July 12th is a day to watch in Northern Ireland. The annual Orange Order parade– the highlight of a months-long marching season– commemorates the 1690 Battle of Boyne defeat of forces of Catholic King James II by those of Protestant King William of Orange. It was the beginning of Protestant control of Ireland and the heavy hand of the British on every Irish neck. This Friday there will be Ulster marching bands and carousers , unionists and to a lesser degree nationalists marching provocatively near and through each other’s neighborhoods, and the evening before lighting bonfires, burning flags, other symbols and effigies. Some level of violence is expected. Weeks ago, huge piles of wood kindling were being assembled in restive areas of Belfast, where “The Troubles”- the euphemism for the sectarian strife that caused more than 3600 deaths- still drive emotions.
Our trip to Belfast was profoundly disturbing. While tourists are flocking to Northern Island to visit the Giant’s Causeway, Game of Thrones sites and the Titanic Museum, a visit to the heart of The Troubles area in parts of Belfast reveals tales of enduring sectarian hatreds. [ According to the 2011 census, 48 percent of N. Ireland residents are or were brought up Protestant and 45 percent Catholic. Since then the gap has grown even smaller.] At its core the conflict is less about Protestants versus Catholics as much as cultural identity, pitting those loyal to Great Britain and the English language against those who want to unite with the Republic of Ireland and embrace two languages. More than two decades since the 1998 Good Friday peace accords, tensions are never far from the surface.
The city center may be neutral and people can walk freely among bomb-protected buildings; not so the outlying areas. In west Belfast, for example, graffiti on Bombay Street celebrates the martyrs of the traditional IRA and the newer, more violent Provisional IRA. Billboards glorify violent activists, often shown in balaclava masks to conceal their faces. “Prepared for peace. Ready for war,” proclaims one mural. Other paintings glorify affinity with Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela and the Palestinians. IRA “No Surrender” signs urge continued resistance to British occupation of Ireland.The Republican Network for Unity (RNU) declares “Our struggle continues.”
Paramilitary groups exert pressure on both sides. Not far away is a loyalist neighborhood that honors military heroes of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), which ruled for the British with an iron fist. The UVF, UDA (Ulster Defense Association) and other groups are still recruiting. Graffiti here lionizes authoritarian leaders like Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump. In a time of so-called peace, heavy iron gates between loyalists along Shankill Road and the republicans along Falls Road open at eight a.m. but close at six in the evening.
Gangs are restructuring themselves, partly defined by the level of violence their members embrace. Many control explosives and guns never decommissioned during the peace process and are actively recruiting new members.
Each anniversary of a terrorist bombing or unanswered shooting even decades ago raises new anxieties about possible retaliation. Shootings have increased, with police officers and security forces often the target. Journalist Lyra McKee, 29, who covered The Troubles for several publications, was gunned down while standing near a police car 70 miles away from Belfast in Derry April 18. Riots there were spawned by a police action against dissidents in the so-called new IRA, which is opposed to the peace process. More mainstream parties called the McKee killing a “futile and pointless” attempt to unravel the gains achieved by the Peace Process over two decades. As recently as a year ago, homes belonging to leaders of Sinn Fein, including Gerry Adams, were bombed to protest those who want to proceed nonviolently. In short, the situation is a dangerous mess, and we’re not getting the story here.
Coverage of the June 15th funeral of former Provisional IRA leader Billie McKee reflects the divide. The more Catholic Irish Times quoted a mourner as saying “Billy remained steadfast to the end and had no regrets, despite all the hardship that he endured for his republicanism.” By contrast, the more Protestant, loyalist Belfast Telegraph declared “McKee died a bitter and twisted old man,” forever opposed to the Sinn Fein peace strategy. Throughout the divided community, children, we were told, are growing up imbued with the same hatreds that their parents and their grandparents bore toward neighbors with different loyalties.
Anxieties are growing about the implications of a hard Brexit for this tenuous situation. Northern Ireland voted to stay in the European Union but could be dragged in the opposite direction if/when the UK leaves the EU. Growing fears focus on whether restoration of a militarized border crossing will undo whatever peace gains have been achieved through the Good Friday Accords. Donald Trump’s cavalier embrace of good walls during his June visit didn’t help the situation, where danger lurks just around the corner. It’s a story most U.S. media are not covering, but it is very threatening and terribly worrisome to anyone who cares about the people in that wonderful island.
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