I subscribe to The New York Times, my friends to The Wall Street Journal. Both newspapers are targeted to the intellectual reader. So, why is it so difficult to discuss matters of importance?
The daughter of an Irish Catholic mother and a father of Irish Protestant descent, I stood in the opening of a peace wall in Belfast, Ireland, pondering the lessons of history. On this misty spring day in 2019, decades after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 settled the “Troubles” of Northern Ireland, the gate still closes at 7:00 p.m., reopens at 7:00 a.m. Both sides feel safer knowing violence cannot be hurled in darkness over a wall 40’ high, 4’ thick, and extending 6’ below the ground.
“They would have you believe this was a war about religion. It was not.”
He, the first of our two tour guides, stood outside Divis Tower, not far from City Hall, the place where the Troubles began.
“It started as a civil rights march from Belfast to Derry,” one of the thought-leaders behind the October 1968 march, explained. “We fashioned the protest after the Civil Right movement in the United States. We wanted equal opportunities for all, including the right to own property, to earn a decent wage, to have one person get one vote—regardless of whether one was Catholic or Protestant. After hundreds of years of conflict, we believed we could bring change to Northern Ireland and end discrimination through peaceful protest. We were wrong.”
On the fourth day, as they neared Derry, the protesters were ambushed. Over 300 loyalists (supporters of the union between the Protestant British monarchy and Northern Ireland) appeared in the fields above a narrow country lane bordered by hedges. The loyalists pelted the marchers with stones and beat them with crowbars and lead pipes when they tried to flee.
“The police—known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary—did nothing to intervene. There were even members of the police auxiliary, called the B-Specials, involved in the beatings. As riots broke out across Northern Ireland, the loyalists burned our homes and gunned down unarmed family members and friends fleeing the fires. This radicalized our youth and the movement took a violent turn.”
It also revitalized the Irish Republican Army (IRA), an organization known for its use of guerilla tactics in Ireland’s War for Independence from Great Britain in 1920. For violence begets violence. By the time the Good Friday Agreement was reached and the Troubles declared over, 3,600 people would die.
More than 2,000 were civilians.
I see the bullet holes in the walls of Divis Tower and the many gardens of remembrance for the lives lost before I am ushered through the gate to the other side.
“Make no mistake, they are terrorists.” the second guide tells us, nodding to the community we have just toured. Formerly a member of the British military, he wore the crossed rifles of a marksman during the Troubles. “My job was to train the loyalists to shoot to kill.”
He points to the little girl with bright red curls playing in a vacant lot overgrown with weeds.
“That used to be someone’s home before a bomb was tossed from the other side.”
He leads us to Frizzel’s fish shop on Shankill Road, the site where a bomb took the lives of nine people in October, 1993, two of them children. Another fifty-seven were injured. He mentions the car bomb that exploded in Omagh and the twenty-nine civilians killed after the peace agreement was signed.
“Despite what you hear about the Good Friday Agreement, I believe there are guns, ammunition, and bombs still hidden in bunkers. I believe the IRA is still out there, waiting to attack.”
Will the walls ever come down?
“Hearts and minds have been shattered. Maybe in the next generation things will change and we can find understanding. But our kids do not play together, do not go to the same school or church, shop at the same stores. They will not see the faces of the children on the other side of the wall until University. They do not have the opportunity for friendship.”
According to historian John Gibney, the Good Friday agreement did not address many of the root causes of the conflict, but rather was a brokered peace in a deeply divided society. It was an opening in a wall, an opportunity to end the bloodshed.
We, in this country, can learn from the Irish. Before we become so deeply divided our walls become impenetrable, we can engage in dialogue, seek to understand differing points of view. We can join the mourners in Dayton who demanded that government “do something” to address gun violence. We can insist our leaders find an opening in the wall of rhetoric and end these senseless killings. If they cannot, we must find leaders who can.
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