A few weeks ago I went on a school trip to Ireland. As a relatively wealthy nation where everyone speaks English and shares deep cultural roots within the United States and United Kingdom, I found more base similarities with the strangers I talked to than glaring differences.
One of the most striking differences, however, was Ireland’s surface lack of security culture. I spoke to a few lads openly sharing a spliff on Belfast’s city hall lawn, a high-traffic area directly in the city center, about cannabis policies.
Although smoking marijuana is illegal – seeds are readily available for retail sale but it is illegal to grow the plants, so the Irish government’s regulations actually make less sense than the American federal ones — these dudes didn’t seem like they were worried about being busted.
The Temple Bar district in Dublin was full of drunk, rowdy tourists over the weekend, but the various bar security guards held it down without a leering police presence. I was not asked for identification a single time that I purchased alcohol.
Irish bartenders and liquor store owners don’t seem like they’re sweating in their boots that they’ll be shut down for serving an undercover cop with a fake ID. I also did not see a single uniformed police officer out in Belfast, Dublin, or any of the major cities I visited in Ireland.
People leave their dogs unleashed, let their kids run ahead of them, and have no qualms about inviting an unfamiliar American to sit with them for a lunchtime pint. If there were security cameras on the streets, I didn’t see them. I didn’t have to step through a single metal detector outside of the airport.
This is especially remarkable considering Belfast was one of the most dangerous places in Europe during the Troubles, the most heavily bombed city in the UK up until 2001, and is still plagued by sectarianism that could turn violent at any time.
The “peace walls” in West Belfast are a thick concrete barrier ominously running between Catholic and Protestant working-class neighborhoods with gates between them that only stay open during set hours.
Basically, no one can agree on a solution to the sectarianism, and although the city is modernizing and attracting tourists exponentially with a rich cultural scene, the walls stand, marked by graffiti, propaganda messages and discoloration from blast bombs.
Yet Belfast enjoys a higher quality of life index than New York City and similar lowered crime rates since the Troubles.
Northern Irish customs took about five minutes; I was asked about two questions by a very pleasant woman concerning my business there. Most of their problems are highly regional, but I still had to answer fewer questions as a foreigner in Belfast than as a native citizen of the United States when I flew back.
I’d imagine that a few stoned 20-somethings enjoying the rare sunny day is a less disconcerting sight to the average tourist than the assault rifle-toting police officers outside the White House and on NYC street corners. I’m not so naive as to assume that Ireland is a utopia of civil liberties, but I can say that I felt safer in the “sketchier” areas of Belfast than I do in crowded, cop-filled Times Square on a regular basis.
An older woman at a small shop in Cork remarked that Irish people don’t say anything if they see something that doesn’t immediately concern them. The culture of fear and persecution, the “see something, say something” attitude that is so prevalent among Americans, simply does not exist in Ireland.
Juliana Perciavalle is a contributing author at the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org).