A visit to Northern Ireland

My direct memory of The Troubles, the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland of the 1970s and ’80, is that of a vague recollection of US news coverage at the time, some of it from when I was just a teenager in the early years of the conflict. I have learned more since, of course, through reading about it.

But when we made the last — and in my view the most educational — of our class excursions to Northern Ireland the weekend of March 4 to 6 it was one of the most powerful experiences I have had.

The focus of the trip was primarily Belfast and Derry. Along the way we also made brief stops at the Battle of the Boyne visitor center, the Giant’s Causeway, and the National Museum of Country Life. But the tours we had of Northern Ireland’s two major cities were the clear highlights, and truly eye opening.

In Belfast we took a tour of the areas along Falls Road, Shankill Road and other areas where the conflict had been at its worst. What was so unsual, and powerful, was the tour guides.

Belfast05
High walls with fine-mesh fences reaching even higher separate Belfast neighborhoods along sectarian lines.

For the first part we toured the Catholic/Republican areas with a former IRA operative named Peadar, who was arrested for some of the actions he had committed and spent 16 years in jail. He avoided too many specifics, but did describe life in The Maze/Long Kesh prison, including his participation in the so-called blanket protest or dirty protest. This was when the IRA prisoners, who considered themselves political prisoners or POWs rather than common criminals, refused to wear prison uniforms and stayed in their cells naked, or wrapped just in blankets.

Some of the prisoners as part of the protest went on hunger strikes; 10 of them ultimately starved themselves to death, notably Bobby Sands, the first to die.

This mural memorializes Bobby Sands, an IRA prisoner who died in a hunger strike

Mostly we stayed on the bus with Peadar narrating as we passed various memorials to Republicans who had died serving the cause. Many of these take the form of large, colorful murals painted on buildings and the concrete walls that still divide the city, including several depicting Sands and the other dead hunger strikers.

After an hour, Peadar left us and we we joined by Noel, who was part of a Loyalist militia and also spent more than a decade in jail. He originally faced multiple life sentences, but they were commuted and he was released as part of the Good Friday accords.

Former Loyalist militia member Noel tells students about a mural (background) depicting an Army officer killed in the conflict.

The tour conducted by Noel was similar to the one with Peadar, mostly on the bus but with walking around a few areas, especially to see murals memorializing Loyalists who were killed in the fight. At one point when we were in a memorial garden, Noel matter-of-factly pointed out a pub right across the road that was the target of an IRA car bomb, and pointed up the street to a market that also had been bombed.

As if those tours and the stories the men had to tell wasn’t enough, the final part of the experience was spending an hour in conversation with Noel and Peadar together, with them elaborating on some of their stories and experiences, and more importantly answering questions about it all. This was also the opportunity and setting for discussion of the changes Belfast has seen since the peace agreement and the process of reconciliation, which is under way but far from complete.

Because of the Good Friday accords, which have been in place for more than 15 years now, Belfast is a better, safer and more peaceful place than it was a generation ago. But it still has looks and feels like a place under siege. High walls, topped by even higher fences (made of a fine mesh to deter climbing) are everywhere, still separating Catholic and Protestant areas. This just added to the power and the realism of what Peadar and Noel had to say.

It occurred to me after the fact that one of the most positive signs for reconciliation is not just the fact that people like Peadar and Noel are committed to it, but also the fact that people LIKE Peadar and Noel are committed to it. In other words, these guys were deeply, deeply committed to their causes back in the day. If they and others like them bring the same zeal and commitment to building the peace as they did to waging the war, that is a truly hopeful sign.

Editor’s note: This post was updated at 8 p.m. Saturday March 19 (about 6 hours after its original posting) to add that final paragraph.

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