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22 May 2000

In cold, driving rain, a brief burst of sunshine

Geoffrey Beattie, in the divided Belfast of his youth, finds an extraordinary attempt at reconciliat

By Geoffrey Beattie

I am standing in a field in north Belfast in the driving April rain, the mud sucking on my boots as I tramp around the muddy field trying to find the exact spot. It is very cold for late April. I am trying to locate the centre of this field because this spot and the line running through it have considerable significance.

This field, or more accurately the mid-line in this field, is a Peace Line: one of the boundary markers in Northern Ireland, which are often invisible to the naked eye, but which nevertheless divide the two communities. Sometimes the Peace Lines are large metal fences with differentiating graffiti on either side, but often they are not. It is hard to find this particular Peace Line here in the mud, but I can feel it. I know where I am.

I stand looking down towards where I was born, where Legmore Street once stood at the turn of the road. Legmore Street was a slum, but it was a mixed slum in those days. We were Protestant, but Joey Donaghy next door and the Rock family two doors up were Catholic. Roman Catholic, we used to say then. Both Protestants and RCs were there for the work in the linen mills. Religion, I suppose, was always recognised; but we were all working-class then, first and foremost.

I went to school at the bottom of the field where I am now standing. The school was called St Mark’s. There was a Catholic school just up the road, which was called St Vincent’s. Occasionally, there would be a fight at lunchtime, but it was never anything serious. We weren’t even fighting the Roman Catholics primarily: it was the boys from St Vincent’s we were after. There was a subtle but important difference. We were just two rival schools.

But things were to change. I remember as a teenager watching the burning houses further down towards the centre of Belfast, in one of those streets that led from the Shankill to an area that I knew less well. Burning out, they called it. “We’re burning them out,” they would say. We burnt out their lot; they burnt out ours. Families left the area where they had lived for generations. They moved house by house. There were no wagon trains like in Kosovo, just individual families getting out when they had to, with whatever they could gather around them.

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The Catholics at the bottom of Ligoniel Road moved to the top of the road, the Protestants at the top moved to the bottom. It was a distance of about 400 yards, but this was all that was required to feel safe, to be with your own kind. There have been more than 600 sectarian murders in north Belfast over the past 30 years.

After the streets became segregated, you might have bumped into your old neighbours at the doctor’s or the chemist’s, but in few other places. Long-time neighbours were separated by these invisible lines in the road. You didn’t cross the line unless you had to. And when you did, when you really had to, it was all very brief – a few snatched words, the odd nod of recognition, no time for chit-chat.

Families you once knew so well got on with the ordinary business of life, birth and death, without your knowing. My mother would get to hear that so-and-so had died and tell me. “I never knew,” I would say. “How would you?” she would reply. “I didn’t hear for over a year afterwards, and I grew up with her.”

This is, I suppose, what a divided community entails.

Now an organisation called Habitat for Humanity wants to change all that. It wants to build 70 or 80 new houses on this Peace Line, the one in this particular muddy field. And they want the Protestants and the Catholics to build each other’s houses. I mean literally build each other’s houses – with their own hands. They have a name for this: they call it “sweat equity”. The house is sold at less than cost – for about £30,000 – but each family has to put 400 hours into the building work. This is the sweat equity calculated for each family.

Habitat is currently working on a staunchly Protestant estate in Glencairn. This is just across Harmony Hill from Ligoniel. It is where the Shankill Butchers, in their words out to “terrorise the terrorist”, dumped the butchered bodies of a number of their innocent Catholic victims.

The last time I was in Glencairn, I was there to talk to a young woman who had just witnessed her young Protestant friend being gunned down by a republican terrorist in broad daylight. It was a miracle that they didn’t get her. That was what she said: “It was a miracle.” But she didn’t believe that you could count on miracles and she never left the house. She was about 20 years old at the time.

Today, I am standing on a small hill at the back of a house, listening to laughter from down below. I can see brightly coloured balloons float off into the sky. It seems incongruous to hear laughter like that, here of all places. I watch a group of teenage girls carry a concrete beam across to the base of a house. I can hear American accents and more girlie laughter. These are volunteers from the American Church of London – young enough to have heard and read about the Shankill Butchers as history.

The organisation of the building work on the site is surprising. There are only two full-time professional workers, Gerry Crossin and Vernon Toogood; the rest are volunteers who have never done any building work before. A number of the timber-framed houses are “women build”, only worked on by women. Gerry, I should add, risks his life to do this work. He was once a member of the IRA, and here he is, working right in the middle of the Glencairn estate. He talks openly about his past IRA membership on the promotional video for the scheme. Prayers are said at the start of work and at the end.

The first Habitat for Humanity development in Northern Ireland was Iris Close in Catholic west Belfast. The first houses were built on some wasteland that a builder had vacated after being chased off by the local republican paramilitaries.

Habitat for Humanity moved in and erected some decent and affordable houses. I talk to Rita Carson, who has a house in Iris Close. She tells me that she had never hammered a nail in before she worked on her own and her neighbours’ houses. She invites me up to her house.

“But let me warn you,” she says. “It’s a hard house to get out of.”

I ask her if this development is integrated (I use the term “mixed”), but she looks at me with a little hurt in her eyes. “God didn’t put a label on my head saying Protestant or Catholic, you know.”

I go back to my vantage point at the top of the muddy hill. I stand here looking down towards Belfast Lough. I can see the yellow cranes of the shipyard and, beyond that, on the side of a hill, I can just make out Stormont. I never realised you could see it from here.

I hear prayers starting in some strange and foreign tongue. Someone tells me that it’s Swahili. I approach Peter, who is leading the prayers. He is from Kenya and he is here in Glencairn with his wife and four young children. He tells me that he is in Belfast because he is a missionary, and that he has a debt to pay back to the country that, in the past, produced so many missionaries for Africa.

I ask him if he is not worried about living on the Glencairn estate, but he tells me emphatically that he is not. He had been to Belfast before, during his training. “They call me the Irishman in Kenya, you know,” he says. He explains that church numbers are declining in Northern Ireland, but rising in Kenya. He says that he wants to help start a revival here.

I make my way upstairs to inspect the quality of the work in one of the houses. I watch one young couple walk around, carefully inspecting the windows and doors. The man wears a Diadora jacket and trainers. They are local, I can tell that, and when I stop them, I immediately recognise them as my tribe. I can feel it.

They tell me proudly that they have been allocated one of the houses. The young man is called Stephen and he tells me that he was working in a local Kentucky Fried Chicken, but that he had to leave because it was being robbed too many times. The last time, he tells me, two hoods threatened him by holding some broken bottles up to his neck. “Did they get much?” I ask. “Not too much,” he says. “About 20 quid.”

His wife, Katrina, is waiting for a double hip replacement. But they have still managed to put the compulsory work in for the house. Neither of them had ever done any building work before. They tell me that they will now have somewhere decent to live.

Neither Iris Close nor the development in Glencairn is integrated. I find this out slowly, over the course of the morning; slowly, because nobody talks about Protestant or Catholic. “Just labels,” somebody else says. Ligoniel, which will start later this year, will be the first integrated scheme. Stephen tells me that the houses will be put up as Protestant/Catholic/Protestant/Catholic. This, I suppose, will be Habitat for Humanity’s greatest challenge in Northern Ireland. To those who know the area, it represents a considerable challenge, but they have the backing of local community groups from both sides of the Peace Line.

I leave this group laughing and joking in the cold driving rain and, as I make my way to my car, something happens. Suddenly I am standing in warm Easter sun, looking back at them. It is only a gap in the spring showers, I know that, but it seems awfully symbolic today.