THE first time I saw a black man in real life I was really young and he was in my bedroom at about 5am waving a machine gun; ordering me out of bed. He was one of about fifteen British soldiers raiding our house.

Family dog TrixieOur dog Trixie was going buck mad. She was trained to bark when Brits were near. The RUC were acting on intelligence that our house was being used for terrorist activity. The soldiers bashed holes in our walls and ripped up the floors but left with nothing incriminating. They drew pictures of where our settee was situated. My parents said the Brits did this to pass on to loyalists who would come and shoot through the windows. We had to move our furniture around. We still suspect the hood in our street who got his knees done every six months was the £10 tout.

I was born during the hunger strikes and reared with strong ideals; inevitably us children engaged and believed in nationalism. We went to a rally or demonstration every week. My daddy tried teaching us Irish but we weren’t interested.

daddy (2)

During the 1970’s, he resided in the Crum’ and Long Kesh on firearms charges.  He was born in Malta, to parents in the RAF.  We’re an unpredictable family.

grandparents wedding

My granda was a catholic from Belfast and my granny was a methodist from the Highlands. Her family disowned her when she married.

I chose Mairead as my confirmation name after Mairead Farrell, the unarmed IRA volunteer shot dead by the SAS in Gibraltar. That year, I was told there was no point in taking the 11 plus because the blue eye of the family failed his and he was deemed to be the smartest out of us all.

At primary age, we sold An Phoblacht and two of us later joined a republican flute band. I wore and took pride in my uniform.

flute pic

Being in the band gave me a sense of worth. It’s a great feeling when you’re marching and have thousands of people clapping and cheering you on. It’s addictive. I played a flute and marched at commemorations all over Ireland until I was pulled away by the club scene and all its trappings.

I always had a hangover in school and spent a lot of time in ‘tutorials’, it was a unit for disruptive girls. At 16, I was told I wasn’t smart enough to do A Levels.

In 2000, I was selected to take part in a cross community/cross border training for employment programme. The placement included living and working in Cleveland, Ohio.  Oddly, those from the Falls and Shankill got on brilliantly. We united in hating the southerners from Tallaght. The programme was successful in opening my eyes to what’s going on here.

I enjoyed going out to nightclubs and all night parties with my new friends. The following year, I flew to Magaluf to do PR work. The lifestyle was short lived and I returned to Belfast where I became a mother, then a wife.

Bored with my job as a secretary, I went on the further education and was awarded an Aisling Bursary by The West Belfast Partnership Board to help with study costs at Queen’s.

Aisling bursary 001

I graduated with a 2:1 in Humanities and then went on to study Newspaper Journalism at Belfast Metropolitan College. I passed all subjects with the exception of short hand. I coined the phrase “it’s like learning Arabic backwards”. When my classmates were sitting the exam, I slipped into my old ways and was dancing to The Prodigy in a Co. Down field.

Going by usual contributors and commenter’s to this blog, you will either like me or want to punch my whole family in the face. But read on.  All is not what it seems.  I’ve been thinking about something for ages.

Andrews Flour Mill behind International Wall
ANDREW’S Flour Mill is a factory site idly waiting for redevelopment.  But no agreement on what should be built has been reached.

At a Belfast Regeneration Office meeting in 2010, plans for 500 apartments were rejected by nearby residents.  And rightly so.  These apartments were sure to be another version of Divis Flats.  Instead, it was proposed to build a business park.  It would join its ugly sisters, the Twin Spires and Argyle Business Centre.

Did anybody suggest an integrated Primary and Secondary School with a housing estate and leisure amenities? Not Catholics at one end and Protestants on the other like the Girdwood joke, I’m talking neighbour to neighbour.  In recent statistics, 68% of those surveyed in the North said they favoured educational integration.  So what’s the hold up?

The Andrews site is ideal because it stretches across the Shankill and Falls.  This new development would be on two of the main arterial routes into Belfast, the infrastructure is already there.

In my Martin Luther King style dreams I would recommend, to get one of these homes you must sign up to a zero tolerance code of conduct which would immediately evict you for displaying flags or emblems or playing sectarian music.  Seeing as the Northern Ireland Housing Executive is on its way out, it would be a chance for housing associations to stamp their authority on publicly funded property.

We have people on both sides of the peace wall who are genuinely in need of a home and have no interest in causing offence.  Their sensibility should be rewarded with a low cost social house and the chance for their kids to get to know each other without religion and politics separating them.

Our Catholic school system requires indoctrination from birth, so kids can be educated at a local school later on. I personally lied at the holy water font and said I would raise my child as a good Catholic. I’m not the only one. This is because we’re too lazy or can’t afford to send them to an integrated school two bus rides away.

The Irish language schools are apparently religion free.  But, we then need to learn Irish to help with homework.

The Lower Falls Regeneration Office who has a say in the Andrews site has associated itself with the growing Gaeltacht Quarter.  But what about the overwhelming majority of inhabitants who ‘ní labhraíonn’ (have no Irish)? Why should they have the language forced upon them if they have no care for it?

Our society is continuously divided and it needs to be nipped in the bud.  Belfast has been structurally designed to keep us apart.  Why?  Because division elects politicians with extremely different views on how we should live.

No matter what is built, politicians have a say in where and how – this begins with local councils at the planning permission stage.

It allows politicians to get involved in divvying up who is going to live where to increase their electorate.  It’s deeply unfair on rate payers who don’t live and breathe politics and just want to get on with their lives in peace and quiet.

Belfast is changing, immigrants aren’t afraid to come here any more.

We need to end this madness we succumb to every summer and it starts with education.

An integrated school with housing across the peace line would be the first of its kind here.  Children would live side by side and go to school together in a purpose built environment. It would allow people with different skin tones and beliefs to engage in inane neighbourly chit chat.

And me? I would live there. I’d still be proud of my family history. But I’d keep it to myself and not rub anyone’s nose in it.

Andrews Flour Mill BRO Report, see page 15
68% of people in NI support Integrated Education
Overwhelming majority of inhabitants who ‘nílabhraíonn’ (have no Irish)
Article first published here: Compromise After Conflict