The curse of long memories

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Looking out over the fields of County Tyrone from atop the Hill of the O’Neill, an ancient seat of military and political power, Dungannon.

 

As we drove through the County Tyrone countryside this morning, my contact kept pointing out spots in the landscape where nearly 400 years ago early chapters in this region’s long story of violent conflict unfolded.  Like South Armagh, the peacefulness of the surroundings belies the brutal reality of what happened here during the most recent 30 years or so of war.

This was one of the most active areas of violence, behind only Belfast and South Armagh in terms of the numbers of casualties. Given the much smaller population compared to Belfast, in per capita terms the impact was just as traumatic. My contact described the brutality of the attacks against civilian targets as approaching the genocidal.

Today the area is calm, with much less of the raw hostility that bubbles so close to the surface in the close confines of Belfast. Out in the countryside, as my contact put it, people have room to keep out of each other’s way if they so choose.  But for all the space, these are still small communities. People will recognize old enemies when they pass, and nod in acknowledgment. But the pain of the past is not forgotten, time has not erased the memories of family members killed or wounded, families torn apart, or livelihoods lost.

They let things lie, my contact said, because for now it is all over. But make no mistake. If things start up again, he said, “scores will be settled.” No one here is clamoring for that, but in a place where long memory can conjure up recollections of 400-year-old injuries, the wounds of the recent past may as well have happened yesterday.

 

About those diversions …

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The non-traditional session at Madden’s, with songs sung in full voice.

 

I keep threatening to say a little about the diversions that I find when I come to Northern Ireland. So here’s a bit of an illustrated guide.

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The traditional Irish session Saturday afternoons at Kelly’s Cellars. But not just Saturday. Also Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday evenings. And other times when people show up and start playing.

 

A big one form me is music, and Belfast is a great city for it. One of the things I love is that there are pubs I’ve found where you are likely to find people sitting around and playing music almost any time you walk in. My two favorites are in the City Centre, Kelly’s Cellars (which lays claim to the title of oldest pub in Belfast), and around the corner, Madden’s Bar. Both are at the heart of the traditional Irish music scene here but you can hear other things too depending when you stop in. For example, on Monday evenings Madden’s hosts a non-traditional session in which you can hear folk, bluegrass, classic country and string band tunes, singer-songwrighter stuff, and so on. And they let me sit in with my mountain dulcimer and contribute to the music.

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The sanctuary of St. Columb’s Cathedral, Church of Ireland, in Derry.

 

Another diversion is churches. Whenever I travel I try to visit churches, largely because I love church architecture and the history that they often contain within their walls, especially over here. And if I can I like to attend worship services.  I have found that doing so gives me time out from the often hectic schedule that I typically have to keep for research. But I’ve also found that going to church, like going to the pub, brings me into contact with people that I would not otherwise meet. This brings me to the last point I want to mention. People.

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The girls were waiting for their turn to dance at Kelly’s Cellars St. Patrick’s Day festivities.

 

One of the things that I like best about these trips is the people that I get to meet and the windows into other people’s lives that I get a chance to occasionally peer through. Sometimes I walk away with the memory of an anecdote told about hiding petrol bombs under an overcoat on an unusually hot summer day, the reek of the fuel awkwardly filling the air of an electric trolley. Whatever direction the conversation takes I almost always learn from these encounters, and over the years some of the people I’ve met I have come to think of as friends.

“Everything is built on sand”

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The faces of the conflict’s future? Nationalist youth burn a Union flag to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

 

Once again, today was to be a day when I had intended to write about diversions. Believe me, I’d like to, but events, or in this case interviews, keep getting in the way.

I returned this morning to Belfast after spending the prior day down in Dublin doing the tourist thing with my daughter. (Stay tuned, I’ll write about that at some point.) In the afternoon I had another of those interviews with a refrain that has become all too familiar:

The peace here is far more fragile than it looks, and if you dare to scratch beneath the surface you’ll not like what you find.  The lid may be on for now, but it won’t be for long unless present dynamics change.

The person I talked with has been involved with the Community Restorative Justice initiative in the Republican community since its inception in the 1970s.  Several points he made stuck out to me, in large part because they confirm what others, both Nationalists/Republicans and Unionists/Loyalists, have said to me on this trip and prior ones.

  • There is no peace process. There is only a politically expedient arrangement that creates a veneer of peace. In his words, if you lift the hood to examine the engine that drives the peace you’ll find that “the engine is fucked.”
  • The underlying contradictions that led to the explosion of violence in the late 1960s remain unchanged. The present political configuration is not designed to change those dynamics. To the contrary, it is locking them in as the status quo.
  • There is no viable political Republican alternative to Sinn Fein, and people are losing patience with it and with politics in general. Alienation from the political process is increasingly the norm. Under these conditions Republican “splinters” and “micro-groups” appear increasingly attractive.
  • The future of the peace is in the hands of people too young to remember the bad times. These young people are the most alienated from normal politics, and they are ripe for recruitment into paramilitary organizations on both sides of the sectarian divide. Those organizations recognize this and are taking advantage.
  • Sectarianism is deeply entrenched and in some ways has become worse, especially on the Nationalist side which always maintained that its struggle was about politics, not tribal identity.
  • When it becomes obvious that the political process here has failed, and that failure is becoming increasingly visible, then people will return to the traditional way in which political conflict gets resolved here. Violence.

In short, according to my contact today, all of the institutions of the peace in Northern Ireland, which are celebrated by politicians and academics alike, are built on a foundation of sand. And that sand is steadily, but inexorably, washing away.

 

 

The day started so well

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The tricolor flies at City Hall.

 

So St. Patrick’s Day was intended to be a day when I was going to focus on the “diversions” part of blog’s title. And it certainly started out that way. Sarah and I got up (not all that early given our late night before) and headed down to Belfast City Hall for the parade. Big crowds, lots of families with young children hoisted on shoulders so they could see, and a general atmosphere of merriment.

The parade passed by rather quickly (it seemed much smaller than similar parades in the States) and then we walked off to get some “refreshment” before meeting up with friends. As we sat outside a cafe with drinks in hand, we noticed crowds of young teens, many of them draped with the Irish tricolor, all headed back toward City Hall.

We finished our drinks and followed, and as we got closer, we could see, above the gathering crowds, the waving Union and Ulster flags of the day’s small group of flag protesters, who were staging a 24-hour vigil in front of the City Hall to protest the decision made in December 2012 to stop flying the Union flag from the building on a daily basis (it is flown on designated days only).

And that’s when the inevitable occurred. As the Belfast Telegraph put it:

Northern Ireland’s entrenched factional tensions erupted when their arrival prompted a sectarian slanging match between unionists and nationalists draped in tricolours.

What unfolded was a display of pure tribalism. There was no “politics” on view in the standoff, just hurled abuse, taunts, chants, hot tempers, and police in riot gear holding the line that separated one group from the other. It all culminated with a Union flag burned by a crowd of jeering teenagers, encouraged by several older men who moved along the edges of the group whipping up their enthusiasm and directing their bile.

Yesterday’s display was a small taste of what is often called “recreational rioting” over here. When calmer heads express concern for the future, it is often about this generation. These kids are too young to know how bad things can get when they go bad. And while yesterday’s incident was mild compared to what happens here on an all too regular basis, you can see just how volatile the atmosphere remains. It would have taken very little for things to have gotten a lot worse. And that’s what scares people.

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So much for the sanctity of flags.