Getting out of town

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Welcome to South Armagh, circa 1997.

 

I’ve felt for some time that my grasp of things here are limited in two important ways. First, I have far too few contacts in the Loyalist community. Nearly everyone I talk to when I come here are either Nationalists* (political or not) or fall somewhere on the Republican spectrum. Second, my vision is skewed by the amount of time I spend in Belfast. That’s not to say that the city was not and is not central, but politics in Northern Ireland has always had a profound rural-urban divide on top of the other divisions that are so prevalent.

Now both of these limitations are understandable. I talk mainly to Republicans because they’re the specific focus of my current research. And I meet mainly Nationalists because most of the relationships I’ve made over the years are with members of that community, and the places I tend to go when I am out socializing are where they feel comfortable. In short, you’re more likely to find me in a City Centre place like Kelly’s or Maddens or the Duke of York than you are to find me at the Royal Bar** in Sandy Row or the Rex Bar on the Shankill. The Unionists*** I’ve met and built relationships with have been from the uniformly respectable ranks of the middle and upper classes, and while their views are interesting, they were in many ways spared some of the worst aspects of the violence that unfolded. For example, a fellow once confided to me, as we walked into Ulster Hall for a performance of the symphony, that for him the Troubles were little more than a nuisance consisting of closed roads and unpleasant news on the television.

And I’ve spent nearly all my time in Belfast because the first contacts I made were Belfast-based, rental cars are expensive, driving on the wrong side totally freaks me out, and public transportation via trains and buses is really very good and is comparatively affordable. So far everywhere I’ve needed to go has been accessible via public transit. But as I said, all of these factors have come together to narrow my vision. So this week I am getting an opportunity to do something about that.

On Wednesday I am meeting a contact who has agreed to show me around South Armagh, which was some of the most dangerous territory in Northern Ireland when things were bad here. This is the part of the country, along the border with the Republic, where the British Army built hilltop forts and watchtowers but for years could only move between them by helicopter since the IRA controlled the countryside. The iconic sign at the top of the post was no joke. You can look it up. And things remain rather unsettled there, despite the relative calm that prevails most everywhere else. My guide is an uncompromising Loyalist who considers the peace process a sham.

So now I will get to see what happens when I take seriously my own rules about talking to everyone and meeting them on their own turf if that’s what makes them comfortable. Stay tuned …

*A totally unsatisfactory label, but better in some ways than “Catholics” since many of the people I meet from this background are either atheists or non-observant. Labels are even more politically loaded here than they are at home.

**Actually, I did spend a very pleasant evening in the Royal Bar several years ago after attending a Loyalist flute band parade through Sandy Row. So I’d go back, but my friends won’t enter the neighborhood, so that’s a problem.

***Another of those pesky labels. I could get in to the differences here between Loyalists and Unionists, but that would be a digression … not that I’m above digressions. Maybe I’ll have something to say about that another day,

Good things happen …

… when you follow your own rules. By that I’m referring to those rules or lessons that I posted about the other day, and in particular the rule that says “talk to everyone.”

Over the last few days that strategy has paid off, not necessarily in ways that will automatically make their way onto the page of some future publication, but in ways that are helping me learn more and more about this place.

Example 1: I spent my much of my day Friday in front of the computer, and then had a meeting in the afternoon. With that over, and it being a little late in the day, I thought I would grab a pint and a quiet spot in my favorite pub to write a little in my journal. I did not count on it being Friday, and the end of the work week, or the Scottish stag party taking up a fair portion of the place. So instead of quiet writing, I ended up sharing a table with a very interesting group who, once we got engaged in conversation, told me about their experiences growing up at the height of the Troubles, how they initially felt about the introduction of British troops on the streets, and where they think things have gone right, and wrong, in the years since the ceasefires.

Example 2: I was in Dublin all day Saturday for a event put on by one of the newer groups on what is generally called the “dissident Republican” spectrum, though that term is more shorthand than real description. A couple of thoughts from that event. If this is the start of the revolution, it’s going to be very small, and over very quickly. But I did meet up with a friend who is always helpful and insightful, I met a pair of young people who may represent the face of a new generation of Republican activists outside the Sinn Fein orbit, and I got to hear two pre-1969 veterans of the IRA talk about how it was back in the old days, when the process of joining the IRA was, according to them, difficult and selective.

Example 3: On the train back to Belfast last night, I ended up sharing a table, and conversation, with a young fellow who represents a new face of politics in Belfast that is neither Republican nor Loyalist. His name is Gerry Carroll, and he was elected a Belfast City Councillor from the socialist People Before Profits party in 2014, representing a Sinn Fein dominated part of West Belfast.

Example 4: During coffee hour following church at St. George’s this morning, I had a chat with a relatively new member of the parish. Turns out she is the retired CEO of Christian Aid Ireland, with more than 50 years experience in the field of international development, and a recipient of the Order of the British Empire for her work, which included a stint as director of Christian Aid NI. She had much to say about the challenges of providing aid and working with NGOs in divided societies torn by conflict.

Three days worth of conversations, and I learned something new from each of them. Three weeks yet to go …

A dissident Republican voice on political change, political debate

Tony Catney
Tony “TC” Catney

I met Tony Catney, a veteran IRA volunteer and former Sinn Fein national director of elections, in February 2013 and spent two hours interviewing him as part of the research I have been conducting on the maintenance of the peace process in the years since the 1998 Belfast Agreement.

Catney broke with the leadership of the Provisional Movement in 2005 in a dispute over political strategy and what he believed to be a climate within the movement which was intolerant of dissent and which deemed open debate over the movement’s direction illegitimate.  After Catney died in August 2014, I shared excerpts of the interview with The Pensive Quill, a widely read blog run by former IRA volunteer, prisoner and writer Anthony McIntyre, who after his release from prison earned a PhD in history from Queens University Belfast.  McIntyre, like Catney, is a prominent critic of Sinn Fein and its leadership.

On Saturday I will travel down to Dublin to attend the first Tony Catney Memorial Debate, sponsored by the 1916 Societies, on Republicanism in the 21st century.  In advance of that event, I went back to the transcript of my original interview with Catney and put together excerpts in which he talks about he believed the future of Northern Ireland looked like, the potential for it to once again erupt in violence, and the importance of open debate to bring about changes in Republican politics.  Those excerpts, along with an introduction by me and comments of my own to give context to Catney’s remarks and transition between topics, was published this morning at The Pensive Quill.

The essay is long, so rather than reprint it here, follow the link above to read it at TPQ, and then check out the earlier excerpts as well.

Memory, identity, and politics

IMG_1681On February 24, 1988, two members of the Ulster Defense Regiment were killed by a 200-lb IRA bomb detonated in the center of Belfast, where the Castlecourt Shopping Centre was under construction. A follow-up second bomb, intended for police and soldiers responding to the first blast, failed to go off and was defused by the army. Yesterday morning, 27 years after the event, an annual parade and memorial service effectively closed down access to the commercial center of the city for more than an hour.

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