Northern Ireland and the Troubles

17 April 2016 Sunday morning

This morning, we boarded the coach for Belfast, stopping at Belfast City Hall where we picked up our guide, Ken. Belfast City Hall (shown below) was built in 1906 of white Portland stone in a classical Renaissance style and its grandeur reflects the wealth of a city at that time, renowned for its linen, rope-making and ship-building industries. With Brian at the wheel and Ken at the microphone, we were give a whirlwind tour of Belfast and a description of much of its history.

city hall.jpg

In the early 17th century, Protestant settlers from England and Scotland moved into the area that is now Northern Ireland, choosing the area for its rich farmland, and establishing a cultural identity supportive of the British crown. In the 19th century, Belfast was the main Irish city on the forefront of the Industrial Revolution while most of the rest of the island remained rural. Following the Irish War of Independence in 1922, 26 of the 32 counties in Ireland became the Irish Free State that became the Republic of Ireland in 1949. The remaining six counties were unified into the country of Northern Ireland and remained part of the UK.  Northern Ireland supported the Allies during World War II while the Republic of Ireland remained neutral. Ken explained that most of the buildings we see today are new, since Luftwaffe bombing destroyed much of Belfast during World War II. Belfast was a target because of its shipbuilding industry was important to the war effort.

As the bus wended its way through the city, Ken’s pride in his city was evident as he named the many inventions with Belfast roots—the tractor, the pneumatic tire, the ejector seat, defibrillators, even Viagra.  Ken pointed out Queen’s University and named its famous alumni, including Lord Kelvin (who devised the absolute temperature scale) and Nobel Prize winners. Passing concert halls and theatres, he named famous people who performed there. He showed us the best Belfast pubs and notable churches.

Finally, we entered North Belfast, ground zero for the “Troubles”, a thirty-year period of guerilla warfare waged between Protestant “unionists” or “loyalists” who considered themselves to be British and who supported ties with Britain, and Catholic “nationalists” who considered themselves to be Irish, who opposed the drawing of the border in 1922 and supported one Irish nation completely free of British rule. Though the unionists were Protestant and the nationalists were Catholic, the conflict was political and not religious in nature.

Northern Ireland nationalists, inspired by the civil rights struggle in the US led by Martin Luther King, began a nonviolent struggle for civil rights, agitating for better housing, fair voting laws, and an end to the employment practices that discriminated against Catholics. In 1972, a nationalist peaceful protest turned violent when the British Army, claiming that they were being attacked by the protestors, fired upon them, killing fourteen. The nonviolent struggle turned violent virtually overnight as a result of the killings on “Bloody Sunday.” The violent clashes between the Protestant unionists and the Catholic nationalists would rip apart two communities, span 30 years, claim more than 3600 lives and leave tens of thousands injured. In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was a breakthrough peace treaty that crafted a power-sharing agreement and the resulted in the release of prisoners held for Troubles-related crimes on both sides. As part of the peace process, an inquiry by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair concluded that the Bloody Sunday protesters were innocent and that the killing of the fourteen was unjustified.  That same year, Nationalist leader John Hume shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Unionist Leader David Trimble. In 2010, the peace process took a giant leap forward when Prime Minister David Cameron issued a full apology, saying, “What happened on Bloody Sunday was unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong.” There are those who still support a unified Ireland, but as a consequence of the Good Friday peace accord, nationalists agreed to pursue their goals through democratic means.

Today, this painful history is recorded on a series of murals in the Bogside neighborhood of Belfast, along Rossville Street and Lecky Road, where the original 1972 march took place. Ideally, one would follow in the steps of the marchers, but alas, our schedule was tight and we were only able to view the murals from the coach.  Luckily it was Sunday and traffic was light, so Brian was able to drive slowly, even finding places to pull over, so that we could fully appreciate this urban art form.

The most astonishing site for most of us this morning, I believe, was the peace wall, a Berlin-style wall built to separate Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods.  There isn’t a single wall but a series of walls meant to minimize violence between the two communities. Some of the walls are a few hundred yards long; we saw one section of the wall separating the unionist Falls Road and the nationalist Shankhill Road that is three miles long. Some walls have gates that are open during the day and closed at night; our coach actually drove through a gate that Ken referred to as Checkpoint Charlie.  The walls provide a canvas upon which many murals are painted and are of interest to tourists but to those living near them; sadly, they still provide a sense of security even though the Good Friday Agreement is nearly 20 years on.


Our tour concluded, we bade goodbye to Ken and then Brian took the Protestants to service at St. Ann’s Church and the Catholics to mass at St. Peter’s Church.  After the services, he picked us up and we were together again.


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