Editor’s note: Daily reporters Sascha Matuszak, Nicole Vulcan and photographer Scott Romsa spent three months traveling through Ireland. The story that follows is a look at whether The Belfast Agreement, one year after its signing, has shown any promise in halting the violence and bridging the divide between Unionists and Nationalists in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland is as green as the Republic, make no mistake. When the sun shines on Belfast, the largest in the province, the colors are vibrant; people seem to forget the political and sectarian issues that dominate a foreigner’s perspective of the North.
It’s when night comes that Belfast dons her infamous cloak of gray, and one is reminded of the city’s turbulent past. Armored jeeps patrol a silent Donegal Square, the center of Belfast, while the words of the Crown Royal doorman on Victoria Street create an atmosphere of tension.
“Don’t go out at night, a bit of advice; and avoid Shankill,” said the doorkeeper.
Belfast is home to the Catholic-dominated Falls and Protestant Shankill neighborhoods. The abutting neighborhoods were notorious during the 1960s for rioting and pitched battles between British security forces, hard-line Protestants and nationalist Catholics.
Violence still permeates the city, as the Peace Wall dividing the Falls and Shankill roads demonstrates. The stretch of no-man’s land between the wall and the first houses of Shankill Road was once the site of gun battles.
Now young toughs with rocks and sticks patrol the area on bicycles. A gang of Falls neighborhood boys — Burger (at 10, the oldest and the leader), Bacon, Dino and Spud — are our tour guides through the Catholic ghetto.
After chasing away some Protestant Shankill boys with stones, the youths give their unrefined opinions concerning the conflict that has shaped their lives.
“Fuck the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary),” yells Burger.
“Fuck the British,” yell the others.
The political leaders of the Republic of Ireland and the British government are working with the local leaders in the North to carve out a peace settlement. Even as elder statesmen scramble to scrape a peace deal together, young men and little boys are already picking up the guns their fathers hope to put down.
Although not the first attempt to quell the violence, a treaty — brokered one year ago between the British and Irish governments — intends to lay age-old hatreds to rest.
Last April’s agreement, also called the Good Friday Accords, created the political structure within which the warring parties, Protestant unionists and Catholic nationalists alike, could potentially settle their differences peacefully. The peace accords, if successful, would someday allow Burger and his mates to venture through the Peace Wall, to play with Protestants instead of fight them.
At the heart of the controversy over the Belfast Agreement is the political status of Northern Ireland. For the past thirty years, the province has been ruled directly from Westminster, the British seat of government. A return to Home Rule is seen by many as a step toward reunification with the predominantly Catholic Republic of Ireland. This prospect worries many Protestants, who now hold a majority in Northern Ireland.
According to the Good Friday Accords, Britain will depart from the province, and Home Rule will be instituted through an assembly made up of Northern Irish political parties.
Aside from providing the institutional context for peace, the Belfast Agreement demands certain concessions be made by both Unionists and Nationalists, such as relinquishing weapons, freeing political prisoners and reducing the presence of the British army in Northern Ireland.
Disarming the Provisional Irish Republican Army, a republican paramilitary organization, and other violent groups has proven to be one of the thorniest issues included in the Belfast Agreement.
The IRA and other paramilitary groups are required by the Good Friday Accords to relinquish their weapons by the year 2000.
Unfortunately, no consensus has been reached as to when and how decommissioning should begin. David Trimble, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, stressed that he will not sit with Sinn Fein in the assembly created by the Belfast Agreement to govern Northern Ireland until the IRA begins turning over weapons.
Sinn Fein, a Catholic-dominated republican party, contends that the IRA is under no obligation to fully disarm until 2000.
A declaration presented at Hillsborough Castle near Belfast just before Easter stated that decommissioning was not a condition for the entry of Sinn Fein into the power-sharing assembly. It also stressed the need for the IRA to hand over arms to permit the implementation of the peace accords.
The IRA rejected this most recent bid by the British and Irish governments to defuse the decommissioning problem, casting further doubt on the success of the Belfast Agreement.
Yet, the peace accords stipulate that a poll be taken every seven years to determine whether the status of Northern Ireland should change, depending on the wishes of the population. Only the consent of the majority, “the consent doctrine,” can alter the political status of the North.
While many in Northern Ireland believe peace is a possibility, time and time again pockets of violence have rocked public opinion and undermined any chance of mustering a majority for peace in Northern Ireland.
The Belfast Agreement is not the first attempt to prevent violence and keep young men from being sucked into the vicious cycle.
Previous attempts at peace, such as Sunningdale and the Anglo-Irish Treaties of 1921 and 1985, disintegrated when faced with the volatile Orange Order marching season.
The Orange Order is a Protestant organization named after William of Orange, a Protestant King of the 17th century. Every summer, the Orange Order marches through Northern Ireland’s townships, commemorating William of Orange’s birthday and his victories over Catholic armies. The marching season is invariably a time of heightened Catholic and Protestant antagonism and brutality.
The Belfast Agreement was put to the test in the summer of 1998, following its signing on April 11. The success of the Belfast Agreement relied on the willingness of the people to avoid descending into violence.
As Belfast prepared itself for yet another round of riots, an exodus of Northern Irish made their way south for the summer to avoid the tumultuous marching season.
The distinctive Northern Irish accent could be heard as far south as County Cork. Residents of Belfast, traveling through Galway in the west of Ireland, spoke about the baffling nature of the conflict.
“We hear it on the radio and see it on television, and we live in Belfast,” said one Belfast resident. “If you are there for a day you will not see a thing. The media really plays it up.”
Others felt the situation proved precarious enough to warrant a trip south.
“We are here on holidays, because the marching season is rough.”
Although some vacationing Northerners are skeptical about the Belfast Agreement, the vast majority said they wanted peace.
As tragedy after tragedy mounted — such as the Omagh bombing by the Real IRA that killed 29 people — the ironic result was a unified disgust for the fighting.
“I have received death threats for the work I do, from both sides,” said David Cummings, a potato farmer from outside Strabane, in Northern Ireland.
If anything, threats have only strengthened Cummings’ determination to see peace efforts to come fruition. Cummings is a Protestant who has devoted much of his time bringing Catholic and Protestant youths together through a Dutch organization called HONI.
“Almost everybody you talk to wants peace and harmony. My Catholic neighbors and I live in peace and harmony. It is such a small minority that carries on the violence, those people who stand to profit from the violence,” he said.
In the northern town of Portadown, Drumcree Church was the site of one of the most heated confrontations between marching Orangemen and Catholics. The standoff reached a peak with the burning deaths of three young boys. The murder was quickly labeled as the work of sectarian thugs; however, marching season tensions proved not to blame.
“It is disgusting how the media jump on every violent act. It’s despicable how they turned the murder of those three boys into a sectarian matter. (The perpetrators) were young, drunk idiots,” Cummings said.Drumcree
On Garvaghy Road, after the worst of the crisis had passed, a mural reflects the vestiges of a community’s latent anger. A towering, menacing Orangeman leaned over tiny silhouettes of dancing Irish lasses.
Everything was orange, red and black, except for the giant Orangeman, wrapped in a Union Jack. The mural asks:
Free from Sectarian Harassment?”
Drumcree Church sat silent atop its hill. The countryside gushed bright green and light brown. People were building a barn, and birds were chirping. Yet one could not help notice a deep, wide ditch separating Protestants from Catholics. Murky and filthy, the ditch is a testament to the polarized marching season protests it has witnessed. Dark stains on the road, leftovers from a barrier of fire, belie the community’s stillness.
Two older men approached the trench from the Protestant side. Neither would give his name. Although the demonstrations had ceased, they had a different view of the situation.
“Oh, no, it’s not over,” said one. “It’s just beginning.”
“We are law abiding folk,” he continued. “They are the contentious ones, they won’t let us down the road.”
A stubborn, sometimes violent adherence by both sides to opinions such as these catapulted tiny Drumcree into the world’s eye last summer. Yet this determination was often tinged with guilt.
“We don’t want any violence, we never wanted any violence.”
Down the road in the Catholic area of the Garvaghy road, an older Catholic man expressed his disgust with the whole situation.
“Senseless. Stupid and senseless. Every year it’s the same thing.”
He and his wife were headed for Killarney, in the Republic, the next morning.
“Most of the people here want peace. You’d never know there was trouble except for the media hype every summer.”
As public opinion wavers between resentment and a desire for peace, quelling the violence is still an uphill battle for a conflict whose roots go back centuries.
Prospects for peace
Things have changed since the days of Sunningdale. Perennial potholes on the road to peace such as the Rev. Ian Paisley, the fire-breathing leader of the Democratic Ulster Party and the violent campaigns of the IRA are being swept aside by a new generation of Irish.
The prosperous middle class also wants peace. The North had always overshadowed the South in terms of Gross National Product and income, but the Republic of Ireland has recently enjoyed several years of economic growth.
Paddy O’Boyle of Cork City, in the South, believes that economics have helped change the situation. The new equality between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland has made unification of the North a real possibility, he said.
The prosperity of the “Celtic Tiger” has galvanized all parties to find a lasting solution. The business class wants stability, and their support has proved a bulwark to the Belfast Agreement.
A new generation of prosperous Irish has evolved along with a new generation of leaders, both in Ireland and in Britain. Men and women such as Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble have placed peace — before British, Irish or religious interests — as a top priority.
Blair is working in a more proactive environment than Margaret Thatcher was at the time of Sunningdale. Now, violence is an increasingly unpopular means with which to solve Northern Ireland’s problem. A peaceful, political solution is the only avenue open to the Irish, both North and South.
And a political solution has never had a better chance for success. If the Belfast Agreement can hurdle the obstacles of decommissioning and the release of political prisoners, stability may finally reach Northern Ireland.
But political stability by no means guarantees social harmony.
The mural in Drumcree reflects the daily life of Ciaran Kelly, a Catholic teenager in Strabane. The Protestant side of the city is off limits to him and his neighbor Ryan Cairns, unless “I am looking for a fight.”
Peace and economic prosperity have not yet reached West Belfast. Dino, Burger, Bacon and Spud still guard against incursions into the Falls neighborhood, from the Protestant Shankill neighborhood.
A political settlement might bind political leaders together, but on the streets of Belfast, more than a wall divides Catholics and Protestants. Social acceptance will come more gradually.
In one instance, older versions of Burger’s gang put aside old divisions in the name of fun.
On a Saturday night in Belfast, five Catholic locals unknowingly drank and laughed with a Protestant.
When Chris, an early-twenties Catholic learned that Mike was a “Prod,” he handed him a beer.
“That stuff means nothing to me here,” Chris said.
Many hope progressive political peace will produce social stability in coming years. As Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionist party struggle to forge a compromise, and the violence of the paramilitaries fades into the past, the grandchildren of the future may forget how to fight each other.
Perhaps the ancient curse of Cathban the Druid — that Ulster would forever know conflict — will finally become nothing more than a fable, taking Bloody Sunday and Omagh with it into the mists of magical Eire.