Living Out Loud

Northern Ireland


I was the kind of little kid who read the newspaper and my parents copy of Time Magazine. I watched Walter Cronkite with my grandmother and started listening to NPR in high school. I grew up listening to reports of shootings and bombings in Northern Ireland. Those of us of a certain age became accustomed to hearing about the conflict in Belfast and Derry. We knew of the Falls Road in Catholic Belfast and the Shankhill Road in Protestant Belfast, perhaps without knowing they were actually in walking distance of one another. I remember when Bobby Sands and the other hunger strikers were dying in the H-Blocks of the Maze prison. I remember the negotiations during the Clinton administration, the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and the horrific Omagh bombing that happened even after that.

The Troubles, the name given to the conflict involving Irish paramilitaries and the British Army lasted for thirty years and resulted in the deaths of over 3000 people. The Good Friday Agreement was approved in 1998. Soon there will have been an uneasy peace as long as there was active fighting.

I visited Northern Ireland a few years ago, curious to see what the place is like now. For those who don't know, Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, along with England, Scotland  and Wales. The Protestants who live there generally identify as British and are known as loyalists. The Catholics there mostly identify as Irish and many are Republicans who want unification with the Republic of Ireland. To this day most of the state-funded schools are segregated by religion and huge, so called "peace walls" separate neighborhoods. The PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) is better than the old Royal Irish Constabulary (RUC), but it still has trouble recruiting Catholics.

I'm not one of those Americans who consider themselves Irish, nor is my wife. I'm just fascinated that something like this happened in a first world country in my lifetime. The history of Irish colonization by the English is long and complicated and the struggle for Irish independence is not a simple one. While I was in the country I met with a man whose father was killed by British soldiers on Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972. He took me right to the spot where the unarmed man was gunned down. I met with former prisoners from both sides of the paramilitary conflict, the IRA (Irish Republican Army) and the UDA (Ulster Defense Association). I saw numerous small memorials to British soldiers dead in ambushes and bombings.

The current power sharing agreement in Stormont, the seat of devolved government in Belfast is marked with dysfunction and the refusal of one side (usually the conservative Loyalists) to work with the other. Even though we are well into the post-Troubles generation, names and personalities from the past still crop up. There is still a struggle to get justice for those killed in the conflict on both sides. In England, the Brexit disaster laid bare the fact that many there don't really care about their supposed cousins in Northern Ireland, much to the chagrin of the Loyalists. 

Still, having spent some time there and talking to regular folks, their lives didn't necessarily revolve around politics. It's a beautiful and historic place and their small towns and villages habitually have churches older than any building existing in America. They love sports, though sectarianism sometimes bleeds into that, believe it or not. Tourists are advised not to just wear soccer jerseys willy-nilly lest they wear the wrong one in the wrong neighborhood. 

I don't know if I'll ever go back but I pay attention to what happens there, hopeful that the intentions of the GFA remain intact and that democracy  and the rule of law prevails.