My school had always been a Protestant school. They would advertise it as streamed, but I don’t think I ever knew of any Catholic kids who went there. I’d always grown up around Protestant people on Protestant estates. My dad was in the Orange Order for a few years before he left (because pissing all over the street and rolling round drunk didn’t seem appropriate for a ‘christian’ organisation) and we attended Protestant churches. We even went to Ian Paisleys church while he was still kicking.
When I left school, left home, left the estate, I started to meet a lot of different people I’d not had much opportunity to spend time with up to now. I made republican friends from West Belfast, I made friends with people from both sides out in the sticks. I learned a lot about the troubles and how they still affected people trying to live in peace with no experience of it.
My dad had been in the army before I was born. He was based in Padebourn in Germany and was due to start a tour of Northern Ireland when he broke his leg very badly in a motorbike accident. His leg rejected a plate so it wouldn’t heal, but it took them ages to work out what was wrong. By the time I was old enough to hear the story my dads whole shin was a shiny sheet of scar tissue. They went without him, and he lay in hospital recovering, as his unit travelled to take their part in the stories my friends would tell me now.
One friend told me that his Nana had been dragged out of the pub she ran in the middle of the night by soldiers who told her that the other side owned it now, and she should move. Another told me his mum made a killing buying their house as the IRA fired a mortar over it while the deal was being made. They would tell me how soldiers would call them over to chat in the street, showing of their weapons, knowing it offered a small protection from any attacks. The kids would sidle over and spit in the lenses, they weren’t fooled. I remembered being grateful for the small mercy that I could be sure none of these stories were about my dad.
I never felt in any immediate danger anywhere in Belfast. Bomb scares were an inconvenience on the way home, the flags flew high on both sides. The fighting that people remembered from the troubles was gone, and so all focus was turned on keeping the peace in the community, keeping the police out of the estates, and eventually fighting with each other. Although I was never scared where I lived, I loved visiting West Belfast.
The civil rights movement seemed to have had more success here. There was a stronger concentration of socialists, and the politics they held to made them open and warm and fair. They cared about the community as a whole in what felt like a more familiar way. When I heard the stories and songs it felt much more like a people full of hope and the belief that what was right would be, eventually. It felt a lot less like the triumphant victory songs I’d grown up around.
By the time I reached 17 I knew that as far as Ireland was concerned I was that rare creature – the Protestant republican. I’m not Irish, none of my family are Irish. But growing up there and standing witness to the things that I did and the people I knew, that is the decision I came to as an outsider looking in.
Over the next few years through various people and experiences my politics was built and evolved, first through the anarchists, then through community activism. As we all do, the more I learned the more opinions I formed and a clearer picture of where I stood began to emerge.
I don’t know if my politics will always stay how they are, or if I will find something I think is a better idea, but what I do know is that they will always hold to the values I found in the republican communities of west Belfast. Community, family, fairness, hard work, equality. These were present on my own estates, in varying degrees, but where I learned they were cornerstones of life was in those places were I found them celebrated.