Some left to escape the Troubles, others went in search of a better life. But the peace process has brought them home
Saturday May 18, 2002
There were plenty of reasons to leave Northern Ireland in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Emigration seemed, for many, the only escape from the climate of fear and sectarianism; for others, it was a route to new horizons and opportunities. But not everyone who left has stayed away. The people interviewed here, having made lives for themselves elsewhere - London, Edinburgh, Australia, California - decided to return to their place of birth. For most, from whichever side of the sectarian divide, the ongoing peace process and the accompanying economic upturn were the catalyst for that decision. But there was also a more fundamental desire: to be back home.
Originally from all over Northern Ireland, all six returned to Belfast. In many ways, inevitably, they found that the city had changed, yet in others it had stayed the same. It is still divided. Tensions remain, and there are still no-go areas after dark. The divisions continue to touch personal lives, too; although mixed-religion relationships are more common than one might think, not everyone in one wants to broadcast the fact. Happily, there have been huge transformations, too. The all-pervasive military presence is no more, there is greater prosperity and morale is higher. The returnees sense a shift in the mindset of the people of Belfast, and Northern Ireland in general, a more open-minded, less inhibited mood, and while people may not be neutral, they're prepared to confront and discuss differing political and religious convictions. The returnees say they feel safer in the Belfast of 2002, and say it's easier now to live everyday life along non-sectarian lines. Where you live, who you work with, who your friends are, what school your children go to - none is as restricted or proscribed as it once was.
It's true that the interviewees are successful and reasonably affluent, which gives them a certain protection, as it does the rest of the city's middle class. None lives in the more troubled, more impoverished areas of the city, and none has ever had to face the daily school-run to Holy Cross, say. Even so, they all insist that they reflect the majority in their hopefulness about the progress of Northern Ireland. If anything, you get the sense that their time away from home has made them even more passionate about the place, and perhaps more aware that they should play a part in its progress. They are not alone - many, many ¨¦migr¨¦s have returned to Northern Ireland in the past decade.
My own family left Belfast for good just after I was born, partly because of the better opportunities in England, but also because my parents thought it a divisive place, and not somewhere to bring up children. But that was more than 30 years ago, and times have changed. Those people with children who are interviewed here all feel that they are doing what is best for their kids by coming back.
There's a kind of positive adrenalin about the place. The impressive galleries and museums, the arts festivals, the vibrant nightlife are all unexpected when set beside the bleak preconceptions. It doesn't seem at all far-fetched that Belfast is the bookies' favourite to become the European City of Culture in 2008. Some striking architecture has gone up in the past decade. You can't miss the huge, transparent structure, the Waterfront Hall, that towers over the riverside like some sort of glass palace, sunlight glistening on its facade by day, futuristically lit up at night. That Belfast, a city so much bombed, should have chosen to construct a civic building in plate glass seems the boldest of statements, an act of defiant optimism.
Like many Belfast residents, Pamela Hunter is a "culchy", an urbanite's derogatory term for country folk which she says she's reclaiming. "It's a great word, don't you think?" Raised in Limavady, in the rural northwest, Hunter left early, aged just 16, and was sure that she'd never return. "It wasn't even a choice. It had to be done. Looking back, I think the place just sort of terrified me." Along with the bomb scares and security restrictions, she remembers a pervasive narrow-mindedness - she was brought up in a household in which bigotry was anathema. She lived first in Dublin and then London, where, over 10 years, she built a career in the music industry. "It was amazing to be somewhere where it just didn't matter what religion you were."
But on a visit home to Limavady for a rest after a bout of illness, something in her started to shift. The peace process was progressing, attitudes were changing, and Hunter began to see the possibility of a different life. "There was a sense of guilt that I hadn't stayed here to see it through. And I began to realise that the experience I'd gained had a place here." When she bumped into her old schoolmate John Brown (see below), also back from a long stay away, the two soon got together as a couple and everything just seemed to fall into place. They moved to Belfast. At first, she found it hard to adjust - it took time to get to know people, and there were still those small-minded attitudes to contend with. But it got easier, and she found the niche she was looking for, as creative adviser for Imagine Belfast, the company set up to run the bid for the City of Culture award.
The winning city won't take up its mantle until 2008, but Hunter firmly believes that even the bid in itself can have a positive effect. "Some people are sceptical, saying, 'We have bigger problems than culture to sort out', but the arts have got a place in helping to solve and look at problems." The city's bid is a more complicated, multi-layered undertaking than those of the other cities competing (all of them in the UK). Belfast is not famously associated with arts and culture, but, as Hunter points out, artistic credentials alone are not the qualifying factor. The bid focuses on the unique character of the place - made up of the collective experiences of the inhabitants, experiences shaped by the industrial and literary heritage, as well as by the political turbulence. The bid will not attempt to "re-invent" the city, but it will look "outwards and forward", making room for the experimental and avoiding navel-gazing and parochialism.
There has been good government support, she says, and stron