WCBE

For Northern Ireland, Wounds From 'The Troubles' Are Still Raw

Nov 28, 2014
Originally published on November 29, 2014 8:25 am

Sixteen years ago, the Good Friday peace agreement ended the violent conflict in Northern Ireland by creating a power-sharing government. Around the world, people point to the agreement as a model for how to resolve ethnic conflicts.

And yet, political leaders in Northern Ireland are still struggling to bring Protestant and Catholic groups together. The fact that this is even an issue might surprise many people.

When I visited Belfast, I found a city still profoundly divided.

Physically, its people are divided by 30-foot-high walls that snake through town, lined with murals, separating Catholic neighborhoods from Protestant.

"That is one of the ways we've managed those differences, by building high walls," says Dominic Bryan, who directs the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen's University Belfast. "You know, high walls make good neighbors."

I met him at one of these so-called peace walls.

"At this very spot we had severe violence between the two communities, what we might call ethnic violence," he says.

Belfast endured 40 years of virtual war, known as The Troubles. The IRA and other Catholic paramilitary groups used bombings, kidnappings and murder.
They wanted to end British rule of Northern Ireland and join the Republic of Ireland to the south. Violent Protestant paramilitary groups fought back.

And even though The Troubles officially ended in 1998, today many people still say they don't want the walls to come down.

"Until people feel a sense of security themselves, then I think we haven't created the context where I think it's fair to bring these walls down," Bryan says.

More than 90 percent of students in Northern Ireland attend segregated schools. Many Protestants say they don't know Catholics personally, and vice-versa.

"It's always been like that, and it'll never change," says Kirstie Devine, 21.

I ran into her walking on the street with her girlfriend. She showed us an angry red scar on her throat, the result of a stabbing.

"I was walking down the road and this wee lad started fighting me, and I started fighting him, and it was all because I was Catholic and because I was gay, and he didn't like that," she says.

I asked which did she think was worse to him: being Catholic or being gay?

"Being gay, I think, was the worst," she responds. "But being Catholic didn't help my luck either."

The violence today is nothing like during The Troubles. These days, it's illegal to belong to a paramilitary organization.

But these groups still exist under the radar. And without a clear political purpose, they've started getting into organized crime, drug dealing and prostitution.

At the Taughmonaugh Social Club on a Sunday evening, a bunch of tattooed young guys sit around a table full of empty beer bottles. The minute I walk in they peg me as an American, and a journalist.

I've come to meet a man named Jackie McDonald, who used to run the Ulster Defence Association, the biggest Protestant paramilitary group. He served 10 years in prison on racketeering and other charges. Now, he works with a group that seeks peace.

He says the younger generation doesn't seem to want resolution.

"They've heard stories about people like me: ex-prisoners, ex-combatants," he says. "They've heard stories about their grandfather or their uncle. So these young people think they've missed out."

To them, the violence and prison is something that's "sexy," he says.

"They see that as having some sort of identity, some sort of status in the community," he says.

The notorious prison where McDonald served time is called the Maze. It's a 20-minute drive outside of Belfast, and it's been closed for years.

I went there to meet Scott Boldt, former head of the reconciliation program at Edgehill Theological College at Queen's University.

Today the site just looks like hundreds of acres of dirt and gravel surrounded by a perimeter fence. There had been a project to develop the area into a peace-building center, complete with a building designed by noted architect Daniel Liebskin, until just over a year ago, says Boldt, when plans fell through.

The European Union allocated hundreds of millions of dollars for the project. Then unionist groups expressed a fear that it would become a shrine to republicanism — in their words, "a shrine to terrorism." So the project is on hold indefinitely.

"What happens with peace agreements like the Good Friday Agreement is when there's a degree of peace on the surface, it removes some of the urgency, which ironically removes what perhaps is the greatest impetus to bring things across the finish line," says Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Twice in the last 10 years, Haass has led diplomatic efforts to bring the sides together in Northern Ireland. It's never quite worked out the way he hoped.

He says the meetings would start out civil, normal, relaxed.

"And suddenly somebody would say something, and it was as if something had been ripped, you could almost hear the Velcro ripping off and people would start using words like terrorist. And they'd start going after one another," Haass recalls. "And what it showed me is that underneath this veneer of normalcy or civility, how raw it still is."

The day we arrived in Belfast, police were on high alert after a suspected bomb attack on a police vehicle.

In the last two weeks, five officers had been injured, according to Police Inspector David Moore, mostly from being struck by bricks or other objects.

When asked how typical this is, he says it could be an "awful lot more."

"With the violence we've seen over four or five nights, I'm glad I'm sitting here and saying it is only five," he says.

Thousands of people died in The Troubles, and many of their family members are still seeking some kind of closure.

Three days before I arrived in Belfast, Brenden Megraw was finally buried. He was one of the disappeared, taken by the IRA more than 30 years ago; his body was only found in October.

He was given a traditional Irish wake. During the ceremony, candles were lit in the church to represent each of the disappeared.

Sandra Peake is the chief executive of Wave Trauma Centre, a group that helps people suffering from The Troubles.

"I think in general there are still families that feel that things are still as raw today," she says.

Last year, her organization had 645 new clients. So even all these years after the peace accords, many people are only just starting to process the damage.

"I think many of us have a blindness to the reality of what The Troubles did here. And we live within the community, we work within the community," Peake says. But there's a blindness to the reality of what many families have been left to carry here."

Trained as an emergency room nurse, Peake says she loved the quick fix: Someone enters with an open wound; you sew it up, and they leave.

Now she operates in a different world — where the wounds take years to close, if they ever heal at all.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Northern Ireland, politicians are negotiating how to bring Protestants and Catholics closer together. The fact that these talks are even necessary may surprise many people. After all, it has been 16 years since the Good Friday peace agreement officially ended the violent conflict in Northern Ireland and created a power-sharing government. Around the world, people point to Northern Ireland as a model for how to resolve intractable conflicts. But when I visited Belfast last week, I found a city that is still profoundly divided.

DOMINIC BRYAN: This wall is 30 foot high, separating people. So that has been one of the ways that we have managed those differences - by building high walls. You know, high walls make good neighbors.

SHAPIRO: Dominic Bryan directs the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen's University, Belfast. I met him at a so-called peace wall. These barriers snake through town, lined with murals, separating Catholic neighborhoods from Protestant.

BRYAN: At this very spot we had severe violence between the two communities - what we might call ethnic violence.

SHAPIRO: Belfast endured 40 years of virtual war known as The Troubles. The IRA and other Catholic paramilitary groups used bombings, kidnappings and murder. They wanted to end British rule of Northern Ireland and join the Republic of Ireland to the south. Violent Protestant paramilitary groups fought back. And even though the troubles officially ended in 1998, today, many people still say they don't want these walls to come down.

BRYAN: And, you know, until people feel a sense of security themselves, then I think we haven't - we haven't created the context where I think it's fair to bring these walls down.

SHAPIRO: More than 90 percent of students here attend segregated schools. Many Protestants say they don't know Catholics personally and vice versa.

KIRSTIE DEVINE: It's always been like that and it'll never change.

SHAPIRO: Kirstie Devine is 21 years old. We ran into her walking on the street with her girlfriend. She showed us an angry red scar on her throat.

SHAPIRO: You got stabbed in the neck? You've got a scar on your neck.

DEVINE: Yeah. And that's just for being a Catholic. I was walking down the road and this wee lad started fighting me and I started fighting him. And it was all over, basically, because I was Catholic and because I was gay, and he didn't like that.

SHAPIRO: To him, which do you think was worse, being Catholic or being gay?

DEVINE: Being gay I think was the worst.

SHAPIRO: But being Catholic didn't help.

DEVINE: No. Being Catholic didn't help my luck either.

SHAPIRO: The violence today is nothing like during The Troubles. It's illegal to belong to a paramilitary organization. But these groups still exist under the radar, and without a clear political purpose, they have started getting into organized crime, drug dealing and prostitution. At the Taughmonaugh Social Club on a Sunday evening, a bunch of tattooed young guys sit around a table full of empty beer bottles. The minute I walk in they peg me as an American and a journalist. I'm here to meet a man named Jackie McDonald.

JACKIE MCDONALD: I have many hats. I'm an ex-Ulster Defense Association prisoner, ex-combatant. I have quite a few titles.

SHAPIRO: McDonald used to run the biggest Protestant paramilitary group. He served 10 years in prison on racketeering and other charges. Now, he works with a group that seeks peace. He says the younger generation doesn't seem to want resolution.

MCDONALD: They've heard stories about people like me - ex-prisoners, ex-combatants. They've heard stories about their grandfather or their uncle. So these young people think they've missed out.

SHAPIRO: Missed out on violence and prison? Missed out on what?

MCDONALD: Yeah, but that's sexy. They see that as having some sort of identity - some sort of status in the community.

SHAPIRO: The notorious prison where McDonald served time is called the Maze. It's about 20 minutes drive outside of Belfast, and it's been closed for years. I went there to meet Scott Boldt, former head of the reconciliation program at Edgehill College Queen's University. Today, the site just looks like hundreds of acres of dirt and gravel surrounded by a perimeter fence.

SCOTT BOLDT: There was a whole program to develop this area into a peace-building center. And that fell through just over a year ago. All the plans were in place to do that. So -

SHAPIRO: A famous architect had designed the building.

BOLDT: Daniel Libeskind, yes.

SHAPIRO: It was supposed to bring hundreds of jobs to the area.

BOLDT: Loads of tourists, et cetera. And, you know, people - and also an active center that was going to do quite a number of things.

SHAPIRO: The European Union allocated hundreds of millions of dollars for the project. Then unionist groups expressed a fear that it would become a shrine to Republicanism - in their words, a shrine to terrorism. So the project is on hold indefinitely.

RICHARD HAASS: What happens with peace agreements like the Good Friday agreement is when there's a degree of peace on the surface, it removes some of the urgency, which ironically enough removes what perhaps is the greatest impetus to bring things across the finish line.

SHAPIRO: Richard Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Twice in the last 10 years he has lead diplomatic efforts to bring the sides together in Northern Ireland. It's never quite worked out the way he hoped. He says the meetings would start out civil, normal, relaxed.

HAASS: And suddenly, somebody would say something, and it was as if something had been ripped - you could almost hear the Velcro ripping off. And people would start using words like terrorist. And they would start going after one another. And what it showed me is that underneath this veneer of normalcy or civility, that - how raw it still was.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOOD MORNING ULSTER")

CONOR BRADFORD: Hello and a very good morning, too. It's half past six on Monday the 17 of November. This is "Good Morning Ulster" with Conor Bradford.

SHAPIRO: They day we arrived in Belfast, police were on high alert.

DAVID MOORE: The police vehicles attacked with what's believed to have been a bomb in North Belfast.

SHAPIRO: Police inspector David Moore told us in the last two weeks, five officers had been injured.

MOORE: And that would range from maybe being struck with a brick or well, that's what it was, really. They were all really (unintelligible) throwing in that where police are quite vulnerable.

SHAPIRO: How typical is that? Four or five in a couple of weeks sounds to me like a lot. But I don't know what's normal.

MOORE: Well, it could be an awful lot more with the violence that we've seen over four or five nights. I'm glad I'm sitting here and saying it is only five.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNIDENTIFIED")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) The siege was unspoken. Tell the truth inside...

SHAPIRO: Thousands of people died in The Troubles, and many of their family members are still seeking some kind of closure. Three days before we arrived in Belfast, Brenden Megraw was finally buried. He was one of the disappeared, taken by the IRA more than 30 years ago and only returned to his family now. He was given a traditional Irish wake. During the ceremony, candles were lit in the church to represent each of the disappeared.

SANDRA PEAKE: No, I think, in general, there are families who feel that they are still back to a time where everything is still as raw today.

SHAPIRO: Sandra Peake is the CEO of Wave Trauma Centre, a group that helps people suffering from The Troubles. Last year, her organization had 645 new clients. So even all these years after the peace accords, many people are only just starting to process the damage.

PEAKE: I think many of us have a blindness to the reality of what The Troubles did here. And we live within - we live within the community. We work within the community, but there's a blindness to reality of what many families have been left to carry here.

SHAPIRO: Peake was trained as an emergency room nurse. She says she loved the quick fix. Someone enters with an open wound, you sew it up and they leave. Now, she operates in a different world, where the wounds take years to close, if they ever heal at all.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AS I KNEEL BEFORE YOU")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) As I kneel before you... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.