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Monday, March 16, 2009

Troubles and Hopes

The New York Times brought me to tears this morning, which doesn’t happen very often. I haven’t even been skimming it lately, to tell the truth. Aside from being busy, I haven’t felt the need to read one more article on AIG. But the murder of three police officers in two different incidents at the hands of an IRA faction sent me to the Times and this opinion piece by David Park, which describes how people in Northern Ireland reacted to the possibility of resumed violence:
Across towns and cities people of all traditions assembled to protest in dignified but powerful silence. There was a constant reiteration that what had been achieved could not now be lost, that a peace process, for all its problems, could not be usurped and subverted by the gun.
Park goes on to describe the united condemnation of politicians who a decade or two ago were sworn enemies.

When I visited Belfast in 1982, British soldiers patrolled the Falls, the Catholic neighborhood that was lined with pro-IRA graffiti and sentiment. You could feel the tension—the fear of the young soldiers and the fear and resentment of the few people on the streets. I had gone with a friend from my study abroad program in Dublin, another American of Irish Catholic ancestry. We both had a prurient desire to see “the Troubles” ourselves. We walked up the Falls Road, past the soldiers and the graffiti until we reached a place where we could cut over to Shankill, the Protestant neighborhood that ran parallel to the Falls. Shankill was noticeably more affluent and less tense, despite the cross streets that ended in barbed wire, guarding the no man’s land that separated them from the Falls. When the British army moved into Northern Ireland in 1969 it was supposedly to protect the Catholics from the Protestants, but by 1982, it seemed to be the other way around. The Falls was under siege. I have no trouble understanding why people wouldn’t want to go back.

I met a young man from Belfast a few years ago who thought I was crazy to have taken this walk before he was born, but I never felt unsafe. In fact, I never felt so conspicuously American, gaping at the signs of conflict with my friend as we walked up and down the troubled hill. It was my first experience of being in a place of violent conflict (unless you count West Philadelphia), and there was something moving about being there. A year later I wrote my honor’s thesis comparing the genesis of the IRA with that of the PLO. I’m sure someone could write a thesis today on why the peace process in Northern Ireland has worked better than the one in the Middle East, but what I want to write today is a celebration of the apparent triumph of sanity. I want to celebrate people like John and Diana Lampen, British Quakers who worked for peace in Northern Ireland for many years, and the folks who run the Ulster Project, a program that brings Catholic and Protestant teenagers from Northern Ireland (Ulster) to stay in the United States, where it is easier for them to build relationships than it would be back home. In fact, the young man from Belfast whom I met was staying with good friends who live in Milwaukee. The host teenager, Andrew Pauly, made a video commemorating the experience.

Rewatching Andrew’s video, I’m stuck by the simple importance of building relationships. Young people who would have never met at home—because they went to different schools and lived on different sides of what are now called “peace lines”—got a chance to bond and begin a new history. I can’t help but suspect that some of them were in the crowd at the peace rally last week.


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