Sunday, May 21

Hope

[Because this is getting a bit long, I'm splitting it into two parts. The other half is called 'The Green']

My time in Alicante ended on a high note. I spent my last night with several friends that I had met there, including Gill from the U.K., Charles from Laval, Annika from Sweden, and Andrej from Poland, along with several of Gill's friends from the U.S. We drank wine on the beach, and given that the nicest part of Alicante is its castle, which rises up in the city center, the beach has a nice atmosphere. Listening to the waves from the sea and having the illuminated castle behind is hard to beat.

The next day I flew to Belfast. It's a very pretty city, but the violence [or as the locals call it, The Troubles] of the last forty years overshadows most everything. The people tend to be somewhat closed, and with good reason. During the height of The Troubles, over twenty bombs were set off in the city on the same day.

Although most people tend to regard the fighting as being of a religious nature, the Protestants versus the Catholics, the problems stem more from politics. The Protestants call themselves Loyalists, meaning loyal to the British Crown. The Catholics are referred to as Nationalists, who want all of the island to be part of the Republic.

Religion and political beliefs coincide because the Protestants are descendents of British colonizers who arrived in the 17th and 18th centuries, and who mostly settled in the northern part of the island. Very few Irish converted from Catholicism to Protestantism.

The reason that the Irish resent the British so much is that the British oppressed anyone Irish (and after the Lutharian movement reached Britain, anyone Catholic) for centuries. Because most of the Loyalists were concentrated in and around Belfast in the north eastern corner of the island, they were able to keep their area a part of the U.K. when the rest obtained independence in 1922. The Catholics in the north felt that they were being held hostage. The Republic even broke down into a civil war for several years after independence over whether they had conceded too much to the British by leaving them the northern chunk of the island.

The Catholics in the north were kept out of government jobs, which were reserved for Protestants. The Protestants argued that it wasn't possible to work alongside the Nationalists, and so this was the only way to keep the peace in the places where Protestants worked.

Still, there was an uneasy peace for the next forty years. The tensions finally boiled over in the late 1960's. The Catholics decided to copy the civil rights movements of the black community in the United States, but when they held mostly peaceful demonstrations, they were brutally oppressed. A spiral of violence ensued, culminating in perhaps the most infamous tragedy, Bloody Sunday, on January 30, 1972. 13 peaceful protesters were killed by the British army in Derry, a town west of Belfast. The violence continued for thirty years. During this period, the arguments of the Loyalists were more popular due to the Republic being stuck in a horrible economic depression since it's founding.

Over the years, two major things have changed. The first is that the Republic's economy exploded in the 1990's. In many ways, Ireland has become just as rich as the U.K. And as the economy shows no signs of slowing, it may even surpass the U.K. in the next decade or two. The second change is that the demographics in the North are changing. Mostly because the Catholic church bars birth control, Catholic families tend to be much larger. Within one more generation, the Catholics will make up the majority of the population. These two factors laid the ground for a peace deal, often referred to as the Good Friday Agreement, signed on that day in 1998. Perhaps the most significant part of it was that in the future the status of the north would be decided by democratic referendum, which heavily favors the Nationalists. It's of course uncertain that the peace will last through such a referendum, regardless of the outcome.

The I.R.A [Irish Republican Army] formally abandoned violent actions last year, and have not killed anyone for several years before that. They have transformed themselves [hopefully permanently] into a purely political organization. Though they have had a political wing, Sinn Fein [pronounced Shin Fane, meaning 'I, Myself' in Irish] since the mid 1970's, it has always co-existed with the terrorist organization up until last year. Incidentally, it was strange to walk through the Catholic neighborhoods and see memorials dedicated to the 'soldiers of the Republic who have given their lives in the fight for freedom'. Everywhere else in the world the I.R.A. is considered simply as a group of terrorists, and with good reason. There's no excuse for killing innocent people in London in the name of freedom for Northern Ireland.

The most striking part Belfast are the wall murals, which are gigantic graffiti paintings, either on houses (authorized by their owners) or on the so-called Peace Walls, gigantic barriers reminiscent of the one in Cold War Berlin, designed to forcibly separate Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. These murals are very impressive in terms of artistic talent, but the message very disturbing. Most of the murals feature large 'soldiers', their faces covered by ski masks, pointing rocket launchers at you with such messages as 'This We Will Defend', and a British flag in the background. The Catholics counter with tributes to members of the I.R.A. There are also many impressive murals in Derry.

For a sample of the murals, check out http://peacelinetours.g2gm.com/murals.html
and for a complete list, go to http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/mccormick/albumlist.htm

While there, I also met two people from the couchsurfing website. The first, Maria, is from Paraguay, and is teaching Spanish classes in Belfast. I was quite surprised to be able to carry on most of the conversation in Spanish. The other person that I met, Paul, gave me a nice tour of the various areas of the city. Being born and raised in Belfast, he was able to explain the history of the town very well. Still, he said that he wouldn't be comfortable stopping his car in certain neighborhoods at night.

3 Comments:

Blogger Mikhaël Bélanger said...

Hey Ian, Mike here from Belfast.

Great summary of the history of Norther Ireland! Plenty of details I didnt uncover over there.

Nice knowing you, will meet you later in Montreal.

Cheers!

6:29 AM  
Blogger ian said...

thanks :)

i'll keep up with your blog as well, and i'll be in touch after i'm back in montreal!

ian.

4:41 PM  
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7:48 PM  

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