Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Troubles, Belfast, Ireland

We’d heard of the Troubles recently at the U2 concert in Vancouver before coming to Ireland.  Here in Belfast we’d see the actual sites the concert murals came from.
There’d been conflict in Ireland between British and Irish forever.  The Norman Invasion occurred in the late 12th century. The Plantations occurred in the 15th and 16th century when English and Scottish Protestant settlers came and displaced the pre-plantation Catholic Landowners.  There was the Protestant Ascendancy and the Catholic Emancipation after that. Irish Protestants fought Irish Catholics and sometimes Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics got together to fight England.
The Home Rule Act was written 1914 then suspended by WWI. 1916 was the Easter Rising by Irish Republicans.  Then in 1922 the Irish War of Independence and Anglo Irish Treaty resulted.  Michael Collins, the great Liam Neelson movie we saw and Shadow of a Gunman, the play we saw at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin were about these times.  Ireland became the Irish Free State in 1937 with the six northern counties of Northern Ireland remaining within the United Kingdom.  Sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland has continued with Nationalists (mainly Catholic) and Unionists (mainly Proestant) at odds.  This conflict erupted into the Troubles in the 1960’s until an uneasy peace thirty years later.
In the early 70’s when I was living with my first wife, Baiba, in London, England I was repeatedly evacuated from the Associated Television offices across from Harrod’s where I worked because of bomb threats.  Baiba came home once with her beautiful face cut by flying gas when the building across from where she worked had been bombed and her building’s windows blown out.
The Provisional Independent Republican Army (IRA) felt bombs (and terror) would financially cost England so much that they’d wash their hands of Ireland. The Royal Ulster Defence League defended itself against them.  These two ‘gangs’ were the armies.  Meanwhile a  diplomatic mainstream wanted to arrive at some compromise or solution without further bloodshed. Some three thousand Irish were killed during these times. Desmond showed us an area where all the houses had been devastated .
Apparently the Unionists had had power in Northern Ireland for 50 years and the Irish Catholic working classes in the north rebelled at their poor conditions. It was something of a ‘civil rights’ conflict in the late 60’s before the violence exploded. In 1968 a peaceful civil rights march in Derry had turned violent.  This was followed by the Battle of the Bogside and the Northern Ireland Riots of 1969.  To restore order, British troops were deployed. The worst occurred 1972 with Blood Sunday when Paratroopers opened fire on civil rights protestors in Derry, killing 13 unarmed civilians.  This was the beginning of what was to be called the Troubles.
We’d taken a famous West Belfast Black Taxi Tour with Desmond as our guide  to view the famous murals of Shankill and Falls area.  We saw a wall that went on for miles.  “I was surprised when I heard from German tourists that the Berlin Wall had only lasted 23 years whereas our Belfast Wall has been up for over 40.” said Desmond.  The wall was massive too, barbwire with locking gates and curfews.  The police still rode about in armoured cars.
Direct Rule of Northern Ireland with a British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the Briish Cabinet carried on from 1972 to 1999.The IRA and Ulster Defence Regiment continued at odds. 1986 the Anglo Irish Agreement (something of a truce) was signed.  The Belfast Agreement (Good Friday Agreement 1999) gave Unionists and Nationalists power sharing in limited areas of government.  This continues till today with decommissioning of paramilitary weapons, policing reforms and removal of British Army bases. The IRA announced the end of it’s armed conflict 2005.  2011 Ireland closed it’s embassy at the Vatican.
The murals showed that the Irish Catholics interestingly tended to side with Palestine while the Protestants sided with Israel giving a global reach to these local events.
Today the walls and barbwire and armed police cars and shrines are all reminiscent of earlier conflicts, yet I confess I was thankful to be in a taxi with a local informed guide. It didn’t seem like a particularly safe place to wander about on foot.  Laura and I were thankful for the Black Taxi Tour.
The Crumlin Road Gaol  that had housed both protestants and catholic criminals has become a tourist site and the old courthouse is falling down.
Desmond let us write on the wall with felt pens.  Apparently Bill Clinton did the same when he was here. Laura and I wrote prayers for peace.  Laura is Catholic and I’m Protestant.
We learned that if Catholics and Irish couldn’t live together here.  They moved to other parts of Belfast where love clearly means more than war.

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