Jan 17 2018

“Politicians need walls more than the people do”

In 2000, the Portland Symphonic Girlchoir, under the direction of Roberta Jackson and Debra Burgess, toured the United Kingdom. When they revisited in 2017, they found much to be the same. But as their Tour Manager Rachel Flamm describes, one place in particular was very different.

When the Portland Symphonic Girlchoir set to plan their 2017 tour to the United Kingdom, they naturally had their 2000 tour in mind. They’d visited the UK then, too, and wanted to incorporate some of the highlights from that trip. On the short list was a performance at St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, and we were thrilled to be able to secure that for them again.But one city that has changed dramatically in seventeen years is Belfast. PSG’s planning process for their 2000 tour started just before the Good Friday Agreement went into effect, which would outline how Northern Ireland would be governed.  The city was very much still divided and turbulent.

Knowing that Belfast is much different today, Deb and Roberta took that as the opportunity to cross the North Channel and include Ireland on their tour. The ferry from Cairnryan took them right into Belfast Harbour.

Visually, some neighborhoods of Belfast are still divided by so called Peace Walls. Despite increased peace within the city, these walls have grown in both height and number since the Good Friday Agreement. Beyond the walls, you can clearly see sectarian identities within neighborhoods – Union Jacks are notably more prominent in the Protestant neighborhoods, for example – but little of the animosity seems to remain, especially among the younger residents.

Our tour guide, Nollaig, grew up in a smaller town in Northern Ireland, and she was well aware of how that period continues to shape contemporary Northern Irish politics. One thing she said particularly struck a chord with me and the rest of the group: “I think at this point, the politicians need the (Peace) Walls more than the people do.” It was hard to deny the resonance in our own political situation at home.

The choir stepped off the coach to see one section of the wall, rich with art, graffiti and political statements. Nollaig passed out markers to those who wanted to add their signature or their message, and many of the young women in the choir did so, but they also spent time reading the names and statements of those who had visited the wall before them. The plan is that by 2023, the Peace Walls will all be dismantled, though if other such wall in history are any indication, the role the it played will not be forgotten as soon.

Photo by Rachel Flamm