It took me over a decade to come back home. I knew that things would have changed; the landscape would be different; I had noticed, during quick, much too quick visits, that gentrification had taken over the town already. It had however never manage to sweep our issues under the proverbial rug woven by a litany of US envoys, mediators for peace talks, and Radisson hotel chains.
Peace is a business, just like war is. The positive change in Belfast is attributable to community groups, grassroots initiatives, local leaders, most of them women. We fight for our communities, here. The issue is that we don't fight for others' communities, not now, not just yet, and our fault lines continue to extend and expand like untreated scars.
Northern Ireland is the region in the Global North with the highest rate of post-traumatic stress disorder per capita. Suicide is endemic. Ceasefire babies were promised education, employment, and access to health. We were told about the miracles of power sharing and the stability of functional governments. I came back to witness how much of that was legend, and how much we still want, and need to believe we can do better. I came back because I missed my city, and I want better for it. I am documenting this because I think we deserve better. We are owed.
My friend Lyra was so enthusiastic about travel, about the places I had been, my knowledge of all airports' wifi passwords, tales of far away restaurants and quickly forgotten encounters. She loved the photos I would share of Brooklyn, the videos posted by my friends, and she was extremely supportive of the work I was doing. The first message she ever sent me read, "happy to hear about a Belfast girl gone good!" I don't know, to this day, if this is true; if I did do good, and if I did represent Belfast to the best of my ability. I know I was given opportunities most could never ever dream about. It's time everyone else is granted the same access to the outside world.
But I don't want Belfast to be a departure gate only. A recent survey showed that over 80% of ethnic minority young people born in Northern Ireland are looking to leave due to racial attitudes. We have failed them, and we have failed just about anyone else. Belfast needs to change to become a home, not just a house. It must be open, and stop holding its identity as strictly insular. Lyra dreamed of far away lands that, really, weren't that far away, connected by air travel. But she had work to do. She had to pay tribute to her generation, especially those who had never seen past their twentieth birthday - those "angels with blue faces", whose ghosts and memories haunt this town just like thousands before them. Those were the casualties of constant, systemic neglect.
"It won't always be like this", she told her fourteen year old self. "It will get better."
In 2020, Inhaler, a Dublin-based band, released their first album titled "It won't always be like this". They have no idea about this website or those photos. I once visited my siblings, who live in Dublin, and stopped by a massive mural in central Dublin that read, "it won't always be like this"; it stopped me in my tracks. Sure, this was a promotional design. But it's more than that. Eighteen months of a global pandemic that has killed millions and will continue to do so has made us more weary of the future, less confident in our prospects, less stable in our present. I went back to Belfast and decided that, more than anything else, it was the separation walls that had limited my imagination, stifled my creativity, nipped my ambitions before I was grabbed by the hand and yanked away. I wish I had heard "it won't always be like this" before 1998. Lyra was right. I think of her every day, and Inhaler ensured I would think of it every time I turn on the radio. I grabbed that poster, put it on my wall, until I took it down again to bike around the town with Brendan.
Thank you to all the people who stopped us, who chatted with us, honked at us, gave us a thumbs up, and waved as we ran around and took those photos. Thank you especially to those who did it in risky areas. We hope you like the result, as much as we liked being around you.
I am back, now, to answer that mural on Fountain Street. Where is our alternative Ulster? Well, it won't always be like this. We have to commit to more, and to better. We have to, because no one else will. Take it away, it's yours.