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 …

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.

 

Some things change … at least visually

Sandy Row 1

Since my last visit, one of the most famous paramilitary murals in all of Northern Ireland was replaced with something … less paramilitary. Gone is the old Ulster Freedom Fighters mural (seen above) that for years welcomed visitors to the Loyalist stronghold of Sandy Row. In its place is a new mural (seen below) that still marks the neighborhood as Loyalist territory but does so through a less-menacing, more acceptable historical reference, King Billy, who passed through the area on his way to fight the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

Sandy Row 2

In the nearly 20 years since the Belfast Agreement most of the paramilitary murals in Republican areas have been replaced with ones celebrating culture and heritage, or less problematic aspects of local history. Loyalist areas have been much slower to follow suit. East Belfast, in particular, continues to boast more than its share of menacing imagery.  Some traces still remain in Sandy Row, but they are fading, the paint chipping of the wall, and in some places splashed with graffiti.

The repainting of murals was part of a concerted effort at neighborhood renewal, an effort to rebrand Republican and Loyalist communities alike as progressive and inclusive. Unfortunately, like plastic surgery, changes like this generally only skin deep.