Northern Ireland: On the crossroads of war and peace

Catholic Belfast is in Irish colors: green, white and orange. Protestant Belfast wears the colors of Great Britain: blue, white and red. Doors, window frames, curbs, benches, even garbage bins are painted according to the neighbourhood they happen to be in. The murals glorify the fighters supporting their own cause and threaten their opponents. Even now, after a quarter of a century of peace, Catholics and Protestants live separately -- and that applies from separate schools to separate final resting places.

Is twenty-five years of peace in Northern Ireland a long time? Yes -- especially given that it amounts to only a few years less than the duration of period of acute conflict known as "The Troubles", years that were marked by acts of terror and street clashes. And yet, even to this day, the animosity between the two communities of the province has not been completely erased. As is often said, there is peace in Northern Ireland, but it cannot yet be called lasting peace -- an assessment very close to the truth.

The peace agreement, setting out the rules for the functioning of Northern Ireland, with its complex structure -- at the junction of two communities, two countries, two parts of one island -- was signed on Good Friday, April 10, 1998. Unintentionally or not, the signatories added to a tradition of sorts that somehow sets the timing of significant events that occur in Ireland within what is broadly understood as the Easter period. So it is that the celebrations of the 25th anniversary are being held within this same timeframe -- some having taken place already, others yet to come. Capping the commemorations was last week's visit to Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland by US President Joe Biden. A highlight of a related conference in Belfast's Queens University that started on April 17 is the presence of former President Bill Clinton, whose administration played such a key role in supporting the peace talks that made the agreement possible.

That the anniversary was marked by the high caliber presence of both the current and former US presidents served to attract renewed media attention to the ongoing complexities of this singular achievement that until recently had drawn none. Were it not for the challenging problems presented by the special status of Northern Ireland within the post-Brexit context, Ulster might even have fallen off the media radar completely, an outcome that should have made the province's inhabitants happy. In the past, when Northern Ireland was in the news more or less on a daily basis, hardly a day went by without attacks, bombs, riots and casualties being headlined around the world.

City under siege

I first came to Belfast by train from Dublin back when Northern Ireland was that -- a grimly recurring item in world news headlines. I knew what was going on in the city, but from the very outset what I experienced surpassed my expectations. On arrival at your destination, you couldn’t just take your suitcase, exit train and station and go into the city. Instead, you joined a long queue of passengers -- all documents had to be checked before you could proceed on your way.

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I was a bit surprised, because it seemed logical to me that such a check should have taken place at departure rather than on arrival. But who would follow logic in a place governed by completely different laws? Safety and security were paramount. Later I also found out that one could not leave one’s belongings at the station because there were no left luggage storage facilities in the whole of Northern Ireland. Understandably so. Anyone who watches detective stories or spy thrillers knows perfectly well how a storage facility can be abused for other purposes.

  There was a palpable tension in Belfast. That may sound trivial, but that's how it was. The atmosphere was fueled by the sight of police and military foot patrols scouring the city day and night, blockades and barriers dividing even the main streets, cars halted in front of them so that their trunks could be checked, and above, the monotonous whirling beat of helicopters constantly circling over the city. Then there was the lasting impression of the military armored vehicles that patrolled by, their machine guns protruding from rooftop turrets.

All of this, nonetheless, had an unexpected good side: the capital of Northern Ireland was the safest city in Europe. That is if you didn't accidentally find yourself in a place where a bomb had been planted waiting for its time, or if you weren't caught in the line of fire from one of the numerous paramilitary groups such as the Catholic Irish Republican Army (IRA) or the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), the Protestant Ulster Defense Association (UDA) or the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF). If you were prepared to take all that into account, sure, you could walk around the city, unafraid of bandits or even pickpockets.

Add to all that the barbed wire entanglements and barriers that surrounded the more important buildings. Interestingly, perhaps the most protected building was the legendary "Europa" hotel, a favorite target of the terrorists. Throughout the conflict, dozens of bombs exploded in its vicinity and not without reason. After all, the hotel, which was then the best in the city, was frequented by visiting foreign journalists and various prominent guests. The propaganda value of any explosion in that locale was immense.

Beechmount Avenue located in Catholic West Belfast deserves special mention. It was commonly referred to as "RPG Alley", after the grenade launcher. Because of configuration of the streets there, military patrols were constantly being ambushed. Soldiers who had the courage or misfortune to venture into such parts of the city were regularly greeted with grenades.

Under the cover of walls and colors

Catholic districts dominate in West Belfast, Protestant districts -- in East Belfast. The northern part of the city has a mixed population (the southern too but it was more affluent and therefore less targetted). My interlocutors would always stress that the northern districts were the most dangerous. This explains why most of the high concrete walls separating Protestants and Catholics from one another were built there.

Sometimes glibly and ironically dismissed as "walls of peace" yet wrongly so since the name accurately reflected the reality they served. The walls gave a sense of security and ensured peace in their immediate surroundings. They featured access passages, which were open during the day, but were closed at night to prevent hostile militias from entry. Thanks to this concrete curfew, the inhabitants were able to sleep peacefully. And actually, today they still can since the walls did not disappear after the Good Friday Agreement. On the contrary, new ones were erected -- proof of how great the mistrust is that still divides Catholic and Protestant.
An Irish Republican mural in the Bogside area of Derry, near the home of Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, who died in March 2017. The former IRA leader became a peacemaker and stood alongside the leaders of the Democratic Unionist Party after the Good Friday Agreement. Photo: PAP/EPA, PAUL MCERLANE
The working-class neighborhoods that were the breeding ground for the paramilitary groups of both communities are very similar. East and West Belfast have the same rows of modest, grey, brick houses. And yet everyone immediately knows where he is thanks to the predominant colors. Catholic Belfast features the distinctive, green white and orange stripes of the Irish tricolor. Protestant Belfast wears the colors of Great Britain: blue, white and red. Doors, window frames, kerbs, benches, even garbage cans are painted in the identifying colors of their respective communities. And if that is not enough, there are the defining murals that glorify each community's self-proclaimed fighters and threaten their opponents.

Even now, after more than 20 years of peace, Catholics and Protestants live apart. From separate schools to separate final resting places -- yes, even if they are buried in the same cemetery, they are distanced from each other. Before the agreement, taxi drivers used to refuse to drive to the other side's neighborhood as a rule. Exiting the border of one's own community, and not just its physical deliniation, could, and still can be, a source of trouble.

Aidan Poilin, director of the ULTACH Trust, an organization preserving the Irish language and traditions, tells me: "I inherited from my father and grandfather a house and three acres of land. They were leasing the property to a Protestant family. I was thinking of selling the farm. But after my father's funeral, a village delegation came to ask me not to do it. Why? Because the potential buyer was a Protestant whose cousin had once killed a Catholic.”

Or the issue of mixed marriages. "Don't believe when politicians tell you it can be done without any consequences," William, a Protestant taxi driver, told me. "My wife is Catholic. When I married her, my father and brother were expelled from the Orange Order [a conservative, British unionist and Ulster loyalist organisation]. They both broke off contact with me. My brother's anger subsided, but my father did not say a word to me for the rest of his life. "

Gerry, the/friend next door

Those engaged in the negotiations that led to the conclusion of the Good Friday Agreement included not only politicians and peace activists. There were also former terrorists. I had the opportunity to meet two of them.

Gerry Adams. A Catholic, from a family very involved in the IRA, himself a member of the organization's Military Council and -- something he does not admit to -- apparently its chief of staff. In the early 1970s, he was briefly imprisoned. Later, he headed the political wing of the IRA, the Sinn Fein party [in Gaelic the name means "Ourselves Alone" i.e. without the English], thus becoming the main implementer of the policy of the parallel conduct of political and armed struggle.

David Ervine. A Protestant, member of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), one of the oldest and most dangerous loyalist paramilitary groups. In 1972, at the age of 19, he was arrested by an army patrol. Materials for a bomb were found in the trunk of the stolen car he was driving. Sentenced to eleven years in prison, he served eight in the infamous Maze Prison. After being released, he broke with terrorism and joined the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP). He later became its leader.

Both of these two leaders, albeit in different circumstances, came to the conclusion that militant terrorism was not a good way to achieve their respective goals -- that it would neither unify Ireland nor create a society of harmony and peace. Both chose to participate in the negotiations which concluded with the signing of the agreement.

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My conversation with Gerry Adams took place at Connolly House, the main headquarters of Sinn Fein in Andersonstown, Belfast's Catholic district. Although he was an hour late, waiting for him wasn't a waste of time since I was able to observe what was happening in the party's headquarter. This was before the IRA had announced the ceasefire, a time when it was a pariah on the political scene, yet a source of huge support to the common people. The building was busy, people were coming and going, asking for help, for advice, for Irish lessons. Many were inquiring as to when Gerry would arrive. It was evident that he was seen not just as a party leader, but as a good friend from the neighbourhood. Not Mr. Adams. Just Gerry.

However, as an interlocutor he turned out to be difficult. He avoided specifics, spoke in general terms about the need for peace, and consistently adhered to the line that Sinn Fein and the IRA were completely separate entities, although the close ties between them were no secret to anyone. While sipping tea with milk from a large mug, he assured me that he himself didn’t and couldn’t have any influence over decisions made by the IRA command, since they were guided by considerations known only to that structure.

With a bomb in the trunk

David Ervine, to the contrary, was eloquent and open, one of the best conversationalists I met in Northern Ireland. I'd been warned that he didn't like to talk about his UVF past and that it would be better not to go there. But it turned out to be just the opposite. "Please ask, Madame [a form of address he was clearly fond of using], I'll tell you," he insisted.

I knew the facts. Motives and circumstances were more interesting. Ervine joined the UVF in his teens, as did many of his young neighbors in his working-class Belfast district. In his case, the catalyst was Bloody Friday, July 21, 1972, the day the IRA carried out a series of more than twenty bombings in Belfast. A neighbour of Ervine's was among the nine victims killed that day. "Were you really ready to kill too?" I asked somewhat naively. "Of course," he replied. “Because what I was supposed to do, I wanted to do well.

At least until the day he was arrested. Where did the bomb in his car come from? This was the only question my interlocutor didn’t want to answer. "I never talk about it. During the trial, I said I didn't know. And I will stick to that.”

Prison opened up a new life for Ervine. It was there that he realized that terror leads nowhere. This was made clear to him and other young prisoners by none other than Gusty Spence himself, a revered figure among the Protestant paramilitaries, the leader of the UVF, who was later to become an ardent supporter of peace talks. Protestants and Catholics, let us remember, were housed in separate blocks in the Maze; yet it's not hard to imagine how it would end up putting them together.
The then First Minister of Northern Ireland Ian Paisley (left) and his deputy Martin McGuinness after being sworn into office. Ceremony at Stormont, Belfast, May 8, 2007. Photo: Paul Faith -- POOL New / Reuters / Forum
Did Spence's words also convince others? David Ervine wasn't sure. In his view, despite the agreement, recruitment to paramilitary groups did not stop, but actually intensified. When he was young, he said, there were 500-600 people in loyalist paramilitary groups. Now there could be several times more.

Why? In the past, Catholics considered themselves to be an underprivileged community, and indeed they were. Decisions to level the playing field, such as requiring companies to employ Catholics in proportion to their percentage in the population, made Protestants feel threatened. In addition, many had lost their jobs. The Belfast shipyard, a powerful employer that once employed 30,000 people [this is where the "Titanic" was built], needed only 10 percent of the old number. Many Protestants felt that now they were the ones in need of protection and defending.

The Progressive Unionist Party represented a small group that did not have a decisive influence on the course of the peace talks. However, its mere presence was important, and Ervine was the party's active participant. Both he and Gerry Adams were later elected to the Northern Irish Parliament. When David Ervine died unexpectedly in 2007, Gerry Adams attended the funeral. Before 1998, this would have been unthinkable.

Pastor and terrorist

What can you say to the people of Northern Ireland today? President Joe Biden took an easy route out, summing up the successes, especially the economic dividends, that the peace brought to the province. He also encouraged the Ulster parties to return to co-governance. The province has been without a government for a year, its formation blocked by Unionists, dissatisfied with the treatment of Ulster in the Brexit agreement.

Yet the key point of the Good Friday Agreement is shared governance – a “mandatory coalition” as it is called. There is only one condition: that the largest Catholic party and the largest Protestant party must participate in the government, treated equally, regardless of their real strength. However, since the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the largest Protestant party, refuses to form a government for Brexit-related reasons, such a government cannot be created.

This specific system, even if it is a purely formal procedure, because true reconciliation of both communities is still a long way off, is designed to ensure that all residents of Northern Ireland feel that no one is left on the sidelines. On the occasion of the anniversary, this aspect is underlined, with utmost care, of course, but words alone will not work miracles. True, there have been swallows that, while they may not have made a spring, have served as a symbol.

One such symbolic manifestation of astonishing reconciliation was the friendship of the Rev. Ian Paisley, the long-time DUP leader, with Martin McGuinness, a member of the IRA leadership (something he did not deny although claiming to have left the organization in the 1970s). It is hard to imagine people who could be more opposed to one another -- so much so that in pre-agreement times, they wouldn't as much as shake hands.

However, the paths of sympathy and friendship are inexplicable. The pastor and the paramilitary are now remembered as two cheerful gentlemen who felt great in each other's company. “I lost a friend,” McGuinness said with obvious regret when Ian Paisley died in 2014. If someone had told him six years earlier that he would mourn the death of the most intransigent of Unionists, he would not have believed it himself.

– Teresa Stylińska

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Agnieszka Rakoczy
Main photo: US President Joe Biden in Belfast for the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Peace Agreement in Northern Ireland, meeting British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, April 12, 2023. Photo: PAP/ Newscom -- Simon Walker, No 10 Downing Stree, UPI Photo
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