Travel writers: please stop making this one mistake when you visit Belfast

You wouldn’t go to Venice and assume that everyone works as a gondolier any more than you would go to Amsterdam and assume that everyone works in a window.

I often wonder why, then, travel writers in Belfast not only define the city by its past – a history which had less of a substantial effect on many people than you might think and is of no interest to a much bigger number now – but also make a basic, crucial error in understanding what has gone before.

Like the myth of ‘two communities’ promoted by some media and political interests (quick response: the ‘don’t care’ community forms a happy majority), the use of the terms Protestant and Catholic as shorthand will take credibility from any otherwise well-researched travel piece.

Firstly, the terms Protestant versus Catholic as a way to summarise the Troubles: in my humble opinion, no one committed an act of violence soley because they felt strongly about theology. They may, however, have been passionate about the question of the union, about territory, about gangsterism or personal ambition. The finer points of the Reformation are less likely to have been a major factor.

Glossing over this part can lead to mistakes like an American headline asking if the 2009 dissident Republican murder of a police Constable in Lurgan marked a return to sectarian violence. The officer was Catholic, presumably (although there are no true assumptions here) like those responsible, and the murder had little to do with religion.

Then the use of either religion to describe a pub or area of Belfast, which ignores the huge ‘don’t care’ section of the population mentioned earlier: over 40% of people had better things to do than vote in the last elections, and that’s not to mention our large Eastern European, Chinese and Indian communities (the latter two being very well established over many years) making labels harder to use with fairness and confidence.

In a world where those who shout the loudest appear to call the shots and history is written by the victor, a simple alternative then is – for example – ‘majority pro-union’ for an area or even ‘Republican/ Nationalist’ or ‘Unionist/ Loyalist’ used with caution for groups of people.

Bear in mind also that election results won’t give you a picture of what people in Northern Ireland think due to family voting habits, defensive voting, a forced no-opposition shared-governement system and lack of choice.

Someone who paints you a picture of a country based on Orange versus green may have an agenda for doing so and you’ll find the more people you speak to the more their experiences don’t bear this out in real life. For one thing, the political views of an average person – if they’ll talk about them – may well be much more apathetic and resigned, or else much more complex, than having a simple ‘side’.

If you are keen to give your article authority, ask someone to explain the difference and – even better – brush up on the Scottish independence close-call, the rise of the Northern Irish identity and the consistently low poll for a United Ireland of late. Saying that, we’re having some fascinating local debate about what the latter might actually look like in ‘real life’, with the concept of nationality and almost the Union itself changing fast.

Most of all, bear in mind that we aren’t the Troubles and the Troubles aren’t us. Those mural walls and Trouble-spots have no part of life for hundreds of thousands of people and don’t provide an easy label to the politics or views for those who live nearby.

Belfast has some of the best bars in Europe, a thriving city centre nightlife and an extremely warm welcome. This is the Belfast many of us see and this the Belfast waiting for more people across the world to see.

But Protestant versus Catholic? Two communities? There are about 15 communities on my Facebook on a quiet day. If you must write about an often irrelevant conflict then you’ll need to do a bit more research.

First, have a pint and enjoy yourself. It’s what everyone else is doing.

Conor Johnston – @CJohnstonNI – writes about subjects including culture (especially film/ cinemas), identity and media. He also blogs at