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.

 

“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.

 

Some thoughts on field research

Photo Feb 29, 4 50 00 PMThis is my sixth research trip to Northern Ireland since 2008. In that time I think I’ve learned some lessons about how to do field research, or at least how do field research. Everyone’s experience will vary, and these are by no means intended as advice that anyone else ought to follow. Where you are matters, what you want to learn matters, your individual comfort level matters. But these things have worked for me, at least so far.

So here in no particular order, are some of the things that guide the way I go about doing what it is I do when I come over here.

1. Talk to everyone. The fellow sitting in the pub playing guitar in the middle of the afternoon may have no first-hand knowledge of the things you are interested in, but he may know someone who does. And the insights of regular everyday people are just as valuable in the grand scheme of things as are those of your “real” subjects. Sometimes mores.

2. Be approachableLet people know that they can talk to you. I have found that sitting in a cafe or pub with my journal and writing often elicits questions from folk sitting around you. That can start conversation. See #1 above.

3. Be flexible. Let what you learn guide where your research goes. When I first came over I was chasing a particular research topic, but the more people I talked to, the more I found that there were other, more interesting, and frankly more significant questions I could be asking. So I have pursued those instead.

4. Make contacts everywhere you can. Then follow up. Don’t assume people won’t talk to you. Especially if they are politically involved, they likely will have an agenda or a perspective that they want to share, and you will be a vehicle for them to do so. The only way to know is to ask. I have a raft of new contacts this trip that I need to follow up on, and while some of them will be able to speak directly to my current project, others are more tangential. Even so, what I learn from them may be more useful than I know right now, and if nothing else, I may be able to use what I learn from them in the future. See #3 above.

5. Get a local mobile phone number. Roaming charges are the path to the poorhouse.

6. It’s going to cost you an arm and a leg. Unless you are fortunate enough to have some outside research funds to cover some of the costs, it’s best just to acknowledge that your finances will take a hit. I do my best to keep my costs down, but some things, like international air travel and having some place clean, safe, and comfortable enough to stay in, are unavoidable expenses. But get a local sim card for your phone. See #5.

7. Meet people on their own terms. When I ask to meet with someone to conduct an interview, I let them decide where and when. While I am very conscious of my safety, I also know that it is up to me to put them at ease. So, if a contact wants to meet in the lobby of a hotel, or their office, or wants to pick me up in their car and drive me up the road to their home, or for me to leave the city and meet with them on their home ground, then I do it. If someone is willing to meet, and I can get there and back by bus or train, then my answer has (so far) been yes.

8. You are there to learn, not to lectureWhile I will asking probing questions, I am not there to argue, to challenge, or to lecture my contacts on their politics, their perspectives, or their experience. I take them at face value and trust that the weight of information I will gather over the course of a research trip (or several) will put things in proper context. I tell my contacts that I am there to learn from them. They are the experts. If I already had the answers I wouldn’t need to come over here.

9. Every experience is valuable. Even if I can’t use it in my writing, I have found that my teaching has been deeply enriched by the trips I have made over here, and my students are the net beneficiaries. And, on a personal level, I have been enriched by the friendships I have made over the years, the things I have seen, and the people I have met.

10. Good work takes time. As I said at the outset, this is the sixth trip I have made here since 2008, and while I have presented various aspects of what I have learned on these trips at research conferences, and the experiences find their way into my lectures on terrorism and state violence, I haven’t published anything yet. There are two main reasons. First, until this trip, all of my visits have been short, a week to 10 days in total duration. That has limited the number of people I can meet, the number of contacts I can follow up, the interviews I can do. One trip is simply not enough, unless it is for an extended period of time that allows you to build relationships, build trust, and build up your set of contacts.  Second, I have consciously chosen not to publish out of concern that doing so would burn bridges prematurely. Because I want and need to talk to a variety of actors across the various political and sectarian divisions here (and boy are there a lot of those) to get as full a picture as I can, I am careful not alienate anyone that I might want to reach out to again in the future. That may be overly cautious on my part, but so be it. At this point in my career I have the luxury of time.

11. Enjoy it. There’s a reason that I bring my dulcimer when I come here.

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The dulcimer made its session debut at Kelly’s Cellars in 2012.