As night fell in east Belfast, Abbie Leebody, a 14-year-old Protestant, and Niamh Campbell, a 28-year-old Catholic, exchanged violent blows, to the point that the teenager began to bleed from her nose.

The two young women are not caught in a community dispute and even less in a new episode of violence which opposed for 30 years in the Northern Irish capital the communities loyal to the British crown, mainly Protestant, to the republican communities, especially Catholics. .

Abbie and Niamh train at the city’s Boxing Academy. Launched in 2011, the club aims to overcome community divisions while developing boxing in Northern Ireland.

“I’m much older than Abbie so I coach her. I have to make her nose bleed from time to time to remind her to keep guard,” smiled Niamh.

“We don’t say to ourselves: Oh, I’m going to hit Protestant (…) We don’t think about that at all,” she adds.

Old divisions remain on full display as Northern Ireland marks the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Peace Agreement on April 10.

In Belfast, the Boxing Academy sits directly on the border between the pro-Irish Republican enclave of Short Strand and the pro-British Unionist communities that surround it.

A metal fence of more than seven meters, paradoxically called “peace wall” and surmounted by a surveillance camera, runs along the back of the club.

Belfast has some 13 kilometers of these “peace walls”, separations erected throughout the conflict in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s.

At the start of the “Troubles”, the area around Short Strand was the scene of violence and pitched battles between loyalist and republican paramilitaries.

In the years following the peace agreement, notably in 2002 and 2011, riots with petrol bombs and shootings between paramilitaries also broke out there.

The boxing academy, located in a former Protestant primary school, is only accessible from the Unionist side through a heavy gate topped with spikes. Its windows are screened and barbed wire is fixed above the main door.

Abbie, who comes from the Protestant neighborhood next to the club, brushes aside these divisions: “Obviously I like Catholics and Protestants.”

Stephen Clarke, nicknamed “Chips” in the club, comes from the other side of the wall and can see his mother’s house from the room.

The 45-year-old explains that the club allows young people to meet, when most of them are in separate schools and the inhabitants rarely mix.

“There are currently about ten children in the club and I couldn’t tell you where they come from because we don’t ask that question,” he explains.

“It’s not about where you come from, your religion or your tribe, whatever you want to call it,” he says. “Instead of throwing petrol bombs at each other, we could box with each other.”

Lee Costello, trainer at the club, says the academy allows boxers aged 10 and over to “be part of a whole community rather than something you’re told to be a part of”.

For the 28-year-old from rural County Tyrone, Northern Irish society is changing and sport is contributing to that change.

“The young people who come here don’t have the same beliefs (…), the same traditionalist beliefs,” he says. “You know, whether it’s a Catholic left hand or a Protestant left hand, they all hurt. To me, it’s all the same.”

04/04/2023 15:43:21 – Belfast (AFP) © 2023 AFP