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Nearly 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement, the mood in Belfast is dour as Protestant unionists and Catholic republicans fear a return to the bad old days

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Murals of unionist paramilitaries loom over the streets of west Belfast's Shankill Road neighbourhood, which is largely Protestant.Photography by Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

Every time Pamela Muirhead steps out her front door in west Belfast, she runs into a stark reminder of this city’s dark past.

Just down the street stands a 14-metre-high wall topped with green wire fencing. It’s three times higher than the Berlin Wall and stretches 800 metres, separating Ms. Muirhead’s largely Protestant neighbourhood near Shankill Road from the predominantly Catholic area on Falls Road.

Ms. Muirhead, 57, can’t remember a time when the wall wasn’t there or when Belfast’s neighbourhoods weren’t sealed off from each other. “You get used to it,” she said as she walked along a nearby street with her grandson.

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At one of Belfast's 'peace walls,' a worker clears tree branches; at another separating a school playground, a soccer ball is caught in the barbed wire.

The barrier is one of more than 100 “peace walls” built in the 1960s and seventies that are still standing across Northern Ireland – many with gates that are closed tight every evening. They’re remnants of the Troubles, the sectarian violence that killed 3,500 people and left a legacy of mistrust.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement was supposed to put Northern Ireland on a path to prosperity by ending the fighting and creating cross-community institutions, including a novel system of government based on power sharing.

But as the agreement approaches its 25th anniversary in April, there’s a feeling among many people here that Northern Ireland is moving backward. The hoped-for power-sharing arrangement has collapsed, and the government has been crippled for months. Fallout from Brexit has deepened divisions, and an election expected to be called in January – the second in less than a year – is unlikely to end the dysfunction.

Ms. Muirhead can barely contain her outrage at the state of affairs and what she believes is the constant neglect of Protestant working-class neighbourhoods.

“Our areas are all run-down,” she said standing next to a memorial for loyalist paramilitary groups that battled the IRA. “I would say Protestants are the underdogs.”

She lost friends and relatives during the Troubles, and her husband dodged gasoline bombs while patrolling Falls Road in the 1980s as a British soldier. She dreads a return to those days.

“If things keep going the way they are and nothing happens, I think people will come out on the streets again,” she said. “I think paramilitaries are going to be given the chance to come back. That’s the worst thing.”

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On Falls Road, a mural honours Bobby Sands, a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army who died on a hunger strike in prison in 1981.

Elsewhere in the Falls Road area, a coffee shop shows photographs from the Troubles; a souvenir store sells memorabilia of Irish republican luminaries.
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Gerard McClanaghan, who grew up in the Falls Road area, stands by one of its many monuments to IRA members. He says Protestant leaders have obstructed progress.

Over on Falls Road, Gerard McClanaghan, 62, is equally frustrated. He grew up near the peace wall in a household steeped in republicanism. His older brother joined the IRA in the 1970s and spent 12 years in a Belfast prison. Mr. McClanaghan promised his father he wouldn’t take up arms, but he’s done everything else to fight British rule.

He blames Protestant leaders for holding back progress and trying to cling to power. The Catholic population is growing in numbers and influence, he added, making a united Ireland all but inevitable.

“The unionists don’t like that,” Mr. McClanaghan said as he stood in a memorial garden for fallen IRA members. “They are stuck back in the dinosaur age.”

There’s no doubt Northern Ireland has seen dramatic changes in recent years that have rattled unionists, who want the province to remain part of the United Kingdom.

Northern Ireland was created in 1921 to ensure that six of Ireland’s 32 counties – those with Protestant majorities – stayed in the U.K. while the rest formed an independent, predominantly Catholic state.

For decades Protestants held sway here, but the population slowly changed, with the 2021 census revealing that Catholics outnumbered Protestants for the first time. Last May’s election also made history: Sinn Fein, which supports a united Ireland, won the most seats in the assembly.

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A mural honours the late Queen Elizabeth II in the Shankill Road area. At the beginning of her reign, Protestants in Northern Ireland outnumbered Catholics; at its end, the reverse was true.

Brexit has been another complication. Britain’s departure from the European Union in 2020 had implications for the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The Good Friday Agreement removed all border controls, but Brexit raised questions about how goods could continue to move freely between the two given that Ireland remained inside the EU’s tariff-free single market while Northern Ireland was now outside it.

To keep the border open, the EU and the U.K. signed a deal called the Northern Ireland protocol, which effectively ties Northern Ireland to most EU regulations.

The protocol has infuriated unionists, who argue it cuts Northern Ireland off from the rest of Britain and has caused havoc for some businesses. They also fear it’s a step toward reunification with Ireland.

“The protocol is not working and is causing harm,” said Jeffery Donaldson, who leads the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

He has vowed not to participate in any power-sharing government until the protocol is scrapped or modified.

In the largely Protestant neighbourhood of Sandy Row, Lindsay Frazer sells loyalist memorabilia at her shop. A sign features William III, the English Protestant monarch who defeated his deposed Catholic predecessor, James II, in 1690.
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'We have no future and no life to move forward,' says Paul McCann, a Sandy Row shop owner.

The political wrangling has turned off voters who believe more important issues are being ignored.

“Everything is going haywire,” said Paul McCann, 47, a shop owner in a largely Protestant area of Belfast called Sandy Row. He doesn’t like the protocol but is more concerned about the lack of social housing and the economic decline of inner-city neighbourhoods. “Our politicians aren’t doing the job they are supposed to do for us in the streets,” he said. “We have no future and no life to move forward.”

He used to vote for the DUP but has switched to the more right-wing Traditional Unionist Voice party, partly because he’s worried Sinn Fein will use its success to push for a referendum on reunification. “I see that as leading to war,” he said.

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Lisa Minnelli holds dog Elvis.

Back on Falls Road, Lisa Minnelli also believes her community is being ignored.

She recently lost her job at a fish and chips shop and is worried about the cost of living, particularly her soaring energy bill. “People are panicking and saying, ‘What do I do – eat or heat?” Ms. Minnelli, 52, said as she huddled on her front step in a pink housecoat. She used to vote for Sinn Fein but didn’t cast a ballot last May and probably won’t in January. “We’re going backward,” she said. “Nobody is moving forward.”

Down the street, Niall Magennis, 37, shook his head when asked about the future of Northern Ireland. “For me the only way to change things here is to stop voting for Sinn Fein and the DUP,” he said. “Stop worrying about green and orange politics and start worrying about hospitals, schools, opportunities and jobs, which are just neglected here.”

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Niall Magennis, walking dog Charlie along the Cupar Way peace wall, says 'green and orange politics' is less pressing than social services and jobs in Northern Ireland.

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