Monday, August 22, 2011

The Troubles

The Belfast Mona Lisa: the shooter seems to aim at you no matter where you stand

I LOVED Ireland. I loved the food, the people, the scenery, the music, the rivers, and the towns. But there was one thing I didn't love, and was surprised to find: the tension that still exists between Protestant Loyalists and Catholic Republicans in Northern Ireland.

I'm a child of the 80's, and I remember seeing Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland in the news as a child and a teenager. I know that between 1994 and 1998, a bunch of Irish people, plus Bono and President Clinton, worked really hard to create peace between these two groups. I hadn't seen Northern Ireland on CNN much lately, so I assumed that these problems had been resolved.

There is quite a bit of improvement. We crossed the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland with absolutely no fanfare: there was no checkpoint, no showing of passports, just the road signs changed from kilometers and miles. Our tour guide told us that 20 years ago there would have been military and lots of questions.

Likewise, in Belfast, our black cab tour guide told us that before the peace agreement, you could not drive a vehicle into downtown. You had to take a bus and it would be stopped so that police dogs could sniff for explosives. Now downtown is beginning to recover, and there is a big shopping mall, which is significant because "you don't know if the person waiting on you is a Protestant or a Catholic."

But the tension still exists. On our tour of Belfast we saw some of the "peace walls." These were erected starting in the 1960's as temporary barriers between some of the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods.

The barriers still stand, and continued to be built as late as 2008. Those big fences make it more difficult to throw things over the walls (like petrol bombs), and there are cameras at the top. There are gates between some of the areas that close every Saturday evening and re-open Monday morning.

Likewise, Derry (or Londonderry) is a city divided by a river. The west side is about 97% Catholic. It is the site of the 1972 Bloody Sunday, in which British soldiers fired on unarmed civilian protesters.

File:Edward Daly Bloody Sunday.jpg
Father Edward Daly waving a white handkerchief while protesters carry out a wounded man

There is one Protestant neighborhood on the west side of the river:

"Londonderry West Bank Loyalists still Under Siege. No Surrender"

Loyalist Protestant neighborhoods can be identified by a large Union Jack (not pictured here), and curbs painted red and blue.

Derry has attempted to "bridge the gap" between the Catholic west bank and the Protestant east bank with the creation of a pedestrian Peace Bridge across the river.

Danny McL- Flickr

But ultimately, there is very little mixing between the two factions. Even the children usually attend different schools. The town name, Derry/Londonderry, presents a huge quagmire: if you call it Derry, you get branded as a Catholic. If you call it Londonderry, you are a protestant. Our tour guide,who speaks about this subject more eloquently and with more passion than I could ever muster, says "There is no P or C stamped on my forehead!"

Garvin, our Derry Tour guide. He was so animated it was hard to capture him with the camera. I wish I could describe what it was like to listen to him speak honestly about life in Northern Ireland over the past 50 years.

On the flight home, the lady sitting next to me told me that she and her family rented a car to tour around the country on their own. The rental car agency advised them not to travel to Northern Ireland, because "the troubles" (as they are called in Ireland) are heating up again. I was sad to hear that tourists were told not to come to the north, because look what they missed:


Torr Head

Giant's Causeway

St. Augustine's Church
Someone explained it to me like this: 97% of the people just want to go about their lives. Two percent want to cause trouble. One percent just like to blow things up.

So long, KISS (keep it simple stupid), and pray that people will learn to forgive each other and live side by side.

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