The next generation

I’ve written before (like yesterday and back in March) about the dangers to peace in Northern Ireland that come with alienated and disenfranchised youths in both Loyalist and Nationalist communities. Not old enough to remember how bad things were during the bad old days of the Troubles, they are seen as ripe for recruiting by paramilitaries on both sides.

I was plenty aware of this in the North, but it came as a little bit of a surprise to see, as Vice News reported (the video is above), that recruiting is also happening in the South, what dissident Republicans derisively refer to as the Free State.

The youth organization featured in the story, Na Fianna Éireann (“Warriors of Ireland” is the English translation), is linked to Republican Sinn Fein, which split from Sinn Fein in 1986 in a dispute over Republican orthodoxy and political strategy. It was interesting to see familiar faces of people I’ve met (like Josephine Hayden) and interviewed (RSF president Des Dalton). RSF has in turn been linked to the armed dissident group the Continuity IRA, which in May released photos of its volunteers “patrolling” the streets of a housing estate in Lurgan.

The Vice News report runs 20 minutes and is well worth the time to get a snapshot of dissident Republican ideology and look at the kids that groups like RSF think represent the future of the struggle.

And then they go home

 

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Nationalist youths square off with police in front of Belfast City Hall on St. Patrick’s Day 2015. (Author’s photo.)

 

A few weeks ago, on the eve of the Twelfth of July celebrations in Northern Ireland and the annual mayhem that accompanies them (three nights of rioting in North Belfast this year), an article appeared in a Delaware newspaper with the headline, “Wilmington project aims to heal Irish divisions“.

For nearly 40 years now, the Delaware organization Pacem in Terris has carried out its Ulster Project, which since 1976 has brought groups of 18 teenagers, both Protestants and Catholics, from Northern Ireland to Delaware during the month of July to live with local host families, experience a variety of social and spiritual activities, and participate in service projects designed to “foster firm friendships and promote tolerance, reconciliation and understanding between opposing groups in Northern Ireland.”

This is an incredibly lofty enterprise. Friendship, tolerance, reconciliation, and understanding are absolutely necessary if Northern Ireland is ever to achieve the stable, equitable peace that people across the communal divides there desire.

But here’s a sobering question to consider. Forty years on, why is there still a need for the Ulster Project? Why is there still a need for the other two dozen similar projects across the United States modeled after the one in Delaware?

Think about it.  By now the original participants are old enough to have grandchildren in this most recent group coming to the states to work toward tolerance, understanding, and reconciliation. Why, after 40 years, do programs like this still exist?

Diana Chigas, of the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University provides a compelling explanation. Writing on the limitations of nongovernmental organizations as conflict managers, she argues that grassroots initiatives like the Ulster Project, which focus on changing attitudes at an individual level, fail when they assume that the impacts of their activities will automatically spill over into other areas of participants’ lives — like changing their political attitudes and activities — or trickle up from the individual to influence and change the attitudes and behaviors of others in their own community.

She argues that NGOs typically assume that what they are doing at an individual level is contributing building blocks of peace and that some day all those efforts will add up. But the reality is far different:

… programming that focuses on change at the individual/personal level … but is never linked to or translated into action at the sociopolitical level has no discernible impact on peace.

In short, the answer seems pretty simple. Healing the grassroots makes little difference when the environment itself is poisoned.

At the end of four weeks, those kids go home. They go home to segregated, poverty-ravage communities in which the “other side” is the enemy. They go home to peace walls that divide them from their neighbors in the name of security. They go home to paramilitary parades, marches, bonfires, pipe bombs, petrol bombs, painted curbstones, tribal flags flying from lampposts, sectarian graffiti, and recreational rioting.

It is clear from the events of this summer, and of last summer, the summer before that, and likely summers for a long time yet to come, that there has been little genuine movement toward broad-based tolerance, understanding, and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.

Grassroots initiatives may change individual perspectives, and they are valuable for that. But when those programs aren’t connected to or reinforced by broader changes in society and politics, they cannot but fail to deliver on the promise of peace.  If things don’t change, 40 years from now Northern Irish kids will still be going on holiday to Delaware for the month of July, just as they have for the last 40 years.

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Ulster Project teens with some of their American hosts in front of Philadelphia’s famous Love statue. (Ulster Project photo.)

Faulkner, O’Connor, and ‘The Wrong-Eyed Jesus’

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A scene from the film “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus”

 

I’ve been thinking a lot this summer about the South, where I grew up, and which I fled as soon as I could go north for college. But between trips down to retrieve my daughter from her small university atop a mountain in rural Tennessee, to Alabama to sing, visiting family in Virginia, and the seemingly endless months of drama and controversy surrounding the Confederate flag, it’s been on my mind.

With all that hovering in the background, one of my Irish friends, an artist, sent me a link to the 2003 documentary Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, which he had recently watched on the BBC. He described it as, “a wide-eyed bejaysus, a cracking film.” So I had no choice but to track it down and watch it for myself.

What I experienced was a mesmerizing road trip of a film, an occasionally hallucinogenic ramble along backroads, through swamps and bayous, to truck stops and diners, jails, honky-tonks, biker bars, coal mines, Pentecostal holiness churches, and riverside baptisms, with stunning cinematography and haunting, haunted music.

My daughter watched it with me, and where she saw the filmmakers cruely exploiting the crushing poverty, eccentricities, and to our more enlightened eyes exotic fundamentalist faith of rural people, I saw a brilliant example of the literary genre known as Southern Gothic, the province of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy and Tennessee Williams.

The style features deeply flawed, disturbing or eccentric characters, hints of connection to the supernatural, decayed or derelict settings, and grotesque situations or events stemming from poverty, alienation, crime, and violence.* These elements are all tools for exploring the social values and cultural characteristics of the American South.

Up until now the most recent and most compelling example of this I’ve seen on screen was the first season of HBO’s True Detective, a true classic of the genre. So too is journalist Dennis Covington’s book Salvation on Sand Mountain, about the culture of holiness snake handling in southern Appalachia, which I’ve been reading at the recommendation of one of my Alabama friends.

Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus struck a nerve with me that I can’t quite explain. The people, places, and settings were at once familiar and unfamiliar. Mostly it reminded me of just how timeless and a place apart the American South really is once you leave behind the modern sprawl of Atlanta, or Nashville, or Richmond and drive out beyond the interstates, where the hills and trees close in and the roads turn to mud or dust in due season.

You can watch the trailer below, and then follow this link over to Vimeo for the full film. Friends in the UK and Ireland can find it on the BBC iPlayer (sorry, no link since it’s not available here in the states).

*Yes, I am once again relying on the lazy shorthand of Wikipedia for background because I didn’t want to dig out my old undergrad literature texts to craft a one-sentence description. So sue me.

How about now?

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(Associated Press photo)

 

If you’re inclined to keep score:

  • Sandy Hook Elementary, Newtown, CT, December 14, 2012 — 20 children, six adult staff, all killed.
  • Century Movie Theater, Aurora, CO, July 20, 2012 — 12 dead, 70 wounded.
  • Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charleston, SC, June 17, 2015 — nine killed.
  • Navy Operational Support Center, Chattanooga, TN, July 16, 2015 — four killed.

Not the mass killings of first-graders, nor movie goers, nor worshippers at a Bible study have moved the lawmakers the gun lobby keeps on its payroll  to reconsider our unconscionably irresponsible approach toward gun control.

I don’t expect the killing of four Marines at a recruiting center in Tennessee this morning will change that. Do you?