Friday, November 5, 2010

2 months in, some reflections.

Hiking in Northern Ireland: the tough climb up a mountain is not always rewarded with a fantastic view at the summit.

First with climbing Slieve Donard and just this past week with climbing Slieve League in the Republic of Ireland, both trips were cold, windy, rainy, and treacherous. (As one YAV commented during the trek up Slieve League, “The word epic is overused. But it definitely applies to this climb.”) At both of the summits, we could see at most 20 feet in front of us and nothing of the fantastic view that was advertised on brochures and websites.

Trying to comprehend my experiences in Northern Ireland – what I have seen and heard – is comparable to these hikes. Like the tough climb up the mountain, with a strong headwind against me, I struggle to process what I see and here during my days here. And often when I think I have reached an understanding – similar to reaching the summit - I am quite limited in my viewpoint (20 feet) and feel like I am not able to take into consideration the breadth and variety of what is happening around me.

To help myself organize this blogpost – which also helps you the reader to process it along with me – I will organize it around three topics/ questions: 1) The Troubles – what are the aftershocks still present in Northern Ireland? 2) What does peace and reconciliation really mean? 3) What is the future for Northern Ireland?

Please keep in mind that these reflections are simply those of a volunteer who has been here 2 months. (I will likely revisit the topics several times throughout the year to see how my opinions change.) During those intense two months though, I diligently kept my eyes and ears open throughout my daily life. No outside research was done; it was just learning through being in this society.

The Troubles: A Vocal Minority and a Silenced Majority

This pattern of the troubles continues through this day. After 30-odd years of open hostilities, the various political parties (Sinn Fein, Progressive Unionist Party particularly) have committed to promoting peace. So at a macro-level, the peace process is at the best stage in many years. Yet while the official position is for peace, certain members do not wish it to be so. While most of the society yearns for peace, the vocal minority is not ready to let peace happen and are making their voices heard through continued bomb threats and rioting . The basic political loyalties of Northern Ireland: Nationalist – Republican – Unionist – Loyalist: are the same today as the past few decades. The thing to bear in mind is that the Troubles were not a simple affair of one side versus the other.

In addition to the political sides of the conflict, the police force was and is often viewed by the multiple sides as the enemy – whether as an occupying force or simply distrusted in their allegiances. (The NI police do not have so great a track record of human rights towards citizens.) While they have been renamed the PSNI (Police Services of Northern Ireland, formerly Royal Ulster Constabulary - issues right there in the name), there are still visible signs of the uneasy relationship between the police and the people they serve. Such as: police stations are well-barricaded with giant walls around them. The few random police checkpoints that I have seen, the police are at the ready with semi-automatic rifles. (Not just sidearms in their holsters; semi-automatics ready to fire.) Another major sign: If you have followed any news in Belfast recently, in North Belfast (not too near where the guys are living), there was a police raid in Rathcoole (one of the estates – government funded living subdivisions in essence) where they were looking for drugs. [Rathcoole is a heavily Loyalist neighborhood, once - and probably still - controlled by a loyalist paramilitary organization – Ulster Volunteer Force - UVF.] In response, there were several days of rioting. Courtesy of half-term break, children were available and unoccupied, and likely by the encouragement of parents and support by other leaders in the community, mostly youth – even as young as 9 years old - were involved in the violence. As a result, along with other property damage, two city buses were burnt, and bus services to the city were halted until things calmed down.

Of all the Northern Irish people that I have interacted with, they have all expressed the desire to see peace in the nation. (But just what that peace might look like is to be decided - see the future of N.I.) I have heard people argue that today’s troubles are caused by ignorant youth who just didn’t know better. But why don’t they know better?

Education in Northern is segregated. A recent NI public official stated as such and has received an extreme amount of flack for it. But he was correct. Only a small minority of schools are actually cross-community. (Less than 10%.) Many children are growing up in schools and neighborhoods with people of the same identity as themselves. And these people of different identities are simply enemies without a face, and these assumptions are reinforced by their parents who have grown up only knowing the same thing.

And many people I have talked to – who are educated, wonderful people – harbor these same prejudices against other N.I. residents who are different than them, whether they like to admit it or not. These prejudices have been forced upon them by the history of this society. The majority of Northern Ireland Protestants would shudder if you told them that they were “Irish.” They would say first, and foremost, that they are British. (To put it in different terms: in 1783, say that the loyalist state of New York was held on to by the British. It remained a British colony for another two hundred years. Then today, the residents would be told that they were no longer British citizens, but rather Native Americans. Because obviously they have lived in America long enough, that they are now Native Americans. For those residents, they would still consider themselves British, not Native Americans or Americans. Hence the problems of a Northern Irish/Irish/ British identity.) Few would say that they are Northern Irish. They might live in Northern Ireland, but it’s not a cultural identity. They naturally view the Catholic Irish residents of Northern Ireland as different than themselves, and consequently dissidents who are in opposition to the ruling powers.

So how does one even begin to reconcile the various sides of this conflict? There have been countless bomb threats and bombs planted throughout Belfast and Northern Ireland even in the two months that I have been here. It is people who simply are scared of what the future might hold and thinking that their voices are not being heard. But there are greater forces at work. Dozens and dozens of organizations are working towards increasing dialogue between the various sides. (Each of the Norn Iron YAVs is working with an organization which has reconciliation in mind. And these are just a drop in a vast ocean of peace-minded groups in Belfast, much less Northern Ireland.) This is where the future of Northern Ireland comes into question.

From my observations and hearing various opinions on it, it seems that Northern Ireland at some point will cease to exist; it’s just a matter of when reunification with the South will happen. There are still many factors to address – the barriers that people have put up both in their minds and also in their cities to protect themselves from people who are different than them. In the reunification process, many British Northern Irelanders will have to choose whether to return the country that they are identifying with or choose to assimilate more into the culture of the place that they are living. However, the population of Northern Ireland is already more 50/50 Catholic/ Protestant versus even twenty years ago when Protestants maintained a strong majority.

The 30 years of the Troubles are over, but Northern Ireland is not a peaceful society yet. Its citizens have not overcome their differences and are still divided by them. These divisions are visible through the touristy murals, but also more subtle ways of demographics of neighborhoods, demographics of schools, and ultimately internal prejudices. There won’t be peace until paramilitary organizations disband. There won’t be peace until the people trust their police force. But peace will someday happen.

We are standing at the top of the mountain. There has been a lot that has been learned and struggled with, and the view that presents itself is rather hazy. It makes sense, but at the same time, many questions are clouding up our vision. But that is part of the experience of Northern Ireland – continuing to struggle with the hope that some day the clouds will clear out once we reach the top.

Until then, I pray for peace and reconciliation, not only for the people of Northern Ireland, but also all of the people of the world. That despite our differences and the prejudices that we innately have against those who are different from us, we do not let our own shortcomings get in the way.

“I am who I am because of who we all are.”

In peace and grace.

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