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Northern Ireland A Poignant Location For G-8 Summit


In his speech in Belfast, President Obama talked at length about the transformation of that city from conflict zone to a city bustling with normal healthy daily life. He got the biggest burst of applause when he tossed in a bit of Irish vernacular.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Students lounge at cafes asking each other, what's the crack?

BLOCK: What's the crack? Translation, how you doin'? Are you having fun?

OBAMA: So to paraphrase Seamus Hayden(ph), it's the manifestation of sheer bloody genius. This island is now chic.

BLOCK: Well, for more on the newfound chic-ness of Northern Ireland, in particular, and how the province is hoping to benefit from hosting the G8, I'm joined by Peter Shirlow, himself a native of Belfast. He teaches conflict transformation and social justice at Queen's University in Belfast. Professor Shirlow, welcome to the program.

PETER SHIRLOW: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: We heard President Obama today telling young people you now live in a thoroughly modern Northern Ireland. How different is the Belfast today from the Belfast of your youth?

SHIRLOW: Well, it's completely unimaginable how different it is. When I was at university in Belfast in the 1980s, there may have been in a city of a quarter of a million people, maybe three or four restaurants. The city center in Belfast was actually a ghost town. We actually had a situation here where the city center was closed up until the late 1970s because people were being targeted in driveby shootings, et cetera.

When I was young, I actually saw people being shot. Some of my friends were killed. I have two teenage children. They live now in what is a very sophisticated city. It has a cathedral quarter in which everybody mixes. It has a whole range of art galleries now. It has become a much more chic place.

BLOCK: There are still some physical signs of the troubles in Belfast, right? Actual barricades, barriers between Protestant and Catholic communities that haven't been torn down.

SHIRLOW: No. We have walls that separate several Catholic and Protestant communities, but one of the things that has changed is people move between communities. So when I was young, I grew up in a Protestant community. I spent virtually all of my social life in Protestant areas, whereas today, people move between communities now in a way that they never did before.

BLOCK: Professor Shirlow, what signal do you think this G8 summit sends to the world about Northern Ireland and the lessons that you've learned there?

SHIRLOW: Well, I think what it really signifies is that it's a safe place. While we do still have some violence with (unintelligible) Republicans, we do sometimes have the odd event that takes place, such as the flag protest that we had around Christmastime. But this is a safe society. It's a friendly society.

The political elite of the world are safe to come to Northern Ireland and that's something that was completely unimaginable. If somebody said to me 20 years ago that the G8 would be held in Northern Ireland, I simply would have said, you're mad. That will never happen. We will never have that type of situation in our society.

BLOCK: Well, the G8 summit itself is being held at the Lough Erne Resort in Enniskillen and I was looking at their website. They're offering people, after the summit is over, a follow the leaders package, following in the footsteps of the world's most powerful. What can you tell us about the resort?

SHIRLOW: One of the problems is many American tourists actually stop at the border and they don't cross over. And one of the most beautiful places in Ireland is actually County Fermanagh. Now, this is not being biased because I'm from Northern Ireland but it's submerged hills set in a whole series of major waterways. The main town is Enniskillen. It was a site, actually, in the 1980s of a horrific Republican bomb attack and the town really turned that around into a very positive project which is bringing children together. And that really has healed many of the divisions that once existed there.

BLOCK: As you talk with people in Belfast and around Northern Ireland, do you get a sense of real pride that the summit is there and that this is a real moment in the sun for Northern Ireland?

SHIRLOW: Well, yes, because you have to make - I think it's very, very important to understand that whenever people like myself and others traveled, everywhere we went in the world, people said, oh, Belfast, IRA, bombs, Bloody Sunday, all of these events. So, of course, you're going to have pride whenever you go to America or go to Canada and go to France and people say, oh, gee, "Game of Thrones," or they say, isn't Rory McIlroy the famous golfer who comes from where you live? So people have a completely different understanding of what Northern Ireland is.

BLOCK: Peter Shirlow teaches conflict transformation and social justice at Queen's University in Belfast. Professor Shirlow, thanks so much.

SHIRLOW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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