A few weeks ago, some 4,600 miles from Austin, I walked through a divided city where the government locks the neighborhood gates at night. Imposing barriers called “peace walls” are topped with metal spikes.
My daughter and I had the opportunity last month to visit Ireland, Scotland and England, and we did all the touristy things. Castles and cathedrals. Big Ben and Stonehenge. But the excursion I keep thinking about was our stop in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland that still bears the structural scars from the Troubles — the decidedly understated term for three decades of bombings and shootings that killed 3,600 people.
The streets of Belfast are largely peaceful now, and have been since the late 1990s, when Irish and British factions reached a peace agreement. Now the city boasts a museum on the Titanic (built in Belfast), plus countless cafés and chocolatiers within walking distance of an ornate, turn-of-the-century City Hall topped with green copper domes.
Head toward the working-class neighborhoods, though, and Belfast still has “peace walls” dividing communities by religion and political allegiance. Catholics supporting Irish unification on one side. Protestants loyal to Britain on the other. Pass through the steel gates from one section to the next, and murals celebrating Irish culture give way to rows of houses flying the British flag. It’s that dramatic.
On this side of the pond, I’ve grown increasingly worried about the divisions in America, the hardening of communities into red or blue, the growing feeling in each political party that the other group poses an existential danger. A majority of Americans say the biggest threat to the American way of life is not economic forces, natural disasters or foreign foes – but other Americans.
We haven’t erected physical barriers, but we’re walled off in other ways, from the news we choose to the gerrymandered political borders that are drawn for us. Some Texas Republicans are reviving talk of secession, as if the very notion of sharing political power with another party is untenable.
The roots of the conflicts in America and Northern Ireland are quite different, of course. And mercifully we are not experiencing the kind of political violence that once plagued Belfast, although moments like the Jan. 6 insurrection show a distinct faction feels fully justified using violence to further a political agenda. Polls show half of Americans believe political violence will get worse in the coming years.
Seeing the “peace walls” in Belfast felt like a glimpse into an alternative universe. What can Americans do to avoid such a hardening of divisions here?
Peacebuilding is constant work
Before he became our tour guide in Belfast, Liam Stone lived through the Troubles: British tanks and gun-toting soldiers taking over his neighborhood when he was 13; shot at 15; imprisoned at 19 alongside others involved in the uprisings. He likens his seven years behind bars to being a prisoner of war.
Now 65, Stone primarily works with young people to promote tolerance, to ensure Northern Ireland doesn’t slide back into those dark days.
“In the bulletproof confidence of youth, we tend to see many things through a black-and-white prism — many matters in our lives are either totally right or totally wrong,” Stone told me. “As we get older, we start to see more gray matters, we start to discuss and accept more ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybes.’ We start to accept matters such as ‘Just because I am right, it doesn’t mean that the other person is wrong.’”
Stone also emphasized a point I think many Americans take for granted: Peace isn’t a given. It’s not a passive state of being. It must be nurtured “on a constant basis,” Stone said, even in “settled” societies.
One thing in particular gave me hope: Stone noted that business leaders played key roles in starting the discussions that ultimately led to the 1990s peace accord in Northern Ireland. Imagine the good that business leaders could accomplish in Texas, and more broadly in America, by nudging our factionalized politicians toward the solutions most people want.
Donors, voters must speak up
That, in a nutshell, is the mission of Texas 2036, a nonpartisan organization with a data-driven focus on practical issues such as education, health care, workforce training and infrastructure — the “meat and potatoes of government,” not “the fringy stuff,” President and CEO Margaret Spellings told me this week.
The group organized after business leaders pushed in 2017 to defeat the transgender bathroom bill in Texas, after a similar measure in North Carolina cost that state billions of dollars in lost business activity.
“I think it was a wake-up call for the business community to say, ‘Wow, we can’t count on the sensible center just existing without us, and we’re going to have to be more active and engaged,’” said Spellings, who served as education secretary under President George W. Bush.
She said the group has made some inroads, but it’s a long game. To see a larger shift in our politics, major donors need to tell statewide elected officials that “the No. 1 issue of our state is human capital, not critical race theory, or not banning books, or not the Second Amendment, all these things that are so base-centric,” Spellings said.
And she rightly notes that greater voter participation is essential. Many statewide races are essentially decided in the primary, where only a fraction of us vote. The Texas Tribune’s Ross Ramsey put it in stark terms this spring: It’s “the 3% of Texans deciding who governs the other 97%.”
Across the Atlantic, some of the murals on Belfast’s peace walls celebrate American figures from Fredrick Douglass to Rosa Parks. It’s a reminder of the power of our example, thousands of miles away. It’s also a reminder that here at home, the work to overcome our divisions must carry on.
Grumet is the Statesman’s Metro columnist. Her column, ATX in Context, contains her opinions. Share yours via email at email@example.com or via Twitter at @bgrumet. Find her previous work at statesman.com/news/columns.