Northern Ireland: A Tale of Two Cities

Scott P. Harris, for the Pulitzer CenterCity centre

It seems important to me to say that I believe there is more than one Belfast. The City Centre looks and feels like any other British city. It's clean, there is nice shopping, and teenagers meet up after school to hang out in the park. The kids in the park have one or two stories about the occasional sectarian dust up, but on the whole they talk about how they've moved on. They have friends of both religions, and they don't seem to be effected by the Troubles in the slightest, or if they are effected, it is only by how fed up they are with their parent's generation. The Belfast of The Falls and Shankill is a different animal altogether.

The Falls and Shankill are called "working class" neighborhoods, which is a very polite way of saying they are deprived. They were ground zero for the Troubles, and there are still significant economic problems.

An abandoned lot on the Shankill side of the peace line.

While walking though Shankill the other day I came across four 17-year-old boys playing football in the street. All four dropped out of high school at 15, which is allowed here, to go on welfare (for 40 pounds a week) while learning a trade. These particular boys all had part time jobs, but unemployment is an epidemic here. One youth worker told me it was a generational problem where the grandfather and father have never worked a day in their life, and now the children coming up see living on welfare as a goal, with getting on permanent disability as the brass ring. Less than 1% of students here will go to college and I was told that the global economic slowdown won't have much of an impact, simply because so many people are already unemployed.


Several people have told me that the area's sectarian problems aren't about religion or politics, they are a class issue. To some extent I can see what they mean, as the kids I mentioned talking to in the city centre are from the upwardly mobile middle class. They don't need to cling to "the cause" because they have something else to look forward to. The youth in The Falls and Shankill don't have the same prospects, and so they settle into a system that existed long before they were born.