Northern Ireland: Peace March

Scott P. Harris, for the Pulitzer Center


I could be wrong, but there seems to be a sentiment in news that something bad has to happen for it to be "newsworthy." In the twenty month preceding last month's murders here, there had been a reported 20 attacks on members of the Police and British military, and while seven people were injured, no one died, so it wasn't "newsworthy" back in America. And so far, my impression of people here is that the threat of violence is something they are simply used to, perhaps because it doesn't compare to what they endured in the 70's and 80's.

With all that in mind, last night I went to the Clonard Monastery, a Catholic church just off The Falls Road, one of the most notorious neighborhoods in Belfast, for a traditional Good Friday march to commemorate Christ's journey to Calvary. Part of my interest in the march was that they planned to cross the nearby peace line onto Shankill Road, one of Belfast's most notorious Protestant neighborhoods. 15-20 years ago such a path would have led to rioting. As I walked to the church I didn't know what to expect. I thought tensions would be high, as there was another shooting the night before not far from the area. (No one knows the motivation behind it, but witnesses saw four men in ski masks open fire on a 25 year old man sitting in a parked car. The assumption in the press here is that it was carried out by republican dissidents, but they haven't taken responsibility for it yet. The young man is currently in the ICU.) I'm ashamed to admit it, but deep down the reporter in me was almost excited that something "newsworthy" might happen, even as the human being was praying everything would be fine.

The first thing I noticed at the church was the police presence. There were armored cars at both ends of the processional, and several constables walked nearby. The priest said a special prayer for the two British soldiers murdered last month by Real IRA gunmen, and for the Police Service of Northern Ireland constable gunned down two days later by the Continuity IRA. There was also a prayer for the victims of the recent earthquake in Italy, as well as typical prayers for world peace you would expect anywhere.

The processional slowly walked down the Falls Road and passed through one of the gates along the peace line, a gate they close every night. As the processional walked down Shankill Road, shop owners came to their doors to watch with puzzled looks. The march turned into a neighborhood with houses that back right up to the peace line. Quite a few people came to their doors, most of whom waved. A group of small boys, maybe eight or nine years old, ran up to me asking me to put them on TV. Finally, one of them asked where all the people came from, and I pointed to the peace line and said, "From the other side of that wall." The boys all looked up at me, shocked, "You mean they're Catholic?" "Why are they here?" "Are they really Catholic?" The boys trailed off, not sure what to make of the crowd. Shortly after that the processional crossed the peace line back onto the Catholic side of town and the march finished peacefully at a small park.

I walked home happy that I'd gone to see the march, happier still that nothing "newsworthy" happened.


An armored PSNI vehicle leads the march as it is about to cross the peace line.


The processional walks down Shankill Road, passing a mural for the UVF, a Loyalist paramilitary group.


The march, led by teenagers up from Dublin, passes through a Protestant neighborhood as local children run around them. The peace line can be seen behind the houses.