Ardoyne: from quiet suburb to war zone

Author: By David McKittrick

As a 10-year-old boy I used to think of Ardoyne Road, epicentre of north Belfast’s long summer of violence, as a most dull and boring place as I trudged along it each day from Ardoyne bus terminal to Wheatfield primary school.

It was peaceful, respectable, suburban, its neat houses and tidy little gardens positively privileged compared with where I came from, the overcrowded, gardenless Shankill, further towards the city centre.

Ardoyne Road seemed to be where the lucky ones lived: it had a bit of space, a bit of greenery, was close to playing-fields, and exuded a bit of social pride and upper-working-class status.

Today it’s a war zone by night, and by day an international byword for hatred, but in those days I and other kids used to stroll through a completely safe environment. We were Protestants, passing through a mixed area in the most relaxed manner: as they say in Belfast, nobody bothered anybody else.

Nowadays Ardoyne’s primary schoolgirls need several hundred police and troops to get them to school and back along that same road every day. Each morning loyalist protesters greet them and their parents with jeers, insults, threats, spittle. The journey often takes place against a backdrop of broken glass and bricks, with smouldering burnt-out cars providing the backdrop as the girls, aged four to 10, run the daily gauntlet.

Ardoyne Road is one of the flashpoints of these terrible months of violence, with local men and youths out on many nights, rioting against each other and with the police. It is unrecognisable as the Ardoyne Road of the early Sixties, when it seemed a settled, friendly neighbourhood, a cut above the rougher districts not too far away. It felt, in a word, normal.

The walk from the bus to the school took us past pleasant streets: Estoril Gardens, Farringdon Gardens, Velsheda Park, Alliance Avenue, Glenbryn Park. We were too young to have any real sense of religion or political differences. It was only much later that I realised that, even in those days, the most moderate of the grown-ups, even those living happily side-by-side, carried in their heads a little sectarian map, a little compass, to help keep their religious bearings.

Forty years on, a long-time Catholic resident was yesterday able to rattle off the Sixties patterns: “Alliance, Velsheda, Farringdon were mostly Protestant. Glenbryn, a sprinkling of Catholics. Estoril, mostly Catholics but about a quarter Prods.”

Back in the Sixties there was nothing sinister about being aware of such patterns: it was simply an ingrained habit. In my memory at least, the Ardoyne Road bore no signs of different traditions, no visible clues to where the mostly Protestant part shaded into the largely Catholic.

Today there can be no doubt of who lives where, for battlelines have literally been drawn across the road. Now the first part of the walk up is through Catholic territory, unmistakeably designated by the republican flags fluttering from almost every lamp-post and telegraph pole. Then comes the frontier: you can’t miss it, because a line of police and troops in riot gear guard the road, backed up by armoured vehicles.

Beyond them the flags change from republican to loyalist. The Union Jack used to be the most popular, but in today’s paramilitary ghettos the insignia of the two rival groupings, the Ulster Defence Association and Ulster Volunteer Force, are now dominant.

They signify that Catholics are not welcome, while also marking out the turf of the respective groups. The loyalists occasionally fight each other, resulting in more than a dozen recent deaths.

A flag started the cycle of violence. In June, according to loyalist legend, a car driven by a republican swerved to hit a ladder being used by a man putting up a Protestant standard. The circumstances are contested, but the atmosphere was already toxic enough to be ignited. More than three months of rioting ensued.

The problem is not that the two sides don’t know each other, but that they know each other too well. Each can point across the divide to those who have, for example, done time for murder: they know the names and faces and who they killed.

Other areas are fenced off with high peacelines which provide a degree of segregation, welcomed by both sides. But Ardoyne Road cannot be fenced off since the Catholic girls school had the misfortune to be built, in those innocent pre-Troubles times, in what is now exclusively Protestant territory.

The easy-going people of my memory have been replaced by two tribes intent on getting their way. This nightmare is a travesty of what many thought the peace process would bring. The bitter lesson is that it has has left untouched many such communal hatreds and divisions. It was naive to think there could be a simple panacea for all the ills that history has heaped on Belfast. There can be progress, but it will be long, slow, and painful. To think otherwise is to be as innocent as that 10-year-old boy who thought he was growing up in a normal society.

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