A Guided Tour of the Northern Ireland Conflict

It was raining. Again. Only this time, the rain gave way to a downpour that lasted approximately fifteen minutes. My umbrella was useless and I carried on walking against the wet wind towards Divis Towers at the top of Falls Road, the epicentre of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.  Belfast has come a long way since then but I wanted to find out more about its past.

I was on my way to meet Gerard, a Republican tour guide. He cheerily greeted me and explained that about halfway though the tour, there would be a hand-over to the other side.  Jake, a Unionist would take me down Shanklin Road where I would get “their” side of the conflict. I smiled, “a bit like a hostage?” He chuckled but I sensed he didn’t really find it funny.

Murals from Falls Road

It really wasn’t funny. In fact, it’s one of Britain’s greatest tragedies. I resolved not to take sides and the guides both urged me to make up my own mind. They assured me that they are friends and have no animosity towards each other, they just see each other as having different and opposing political views.

Gerard has even met and forgiven the men who were responsible for the murder of his brother and best friend. It was the only way to move on.

Jake’s view is matter of fact. Both sides suffered atrocities and broke the law. Both guides spent time in jail (Gerard was detained without trial), both have seen killings by each side and both now hope the violence will remain a thing of the past.

The IRA has now disbanded and disarmed. Shortly after, the UVF did the same. Today, the military conflict is over following the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, however, the political conflict continues.

Bobby Sands. A Republican Martyr

The Cause Of The Troubles

Northern Ireland became a self-governing region of the United Kingdom in 1921. At the time, the Irish Republic had negotiated dominion status with the British government which allowed them a limited amount of self-government whilst remaining a colonial territory. This in itself, was problematic for the Irish people but it paved the way for independence.

This terrified the Protestants in the Northern counties of Ireland. They had been protected by the British government, given their own plantations to rule and managed much of the wealth in the region. They were unwilling to agree to “Home Rule” and demanded to stay part of the British Empire, considering themselves loyal to them.

Boundaries were drawn up between Northern Ireland and the Republic and from 1922 to 1975, it had its own government which was dominated by the Unionist Party during that time. Its main institutions were Unionist, such as the police force (the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Ulster Special Constabulary).

Mural from Shanklin Road

Catholics complained of discrimination in terms of their voting rights, employment and allocation of social housing. They were also detained without trial, a policy which the British government actively exercised during the 1970s.

Republicans worked the lowest paid jobs if they could find employment, and had access to poorer educational opportunities. This led to the formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association in 1966 which aimed to end the discrimination. The Loyalists reacted to protests and marches with violence.

During this time, the IRA was a minor group that was viewed as not being equipped to deal with the violence the Republicans experienced from Loyalists, especially during the period between 12th to 17th August 1969 when Bombay Street, a stop on the tour, was completely destroyed during fighting.  Gerard showed me the new housing that was re-built quickly with Republican funds to re-house families who had lost everything. Today, a memorial stands black and glistening in heavy rain, it’s grey damp a reminder of those who lost their lives.

Order was restored by the British Army, which was initially welcomed by the Republican communities. However, the IRA began to militarize themselves, as Loyalist paramilitary groups followed suit. Loyalist vigilante and paramilitary groups such as the UVF  and the Ulster Defense Association were also strengthened by men whose stated aim was to rid Northern Ireland of Republican militarism.

The British responded by cordoning off Falls Road, using violence to quell the IRA and internment without trial. A poignant example of this was ‘Bloody Sunday’ in nearby Londonderry (or Derry, as the Republicans call it) to which the IRA responded with further violence. This did nothing but increase IRA recruitment and create more divisions.

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, the British government changed their strategy. They focused on dismantling the purpose of the IRA to achieve national liberation from the British. They did this by reducing British military presence and handing it back to Ulster based forces and they began to treat IRA prisoners not as political prisoners but instead as criminals. They were in effect, downgraded and subject to the same treatment as any other. The intention was to degrade their political message and portray them as deviants. This didn’t deter IRA membership and both sides continued with their violence which affected thousands of innocent civilians.

Bobby Sands and nine other Republicans died whilst on hunger strike to protest the British government’s actions. Margaret Thatcher saw this as the end of the IRA when, after their deaths, the hunger strikes were called off. This, however,  bolstered the IRA’s membership and those who died were seen as martyrs. Margaret Thatcher was viewed with vehement hatred by the Republicans.

The IRA, the UVF and the UDA today are listed as a terrorist organisations by the British government. Several murals in and around Shanklin Road highlight IRA violence as terrorist atrocities and in one case, compared them to ISIS. Jake didn’t express this view and Gerard was adamant that they were freedom fighters, vilified by the British government for their own interests.

The account above is a summary of some of the main events and is not intended as a full factual account. You can find out more here.

The Two Sides Today

Gerard and Jake have a lot in common. They both stated their commitment to build trust between the communities and greeted each other warmly. They have differing political aims but they both believe that violence is not the answer. It’s a criminal act that doesn’t benefit the community. They both repeated this opinion. Both sides had suffered and were still grieving their losses as the murals and memorials gardens in both areas testified.

Gerard was adamantly socialist, taking inspiration from other political movements focusing on national liberation and emancipation from colonial rule. He was a socialist as he believed, the working classes suffered most in any military conflict. Jake rejected anything left wing and said that he would vote for the Conservatives, even if he didn’t really agree with all of their policies or their leader.

In fact, both sides described themselves as working class. Jake talked proudly about the hard-working Protestant ethic and the bombings of the area during World War Two which brought people together. Gerard also talked about some of the social problems in the area and community initiatives in place to help young Catholics to take advantage of the opportunities open to them and to let go of the grievances that had been passed down to them by previous generations.  

This was a community brought together by suffering. It has shaped their identity as two groups of people, provided support and goals. This is a classic example of how marginalisation and conflict can strengthen group identity and the need to belong whilst under threat. The Loyalists continued to insist that the IRA were terrorists, and Gerald was certain that the Loyalists and the British government were the oppressors.

Even today, the two communities are divided by gates that are shut at 18.30 every evening. Gerard told me that the young generation carry the trauma of their parents and still harbour prejudices that prevent them from mixing with Loyalists. He wouldn’t walk around in Loyalist areas and neither would Jake.

It’s a society that remains deeply divided between Catholics and Protestants. Even though the military conflict has ended and peace processes have been put in place to encourage integration, some, such as integrated schools for both category of children, have lost their appeal. It’s a reminder that peace is a precarious condition of society, especially following State brutality, paramilitary violence and the scars they leave on a nation’s psyche. With Brexit around the corner, it’s astonishing that those who orchestrated it didn’t consider the implications it will have on Northern Ireland’s fragile peace.

What We Can Learn From the Troubles

The similarities between the two communities was astonishing. In every conflict, there are common interests. In this case, the mutual losses, the trauma suffered, the sense of belonging and the social status of the community are comparable. Both groups have been excluded from the resources available for the rich. It’s also blatantly obvious that the British government has always offered their support to the Loyalists for one reason; their own economic interests. Belfast was a thriving city since the 1800s and launched some of the World’s most famous ships where they were built with the labour of thousands from the city and beyond. Women were employed to work the mills that wove its linen and complementary industries, such as rope making, all contributed to its prosperity. This added to the coffers of the British Treasury.

When both sides can see past the strong emotions of conflict, they can focus on the real issue. It’s not about what religion you are or what harm has been caused to you. It’s about turning a destructive conflict into a constructive conflict. That involves acknowledging what has happened in the past and how you feel about it – sometimes working through it as much as you can. The issue here is a political one and relates to how much the British government should be involved in Northern Ireland’s future.

This conflict is also a clear example of how opposing sides vilify each other. Both considered each other either the oppressor and freedom fighters or the legitimate government and terrorists. The British government knew that by labeling the IRA as terrorists, they would potentially lose international support and sympathy. Perception of a conflict is crucial in maintaining the group dynamic and for gaining or losing support from outsiders. Despite the use of intense violence, the British government was attempting to negotiate with the IRA.This shows that they wanted to give the impression that they did not tolerate what they termed as terrorism but at the same time were willing to negotiate behind closed doors.

These are principles that we can apply to our own personal conflicts. Emotions, perceptions, group association. They can all fuel destructive conflict. However, there is hope. If a conflict as severe as the Troubles can be reduced to a political disagreement, then other more simpler disputes can be settled. It’s not over yet and nobody really knows how Brexit will affect it but it highlights the futility of violence in finding solutions to conflict.

As for making up my own mind, I can sympathise with both causes but I cannot make a judgment. That’s because, like me, they are just people trying to understand the world around them with the same needs and desire for a better future. That’s something we can all identify with.

What are your thoughts? Let me know!

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