Standing in front of City Hall, a place were tributes are often seen as contentious and polarising for Northern Ireland’s community, the people here are reminded how far we have come in our own sectarian conflict. Belfast, much like Beirut, are places of which when their names are spoken they often strike connotations of sectarian violence, as well as the image of lawless lands were bombs, civil unrest and conflict was once rife. ‘Why would you want to go to Beirut?’ is a question many often face when discussing plans to visit Lebanon’s capital. The fact that when discussing violent scenes, riots or even protests, the harmful and stereotypical phrase, ‘It’s like Beirut out there’ is used doesn’t exactly help with Beirut’s image problem. But the fact stands, Beirut doesn’t have an image problem. Much like Belfast, it’s a place that has grown through it’s conflicts to become a place of classic beauty and intrige. What the people of Belfast should understand more than any place, is that the false stereotypes of your country or hometown face, can be damaging. The murals, tributes, and the large wall that still divides communites, makes sure that Nothern Ireland doesn’t forget it’s past, and nor should it. Belfast is proud of it’s history and it’s many troubles, and has grown through them. Now, the tip of the island is the home to Hollywood productions such as Game of Thrones and BBC’s Line of Duty, and even the recent law changes regarding abortion and same sex marriage has allowed Northern Ireland to shift its draconic violent image from the minds of the world.
According to Tourism NI, a pre COVID-19 Northern Ireland last year reported a “record breaking number of trips for the time period.” Northern Ireland’s economy was massively helped with reports that “some £2.6m was spent on average each day during the first nine months of 2019” by visitors to ‘our wee country.’
Belfast has had a PR spin, it’s new and improved image, now makes it a top destination for English, Scottish and Welsh party weekends, but Beirut has yet to be so lucky. As Tuesday’s huge explosion will show, the word ‘Beirut’ filling up news headlines and the airwaves will once again, ingrain that it will sadly likely remain that way for sometime.
Sitting beside and above two counties who’s own problems never seem far from the news, Israel and Syria, Lebanon is a beautiful mix of old and new. Once referred to as the “Paris of the Middle East” Beirut’s tourism industry hasn’t exactly seen the level of visitors compared to the likes of Middle Eastern hot spot destinations like Dubai, Oman or Tel Aviv. Despite being a more liberal Middle Eastern country, with many tourist attractions focused around it’s popular Lebanese cusine, roof top bars and bustling night clubs, Beirut still struggles to capture the minds of holiday makers because of its muddled reputation.
Belfast and Beirut are twinned in conflict. Both had their own civil unrests at around the same time. When The Troubles was at its peak in Northern Ireland, Beirut and Lebanon was experiencing The Lebanese Civil War. However, many would argue that at least Northern Ireland’s conflict could be plainl ydefined as simply sectarian, between Protestants and Catholics, Lebanon’s was multisectarian, with sects of Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, Druze and Christians all involved.
Pre-Troubles, Northern Ireland often featured the Catholic population stating they didn’t feel that Northern Ireland represented their community through it’s governing, whilst Lebanons’s vast Muslim population didn’t feel as if their then Christian leader was providing a substantial voice to their community.
As for interferring neighbours, the Republic of Ireland mainly stayed out of the way of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, adopting the role of a fairly passive bystander. Lebanon’s southern neighbour, Israel, however decided to get involved in a big way in the latter’s conflict, espeically when the Maronite Christians and the Palestinians started fighting in 1975 and the Lebanese Muslims became allies with the Palestinians.
Ten years before our own Good Friday or Belfast Agreement was set in place, Lebanon created their own peace accords, the Taif Agreement. The UN described the argreement as defining “Lebanon (as) a sovereign, free, and independent country and a final homeland for all its citizens. Lebanon is Arab in belonging and identity. It is an active and founding member of the Arab League and is committed to the league’s charter.” It continued to state that Lebanon “is an active and founding member of the United Nations Organization and is committed to its charters and will be a member of the nonaligned movement. and the state of Lebanon shall embody these principles in all areas and spheres, without exception.”
You can read the full agreement here — https://www.un.int/lebanon/sites/www.un.int/files/Lebanon/the_taif_agreement_english_version_.pdf
The Belfast Agreement of 1998 read blindly could be applied to Lebanon simply, with it stating that “We acknowledge the substantial differences between our continuing, and equally legitimate, political aspirations.” The fact there is still a continued contention between the Catholic and Protest communities in Northern Ireland decades after The Troubles, this is the case with Lebanon’s Shia and Sunni Muslim groups, decades after their Civil War.
The Belfast Agreement is also known as the Good Friday Agreement can be read in full here — https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-belfast-agreement
The recent explosion won’t repair Beirut’s long standing reputation. Mutiple press reports claim the blast was caused by “2,750 tonnes (3,030 short tons) of ammonium nitrate that had been confiscated by the government from an abandoned ship and stored in the port without proper safety measures for the previous six years.” (Al Jazeera) It may prove too much for Beirut, a place that this year alone has had to deal with almost finanical and economy collapse, a devastating COVID-19 outbreak, civil unrest and mass protests across the country. The ‘Beirut Blast” will just be yet another tragic event is only added to an already heavy pile of woes for the small country.
At the time of writing, over 300,000 people have been displaced, over 5,000 injured and over 170 people having lost their lives. These numbers will only continue to grow as the rest of the world cast’s it’s eye back to Beirut.
What appears to be an accident caused by unforgiveable negligence, will cause many people to still sadly see this incident as having taken place in a country that now even more so, they have no plans to explore or visit anytime soon. The question remains that if Belfast was able to fix it’s image in the minds of many, what will it take for those to see Beirut in the same light?
For information on how to donate to help the citizens of Beirut, Lebanon, please visit — https://lebanoncrisis.carrd.co
Kurtis Reid is freelance journalist, living in Belfast Northern Ireland.