It was like an Irish version of Martin Luther King’s dream. Instead of little black boys and black girls joining hands with little white boys and white girls, six Catholic and six Protestant kids from Belfast splashed each other as they played in a lake in Wales.
The veteran BBC reporter Peter Taylor filmed this rare initiative to counter sectarian division nearly half a century ago. He reprises the footage here for Peter Taylor: Ireland After Partition (BBC Two), a film made to mark a century since the partition of the island of Ireland and his half-century as an Englishman trying to understand sectarian divisions caused by his countrymen, by that still-thriving beast, perfidious Albion.
Taylor asked one of them, 11-year-old Joe, if he had Protestant friends back home. “It would be too dangerous,” he replied, sweeping his hair from his face.
Taylor filmed these Belfast boys and girls on the ferry across the Irish Sea to Wales. The Catholics sang their songs about fighting and dying for a united Ireland and the Protestants sang their songs about fighting and dying for the union jack. Once in Wales, they set aside, albeit briefly, the burdens of sectarian division, the weight of history – from the Battle of the Boyne to the decades of murder and mayhem given that understated name: the Troubles.
“It’s like the garden of Eden,” said Joe. The Belfast dozen had time-travelled back before the fall, to a paradise before the original sin of England’s colonisation of Ireland. Wales has never seemed so prelapsarian.
“When I go home, it’ll be the last time I’ll see them,” Joe said of his new friends. Back in Belfast, he was filmed kicking a ball against the bombed-out ruins of a terrace street. Breeze blocks filled in broken windows. The city beyond Joe’s Catholic ghetto felt unremittingly hostile to the little boy. This was the 70s Belfast, with its rules and tribal identification, described by Anna Burns in her novel Milkman. There was “the right butter. The wrong butter. The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal. There were ‘our shops’ and ‘their shops’.” Joe’s Belfast may have looked like every other city on these islands, but had more in common with Soweto, Beirut, Jerusalem or a segregated US city after a race riot.
Taylor’s film serves as a primer on Northern Ireland’s history since partition, although it omits some major incidents (Bloody Sunday; the time Ian Paisley and his unionist faithful sported sponge on their lapels after Harold Wilson, the British prime minister, condemned striking loyalists as “spongers”; the Brighton bombing that nearly killed Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet). Nevertheless, it packs in an impressive amount of historical analysis, interviews with central players, from politicians to priests and republican and loyalist gunmen from Taylor’s back catalogue.
Taylor’s film comes at a poignant moment, in which Northern Ireland has a new border to contend with. Not the one between it and the Irish Republic that outrages republicans, but rather the one that runs down the Irish sea, ensuring that Northern Ireland remains in the EU single market – the one that the British government signed up to after Brexit that outrages loyalists who feel betrayed by Westminster. It is a border that Joe Biden is not alone in worrying may destabilise the fragile peace established by the 1998 Good Friday agreement.
But British betrayal of republicans and loyalists is hardly new. Consider the fascinating story Taylor relates, of how, in the 70s, MI6 repeatedly lured the IRA into secret talks with the British government by suggesting Westminster was committed to unifying Ireland. The IRA soon realised the British had made no such commitment, while loyalists were furious that these talks were going on in secret. British intelligence, that oxymoron, unwittingly united both sides of the sectarian divide in grievance against Westminster.
Towards the end of this film, Taylor goes back to Belfast. He interviews some loyalist men who feel menaced by Catholics. “They breed like rabbits,” one interviewee tells him – just the kind of slur I used to hear white people say of south Asian immigrants in Birmingham in the 70s.
Taylor reckons that, in a few years, the Protestant loyalist population will be in a minority. Loyalists fear being outvoted by republicans in a referendum to reunite Ireland. “But if the majority wants it to change, that’s OK, isn’t it?” Taylor asked. “No,” one of the men replied curtly.
Nonetheless, Taylor reckons, Ireland could be reunited. “That may not be a day I live to see, but I suspect my children might.”
I wish Taylor had caught up with Joe, now a man in his 60s, or any of those little boys and girls who enjoyed that Welsh idyll a lifetime ago. What would they have made of the Troubles and the fragile peace that has shadowed their lives? Did they ever meet again? Could they live together happily in a united Ireland? It is possible, but I doubt it.