Today began the adventure of my delegation of U.S. lawyers and guest to discuss, and learn about, the Northern Ireland Peace Process. The program is between May 14 – 21, 2015. During our drive from Dublin to Derry City, in Northern Ireland, we learned about the “Troubles.’ 0ur goal is to have the political and historical situation put into context and this was done. Like all people in Northern Ireland, we are in search of the truth.
After a 3 1/2 hour coach trip we arrived at our destination for the evening – Beech Hill Country House Hotel. Although the name may not be recognizable to most Americans, it has a place in the history of World War II. When the U.S. entered the War in December 1941 few knew that a U.S. Navy Engineering Battalion and their fellow Marines had for 6 months been constructing what was referred to as Base One on the property of the hotel we are tonight staying at. This was a secret base whose construction was key to keeping our supply routes open in the Atlantic Ocean. They were successful and every year former Marine and Navy soldiers return and to commemorate this important mission A commemoration plaque is strategically placed in front of the hotel and on the day we arrived flowers for Base one Europe surround the plaque.
Tomorrow we will continue with our International Exchange and quest to better understand the long standing conflict between Catholics and Protestants, as well as the conflicts between Northern Ireland and England. Much blood has been shed here in Northern Ireland and we need to know why.
In the late 1960s the people of Derry and of Northern Ireland were fighting the British for the right to vote, for the cessation of employment discrimination because of their religion, and for housing. Frustration was at a boiling point and protests, modeled after the Civil Rights and student movements in U.S. in the late ’60s, took hold. The British controlled Northern Ireland and they refused to let go of the strangle grip on the Northern Irish people because it wanted to control access to the Atlantic Ocean. The situation reached a boiling point during a march more than 40 years ago when over 10, 000 people marched in the streets of Derry, Ireland. What transpired was a shooting by British soldiers of unarmed marchers that is referred to as Bloody Sunday. 13 protesters were killed and another 13 were wounded. A whitewash of the events, by the British, followed. Only recently has the British government acknowledged culpability. What also followed was what is called the “Troubled” period of open, and sometimes violent, resistance.
The Irish Republican Party was an informal militia which took up the main role of resistance to British rule. The British responded by throwing those who resisted their rule into internment camps without evidence or a trial. The IRA and many people of Northern Ireland felt they were fighting for independence. Lawyers were intimidated and in some instances killed, but they continued representing those that had been charged and thrown in jail. We met with a former prisoner and IRA member, Gerry, who described the struggle, imprisonment, and future for Ireland. With Gerry was his attorney who represented IRA dissidents, as did other brave attorneys. Some were threatened and killed. Because of the Good Friday Agreement over 20 years ago peace has come to Northern Ireland. The older generation feels that they, the nationalist, gave up to much in the negotiations. The younger generation feels it was necessary. They do not carry the scars of the older ones who remember the struggles, killings, and people being dragged from their homes in the middle of the night because they did not support British actions. The struggle continues for many Northern Irish people as their goal is independence and freedom. All agree the Good Friday Agreement was a starting point.
The drive from Derry to Belfast along the Antrim Coast was lovely and peaceful. Along the way were green fields, sheep and cattle. The houses were quaint and one would not know that this whole area had undergone the turbulence of the past. Along the way, we stopped at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Giant’s Causeway. The Irish are wonderful storytellers and enjoy legends more than people of other countries. This particular Causeway is called The Giant’s Causeway because of the legend that the causeway and the interlocking basalt columns was caused by the might giant Finn McCool. Scientist tell us that this geological wonder, with over 40, 000 interlocking basalt columns, is the result of intense volcanic and geological activity. The weather was rainy, windy, and chilly. The trek to the columns was uncomfortable but a “must see”.
Back on the bus we made our way to Belfast and the Stormont Parliament Building where we were given a private behind the scenes presentation in the chambers of Parliament consisting, in part, of how the Northern Ireland Peace Process was brokered. The private dinner in the members Long Gallery was special. We learned that Parliament is comprised of different parties and a coalition, with members working together, is necessary to get things done.
The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 changed everything for the better. As early as 12 years ago it would have been unthinkable that the Democratic Union Party (DUP) would sit 10 feet from Sinn Fein in the very Chambers where we were sitting. I was pleased to learn that the Agreement would not have been possible but for the diplomacy of President Bill Clinton and George Mitchell. We were told that the conflict, or Troubles as the Irish call them, is a thing of the past and Ireland has gone to far to go back. A good example was seen while we were driving in Belfast to our hotel which during the Troubles was one of the most bombed hotels in Europe. Now, it is a bustling hotel with activity galore and the main thought on people’s minds is where to get a pint of Guinness. Before the streets were littered with holes from car bombings. Today they are like the streets in many American cities. This is not to say that disagreements and problems do not still exist, but now the discussions and resolution processes are mainly political.
Ireland-A Country on the Mend
Our walking tour through joint Falls and Shankill Roads was facilitated by Republican Nationalist Robert Mc Clemagham and Loyalist Noel Large. What was unique about this tour is that both Robert and Noel were ex combatants, on opposite sides, who had served a considerable amount of time in prison. Robert was an IRA weapons expert and Noel was a para military operative for the Loyalist. These are fancy terms for saying they killed people on the other side of the conflict. Both are now working with the community hoping to bring reconciliation to both sides. Robert asked us to consider what we would do if an invading army came to our communities and oppressed and killed our people. The choice is to submit or fight. He tells us that he and his IRA cohorts chose to fight. Noel is an Irishman loyal to Great Britain. He served 16 years of a 357 year sentence for murder, robbery and other war related crimes. He was released pursuant to the Peace Agreement. He now works with his community to remedy poverty and long term unemployment. Like others, he says that Northern Ireland cannot go back and he is concerned by the lack of true reconciliation. In spite of this, he says both sides in Northern Ireland must keep trying and go forward. Both pointed to the fact that they are cooperating and leading tours together. Robert and Noel are examples of the fact that both sides were beginning to work together, which is the next step in this developing process of reconciliation.
Our delegation next visited Corrymeela Retreat Center which was celebrating its 50 year anniversary. This Center is critical to the next steps of the reconciliation process. The objective of the Center is to promote reconciliation and the center is doing a good job.
Dinner that evening was a real delight as we were joined by Mairtin O’Muilleoir, an Irish Sinn Finn politician and former mayor of Belfast. He currently is a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Also joining us was Sammy Douglas who is also a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. In spite of the fact that they are on opposite sides, they are friends and a good example for their country of working together. They both say that Ireland has come a long way pursuant to the signing of the peace agreement. They cite that tourism is growing and that Northern Ireland has more foreign investment than any other place in Great Britain. In spite of the fact that many focus on what divides Northern Ireland, neither side wants to go back. Both sides are committed to building the peace. There is debate over which side came out ahead with the Good Friday Peace Agreement – I say that Ireland won and now that the fighting is over, Northern Ireland is a country on the mend. There are good, talented people committed to making the peace work. They warn that it will take time for each side to accept the other, but they are trying and there is hope.
Journal entries by: Richard Pena
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