Friday, August 10, 2012

Trouble with The Troubles

Joe sat in the black cab with us and gave a three-minute run down on the history of Northern Ireland. We wondered if he, Joe, was Catholic or Protestant. The answer soon became clear as he took us on a tour of Belfast’s street murals and of its recent history, particularly the years since 1968 which until recently were so comprehensively awful that they’ve acquired the sobriquet “The Troubles”. 

My vague ideas about “the Northern Ireland question” were soon shown to be utterly ignorant, along with any idea that The Troubles and their causes had been completely eradicated. But first, “why a black cab?” I hear you ask. Because (and all this is according to Joe, so I take no responsibility for its accuracy) the IRA imported some black cabs from London to use as public transport for the people when the local busses became unusable. And why were the busses unusable? I also hear you ask. Because they were parked across streets to use as barricades...

Our first foray was into the Catholic “side”, the Falls Road area. Joe pointed out a 20-storey tall apartment block, all that remains of a massive public housing complex (Joe: it was useless as soon as it was built. Too small - “Catholics tend to have large families”). The British Army occupied the top two floors of the apartment block, from which they had a good military vantage point, until 2007. Joe showed us pictures of the old streets, long reduced to rubble and cleared away, replaced now by peaceful-looking if not luxurious houses. 

Then to the murals of the Catholic side - the “International wall”, which hosts an ever-changing array of murals supporting dissidents from various sad corners of the world. The oldest one here is a re-creation of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’, a nod to the Basque struggle against Franco. Jailed Cuban dissidents, hunger-striking people in Iran, those who died in the 1982 hunger strikes for the Irish Republican cause...and the first of the “Blanket protestors”. These men, who were refused the status of prisoners of war (a status which included the right to wear their own clothes), rejected the prison uniforms of common criminals and lived for years draped in their two prison-issue blankets. For reasons Joe didn’t fully explain, they also refused to wash. And it gets worse -- imagine yourself listening to Joe now, looking at the blue eyes and blond beard on the mural in front of you -- according to Joe, the prison guards would deliberately knock over the toilet bucket in the morning, so to avoid getting doused the prisoners would stick their feces to the walls (where it dried to a thick brown stucco - Joe had a photo!); and they would pour their urine under the door using funnels made from -- wait for it -- the pages of the Bible. 

Now, before I get too excited by Joe’s stories, I need to get on to dear old Wikipedia and see what other versions are out there. But suffice to say, he had us absolutely absorbed by this stage. Our next stop was the famous mural of Bobby Sands, who died in prison at 28 years old, from the hunger strike. During his incarceration Margaret Thatcher was heard to say that he represented nobody and no-one cared about him. So when a by-election came up, his name was put up and he was voted in as a member of parliament. This caused a bit of international spotlight-shining. According to Joe (I add the caveat once again) the Iranian government of the day changed the name of ‘Winston Churchill Avenue’ in Tehran to ‘Bobby Sands Avenue’. It was the street where the British Embassy was located, and so became its address. But the Embassy promptly knocked a front door in the opposite side of the building...I told you the stories were enthralling...

But wait, there’s more. The Bobby Sands mural is painted on the end wall of a grim little brick building on a corner. Its front door and windows were (on this Sunday) shuttered with metal and locked tight. It is Sein Fein headquarters. Plaques on the building commemorate various Sein Fein people who were murdered in The Troubles. Joe, to give him credit, tried to explain to us that there were two sides to the question, bad acts by Republicans as well as Loyalists. And of the murder in her hospital bed of the deputy of Sein Fein, he pointed out that it was a good opportunity to take her out, and not surprising that the opportunity wasn’t wasted. I think that’s what he said. But I may have mis-remembered, because the next thing he told us was that he had been a body guard for Gerry Adams. He showed us pictures of himself at Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian complex. Pass the smelling salts.

So now we knew of course that Joe was on the Catholic side of the fence. I asked him what Bobby Sands had done to be in gaol in the first place. Joe was vague - he was carrying a gun, he thought. Possibly on “an explosives run”. I stopped asking about Bobby. We talked a little about how the peace process had improved things. One of the erstwhile hunger-strikers survived (eight didn’t) and is now a member of parliament. Fourteen of the twenty-six Republican members of parliament of Northern Ireland are ex-prisoners. Joe said that in his view it would be best for the future if the children in Northern Ireland were not segregated. Huh? Yes, it seems that only about 10% of schools integrate Catholic and Protestant kids even today! I was gobsmacked. I asked Joe where the atheist children went to school. He laughed, and merely said “That’s a good one!” - seems there’s no atheists in Northern Ireland. Once more I stopped asking.

There were more very harrowing stories, but then it was time to move on to the the Shankill Road area, the Protestant side of town. The immediate discernible difference was the Union Jacks flying everywhere. “You can tell it’s English here”, says Joe. We observed Boys’ Clubs and Ulster Revolutionary Force shields, and a mural with a gunman staring down at us. Then there was the one of the guy who won the “Top Gun” award for his neighbourhood for several years running - it was a wooden gun award given to the man who shot the most Catholics. In a fine display of something or other, Joe told us that you had to respect the fact that “the community” had put up the mural of this guy, and that it had no graffiti on it at all. I was not at all sure what I was supposed to respect.

This area had a number of murals relating to historical narratives - William III of Orange who apparently drove the Catholic monarchs from Ireland and won it for the Protestants (that’s not quite the whole story); an Irish mythological giant who similarly drove back invaders from Ulster; and the mysterious “Red Hand”, in this incarnation a weird Viking story, the point of which rather escaped me (a prince in a race with his brother to win a kingdom by being the first hand to touch shore, chops his off and throws it onto the beach...I know, I know....) 

Joe’s version of the history behind The Troubles was brief, missing a few facts, but for a broad generalisation was probably good enough: In the early 17th century, England began to “plant Ulster”, that is, send over Protestant settlers (think of modern-day Israel). Hundreds of years later, the Irish were still agitating for “Home Rule” (independence). Finally in 1921 independence was granted and Eire was born, but the north was partitioned off and remain under English rule. The reason seems to be that the Protestant population feared persecution as a minority in the new Catholic country. It also seems that not all of Ulster is in Northern Ireland, but the Protestant-majority part is. The threat of persecution was turned around, and the now-Catholic minority in the new Northern Ireland was persecuted in its turn: no vote, no right to work unless you held property, no right to promotion even then. It sounded pretty grim the way Joe told it. Everyone was dirt poor; no -one could afford to move south, even if they were willing to leave their homes. Like all persecuted masses, sooner or later the worm turns. A protest movement sprang up in the late 1960s - there was a bit of protest about everywhere in those days - and things went quickly from bad to worse. The Northern Ireland police were soon overwhelmed, and the British military were sent in. They stayed until 2007. There was internment with out charge; there was the indiscriminate shooting of innocents on ‘Bloody Sunday’ in 1982. There was also, of course, the indiscriminate bombings carried out by the IRA and its affiliates, in Ireland and in England - a reign of terror, which Joe did not allude to even once. The Protestant Loyalists did their best to keep up the death toll on their side too. Troubles, indeed.

“These gates are locked every night at 11 pm”

Perhaps the most moving moment on Joe’s tour came as he drove his black cab from the Catholic side to the Protestant side of East Belfast. We drove through a set of heavy metal gates, painted with graffiti (mostly about peace). “These gates are locked every night at 11 pm”, said Joe. He pointed down the street to a another set of metal gates - those ones were locked all day Sunday, and every night too. We stopped by the so-called “peace wall”, a high metal fence topped with wire and covered in moving street art and signed by visitors from around the world. We added our names. It was built by soldiers as a temporary barrier between Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods when they fire-bombed each other decades ago. It’s still there, and is much longer and much higher. Joe said it didn’t do the houses on the other side much good - they were, he said, too close to the wall and rock-throwers could still hurl their missiles over the wall to break windows. The close neighbours had had to put up wire screens...Joe pointed to a few rocks strewn about on the ground to illustrate his point. “Peace” wall?? Though the rock-throwers are not sectarian these days, just the usual anti-social louts spawned by poverty and drugs. Joe seemed to consider that progress, and maybe it is.

Feeling a little unsettled by all Joe had shown and told us, we thought a quiet hour in the Ulster Museum might be soothing. It was, until we came to its exhibits on Northern Irish History and - yes - The Troubles. The museum, unlike Joe, tried so hard to be even-handed in its history lessons that I quite lost track of which side of the argument all the various splinter groups, volunteers, sectarian sympathisers and revolutionary forces were on. The role of William III, who still today provides the focus for the Orange Day marches by the Protestants, was similarly obscure.

But the exhibit on The Troubles was sensitive and a little more enlightening. It consisted of enlarged black-and-white photographs and slabs of text, trying hard to explain certain incidents through the years. It did fill in a few of the gaps in Joe’s world-view, though I can’t say that any of it actually contradicted him. The museum provided visitors to this exhibit with an anxious little sheet of paper asking for feedback: 

“How would you rate the sensitivity shown to the subject of the troubles?” - excellent. 
“How does the Troubles Gallery make you feel?” - unsettled and depressed. 
“How can the Troubles Gallery help children to better understand the history of Northern Ireland?” - good luck with that.

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