Troubles and Tariff Torture in Northern Ireland

 A Bloody Sunday Mural in Derry

A Bloody Sunday Mural in Derry

Ian Wallace, Columnist

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In the middle of March, I traveled to Northern Ireland with my family.  A few weeks have passed since I returned, but my memory remains strong, having experienced the news during what’s arguably their most troubling times of the 21st century.  

To understand the political “troubles” in Northern Ireland, some background is required.  Ireland remains divided between the Republic and UK-controlled Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland, where I spent most of my time, is also divided religiously, with a wealthier, Protestant majority at odds with the Catholics, who occupy the rest of Ireland.  Catholicism was first brought to Ireland by Saint Patrick in approximately 432 CE, but a Protestant minority, ruled by the British, formed and settled in Ireland, eventually being confined to Ulster County in the North, where the British remain to this day. However, Ulster County isn’t entirely Protestant; Catholic minorities occupy parts of both Derry and Belfast (the capital of Northern Ireland).  The Catholics have long wished to reunite with Ireland, forming a group called the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in 1969. As a paramilitary organization, the IRA fought the British Army in Northern Ireland during a time called the troubles, which included 3600 deaths and several massacres, including the Bloody Sunday massacre in 1972. Eventually, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement ceased the conflict in exchange for a devolved government in Northern Ireland where Nationalists (Catholic IRA fans) and Unionists (Protestant UK fans) would share power.  

The IRA Logo.

While the conflict ended in 1998, Catholics and Protestants were given something else to squabble over during my trip.  I happened to be in Derry (or Londonderry as the Protestant UK government calls it) during an investigation into the Protestant, British soldiers that were responsible for the Bloody Sunday killings.  A previous report in 2010 found that it was unnecessary for the soldiers to open fire, but the soldiers were ultimately spared from trial. Other signs of continued conflict remain as well. In Belfast, the traditionally poorer, Catholic areas of the city are separated from the wealthier, Protestant zones by an actively monitored “Peace Wall” with gates that close at night to avoid interreligious conflict.  Additionally, political murals are a staple of both Belfast and Derry, especially in the Catholic zones. In the self-proclaimed “Free Derry,” formerly an IRA-controlled section of Derry, memorial posters for Bloody Sunday victims are found alongside mate messages to Unionist (friends with UK) politicians and even posters exhibiting solidarity for other nationalities going through their own “troubles” such as Palestinians.  If the posters and peace walls don’t stand out, the Peace Bridge, a 14 million pound ($18 million) footbridge has straddled the river Foyle since 2011. If the EU and the Northern Irish government found it necessary to spend millions on a symbolic bridge, then it’s a sign that life in Derry remains relatively segregated by religion. Fortunately, I noticed signs of improvement on my trip as well, notably the lack of violent protests or demonstrations and a mixed religious wedding.

Belfast Peace Wall.

Derry Peace Bridge.

While a religious divide still exists in Northern Ireland, Brexit woes might have the potential to unite its people.  The topic on the news while I was on my trip was a provision in the UK’s plan to exit the EU for the Republic of Ireland to the south to transport goods without tariffs to Northern Ireland that was one-sided, but with full EU tariffs for goods going the other way.  With the potential to cripple Northern Irish farmers whose wool is a major export, the Protestant, Unionist population may side with the Nationalists and petition to join the Republic if the deal goes through.

Northern Ireland could be a major victim in a political crossfire, and its population will suffer for certain, but the pain will only be worse if its people remain divided.  To the land of beautiful landscapes and friendly people, I wish you the best.

 

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