In December last year the Politics Society spent four days in Belfast studying the history of the Northern Ireland crisis. What we managed to squeeze in to four days felt more like 4 weeks! Through a tenuous link, Sinn Fein’s Ministerial Advisor and civil servant Mr Stephen McGlade provided an all-encompassing programme of political education and sightseeing for the group. In the process we met the Mayor of Belfast, were given a tour of the city by former IRA and UVF prisoners and even met the leader of Sinn Fein Gerry Adams. If some of us felt we knew little about the Northern Irish conflict at the start of the week, we felt like experts by the end! If you would like to know more, read on.
Rather than taking the conventional route of flying, we though we’d go environmentally friendly and drive ourselves. Twenty two of us met on campus at 7.30 on Monday morning and drove up to Stranraer in Western Scotland before making the two hour ferry crossing to the land of Guinness and potatoes.
After all the travelling we arrived on Monday evening and had a relatively early night. We were greeted bright and early Tuesday morning by the legendary Mr McGlade whose great wit and impersonation of the London accent won’t be forgotten! We drove to St Mary’s College and were given a brief contextual analysis of the conflict by History Professor Dr Peter Collins. From there, we went on a 3 hour political walking tour of the Falls Road (Catholic area) by former IRA prisoners. After a very brief lunch, we were greeted by Lord Mayor Tom Hartley with tea and biscuits and a tour of his chamber. The highlight being a personal birthday ode intimately performed by the Mayor to 3rd year IR student Gohar Jawaid on his 25th birthday. The group then had free time to wander the city before a McGlade led night on the tiles culminating in some pitiable attempts at Irish dancing!
Despite sore heads, we were greeted at 8.30am by McGlade to begin our most action packed day of political talks. We began by receiving a brief lecture on community empowerment and reconciliation by Geraldine McAteer (a nationalist) and Sammy Douglass (a unionist). We then drove to a Catholic Church and were treated to a 3-way panel discussion by a Catholic, Protestant and Presbyterian Priest who had all been involved in the decommissioning of arms after the IRA ceasefire in 1994. They offered insight into the religious aspect of the conflict and how to live life in accordance with mutual recognition, understanding and trust. The three leaders were all quick to stress that while “churches have historically been part of the problem not part of the answer” in the Northern Ireland peace process all factions worked hard to try and improve the situation. A particularly touching moment was hearing Presbyterian Priest Harold Good describe the final day of IRA decommissioning as something he “never thought would happen in my lifetime.”
‘Mr Adams said “the British government doesn’t have friends, it has interests”’
We then hurried to Sinn Fein’s headquarters for a personal meeting with the most infamous man in Ireland – Gerry Adams – accompanied by a Senior Minister Connor Murphy. The group pummelled Adams with questions and gained real insight into his experiences and the nationalist’s struggle over the past forty plus years. We learned that all people employed by Sinn Fein take home exactly the same wage i.e. Gerry Adams’ driver is paid the same as him.
Mr Adams argued that a continued media campaign restricted the British public from knowing the atrocities that the British military did to Catholics in the 1970s and 80s in Northern Ireland. He said “it is my view that if the British people knew what was going on here, they would not have allowed it to happen”. He also vented his continuing fury at British foreign policy claiming that “by right they should oppose Sinn Fein now but they don’t. They have decided to try and work with us. The British government doesn’t have friends, it has interests. They are trying to do the exact same thing in Iraq they did here”. Grilled about the murders of innocent civilians Adams admitted that “the IRA were involved in killings that were totally unjustified” but put it in a wider context of oppression that Catholics suffered these responses seemed legitimate at the time.
After Mr Adams’ amazing talk there was no time for lunch as we rushed to the Stormont for a meeting with former IRA prisoner Michael Culbert on militarism, imprisonment and peace building. This was followed by a tour of the building which was modelled on Westminster. We also got to sit on Reverend Doctor Ian Paisley’s chair and learnt that Gerry Adams prefers to sit on the back-benches. We topped off the day with a social night in a busy Irish Bar where Politics and American Studies student David Conway was treated to a slurred rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ by the group on the eve of turning 33.
Thursday morning began with a political walking tour of the Shankill Road (Protestant area) by a former Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) political prisoner. He spent 12 years in jail for the attempted murder of 4 Catholics and showed us round the street where political murals cover most walls of the poverty stricken area. This was followed by the cemetery tour, a chance to see the graves of the hunger strikers, including Bobby Sands. After a welcome pub lunch, we attended a brief lecture by a group called ‘Healing through Remembering’ on visual memories of the conflict, including old newspaper articles and a graffiti-covered football which was kicked over the dividing gates as a form of hate mail. A tour of the huge Crumlin Road Gaol ended the day on a sombre note, we were able to see exactly how the process of hanging a prisoner is carried out and walk inside the cells of political prisoners.
‘Ex-IRA prisoners tended to be surprisingly warm and open, considering their past actions. The general mood was very much looking forward rather than backwards, with a pro-peace feel and a desire to understand the other side better.’
Then we said goodbye to Stephen, his friend Vincent (SF Minister for Equality and Human Rights) and two former IRA prisoners we had met and started the long drive home again. At the ferry port, the group participated in a boys vs. girls football match across the jetty (before getting told off by the guards) and had a final jig to Irish music from the minibus’s speakers! We jigged again to ‘Dirty Old Town’ when we arrived back at Gardner Arts Centre at 11am on Friday after a gruelling nights drive.
Experiences will be remembered by all members of the group for a long time. Ex-IRA prisoners tended to be surprisingly warm and open, considering their past actions. The general mood was very much looking forward rather than backwards with a pro-peace feel and a desire to understand the other side better. This being said, former prisoners who had committed violent acts said they didn’t regret those actions, as at that time they felt they were faced with no choice. Whilst understanding their cause, we both struggled to accept allowing civilian casualties under any circumstances. We were assured that civilian deaths were never the intention and reminded that due warning was always given in regard to bombings in England. Former UVF prisoner who toured us round also spoke of peace, although our impression was that there was less of a focus on education and solidarity. The culture of the unionist side no doubt developed due to their more hard-line approach – trying to hold on to what it had, rather than fight against oppression. This bares similarities with other conflict situations across the globe – the Israeli/Palestinian conflict springs to mind. We felt more attracted to the nationalist side, which had solidarity murals of other peoples in struggle (such as Basques, Cubans and Palestinians) on the Falls Road. While we were aware that we spent more time with this side we felt we got enough of a taste of both sides of the conflict. Overall, we both felt we learned more than we had done in years. Thoroughly worth taking a week out of our degree studies!