignominy of being refused entry, and we join Johnny and his wife in an upstairs lounge. Johnny makes fiberglass shells for high-performance vehicles and has five children — all redheads — the oldest of whom is now the same age as Johnny was when he stayed with us in America. His twelve-year-old daughter likes dirt bikes and Eminem. Johnny taught her how to drive a car on a racetrack. After a few laps he told her slow down, jumped out of the car, and left her to figure out the rest on her own. When I tell him he hasn’t changed a bit, he laughs, but insists that it was “you crazy Americans” that made him that way. The next morning at breakfast, Peter reiterates Johnny’s claim. Peter, who couldn’t swim before he came to the States, now competes in triathlons and teaches swimming at the YMCA. Francis, indeed all of our friends from Belfast, tell me they experienced a similar leap in confidence when they got back from Washington, which only reinforces my firm conviction that sneaking out at night to slam beers behind the local 7-11 is a critical stage in teenage cognitive development.
I quickly lose track of the number of pubs and clubs Francis and I visit. Irish inclinations with respect to imbibing spirits and the pursuit of a good time are well documented and need not be examined here, but I’d like to suggest that Belfast’s thriving night life is just as essential to the peace process as Clinton’s influence or the willingness of extremists to collectively cool it. Here’s why: the good time that is to be had in Belfast today is driven by economic prosperity, which in turn is fueled by the success of the ceasefire, the Good Friday Agreement, peace. The correlation is irrefutable. I hear it over and over again from my friends. The longer this peace, in spite of its thousand and one deterrents, persists, the less able the people will be to return to the bombings and the bloodshed. This peace is not perfect, but its opposite will no longer be tolerated. Let the good times roll.
When I tell people about the exchange program, they always ask me if the kids kept in touch with each other when they returned to Belfast. It’s a logical question, but it bugs me because I suspect it comes from the assumption that the program was a grand humanistic endeavor to bring the two traditions together. Sometimes I imagine this story in the hands of a 20/20 producer: Johnny and Frankie, Matthew and Peter reunited and coerced into admitting that after a summer of Slurpees and pool parties and Friday Night Videos, they’re ready to chuck eight hundred years of animosity and just get along. The audio engineer mixes in some flute music from James Galway while a tear splashes onto the superimposed image of a Belfast slum — nauseating rubbish.
The goal of the program was simpler: get the kids out of harm’s way and show them a world without armored cars, petrol bombs, and rubber bullets. If that sounds like schmaltzy liberal rhetoric, consider this: Frankie’s house was firebombed on the eve of his journey to America.
Even now, I’m both horrified and fascinated by a news report on the television (briefly squeezed in between football scores and gossip concerning the latest quiz-show millionaire) about a suspicious device that has been found on the doorstep of the Woodburn Police Barracks, just a few blocks away, and safely detonated. Just last week North Belfast witnessed a senseless outbreak of sectarian violence that left two men dead and another in intensive care. In spite of the remarkable advancements toward a permanent solution to the crisis in Northern Ireland, the situation remains a sort of modus vivendi. Regrettably, the pattern of aggression and retaliation continues. Two years ago, Frankie was attacked in a restaurant when he politely asked an intoxicated gentleman to mind his tongue (there were small children present). The drunken brute responded by tackling him to the floor and biting off part of his ear. The utterance of a divisive epithet made the shameful event all the more unconscionable. Frankie’s wounds have healed, but deeper ones remain.
Today, when a crime is committed in Northern Ireland, the first task that faces the RUC is to determine the extent, if any, of sectarian involvement. Loyalist paramilitary groups extort protection money from building contractors in their own neighborhoods. Not surprisingly, widespread recreational drug use fuels a thriving underworld economy. (The Reagan and Bush administrations have provided numerous shining examples of how illegal activities can be used to subsidize extra-military operations.) The week before my arrival, Francis went to court to testify that a man whom they had barred from entering later returned with a bag of bullets. He held up a bullet and boasted: “I’m going to put this one in your head.” The specter of sectarianism lurks behind even so-called victimless crimes like prostitution.
The dramatic reduction in politically motivated violence has exposed other issues that must be confronted. Like any prosperous city with a thriving economy, Belfast has a drug problem. Sexual assaults involving date-rape drugs are up. It is estimated that a vehicle is stolen every hour in Northern Ireland. Domestic violence is endemic, as it is everywhere in the United Kingdom. Clearly, Belfast has a long way to go.
THE CLINTON SUITE
The question that rests uneasily in the minds of those who make a study of Northern Ireland is this: Can the moral and mental fortitude that got the people of Belfast through the tough times see them through the good? I think they can. If there is one quality that Belfast shares with President Clinton, it’s resilience — the ineffable ability to turn tragedy into the stuff of heroic rebirth and emerge stronger than before. We’ve seen Clinton do it a hundred times. Belfast’s resilience is symbolized by the Europa Hotel.
The Europa presides over Great Victoria Street, Belfast’s Golden Mile, which extends from City Hall to Shaftsbury Square. The glass-and-stone structure is just a few steps away from two of Belfast’s most beloved landmarks: the Grand Opera House and Crown Liquor Saloon. The Europa is the sort of modest, 12-story hotel that can be found in just about any city in the world. Its fame (or infamy, depending on your point of view) stems from the distinction of being the most frequently bombed hotel in Europe. Since The Troubles began, the hotel has been bombed no less than 11 times. After each detonation, work crews arrive to sweep up the glass and begin the process of repairing that which has been destroyed, rebuilding what can’t be restored.
Not surprisingly, the Europa has a Clinton Suite. Its most striking feature is a saxophone that has been cut in half and fused to the frame so that it looks as if some ghostly jazzman is on the verge of coming through the wall. On the opposite wall hangs a photograph of Himself: William Jefferson Clinton, seated at ease reading an edition of the Belfast Telegraph. Waiting patiently on the end table at his side is a perfectly poured pint of Guinness. It’s a disarming, self-effacing portrait. What other U.S. President would allow himself to be photographed reading the morning paper with a beer at hand? With the fiasco that is Florida still not behind us, a dark cloud is passing over the American political scene. It is only fitting and proper that we recognize Clinton’s accomplishments in Northern Ireland, his unwavering resolve to help a beleaguered nation move out from under the pall of darkness and into the light.