[US to Northern Ireland 2014] Drew Heath: A “Black Cab Tour” in Northern Ireland
We had just begun our black cab tour of Belfast, and as we were leaving our hotel in the city’s center our first stop was just a few blocks away at a condo building that looked rather ordinary, but held great significance in the country. This was the site of what was allegedly the first death of “The Troubles,” a period of political turmoil from the late 1960s to the late 1990s. Within plain sight of the area was a portion of the Peace Wall, a 25-foot high wall that snakes throughout the city and physically separates the majority Protestant and Unionist neighborhoods from the majority Catholic and Nationalist neighborhoods. To this day, the gates of the Peace Wall are closed nightly, and some parts are even closed from Friday night to Monday morning each weekend.
The tour continued throughout the city with stops at various murals and other shrines to Nationalist and Unionist casualties of “The Troubles.” The wall, shrines and murals serve as constant reminders that “The Troubles” are not ancient history—and that deep-seeded divisions lie just beneath the surface.
What struck me throughout the tour, and throughout my time in Northern Ireland, was not necessarily the history of violence, but the amount of violence that was perpetuated by such a relatively small, homogeneous society against itself. The entire population of Northern Ireland is less than 2 million people, and is almost entirely Caucasian and Christian. Still, conflict existed and grew to the point of extreme violence. As an outsider, many of the sources of conflict seem superficial, such as which flag should be supported or which streets should be selected for parade routes, and while I do not to trivialize the situation, it did make me reflect: is it human nature for people to find and exploit differences between one another?
It also made me wonder if someone were to objectively examine the many sources of conflict in the United States—would those differences start to seem superficial as well? I’ve reached no ultimate conclusion, but I think we can learn a couple of lessons from Northern Ireland. First, if political efforts to compromise aren’t made by both political parties, people might start to view violence as a conceivable tool in the name of progress. Second, no matter how polarized the US political situation may seem, compromise is possible.
Drew Heath is the Chairman of the North Carolina Industrial Commission.