Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Troubles

(I had intended to make a single post on Northern Ireland, but I couldn't quite put this after all the Titanic stuff.)

Here's the thing.  I was really freakin' excited to come to Northern Ireland for the simple reason that I never thought I would come to Northern Ireland.  When I was growing up, it hadn't been particularly safe.  And only recently has it become, y'know, a tourist destination.

We had a tour guide who told us there are four top tourist destinations in Northern Ireland.  They are:  (1)  Giant's Causeway; (2) Titanic Exhibition; (3) Ulster American Folk Park; and (4) Belleek Pottery Factory.  We're hitting Giant's Causeway tomorrow, but have covered the other three already.  And let me honestly say:  these three things are not worth flying across the Atlantic for.  I've already covered the Titanic Exhibition; the Folk Park is a school field trip at best; and the Belleek Factory is, well, a mildly interesting education in a design of pottery I'd never freakin' heard of before I got here.

What is worth flying across the Atlantic for is actually just, y'know, being in Northern Ireland.  Our tour director has not been guiding us in Northern Ireland -- we've had local guides showing us around here -- one for a bus trip out to Derry; one for a walk through a bit of Derry; and a third for Belfast.  And they've each given us their own take on the Troubles; and, rather more importantly, the peace.

It isn't unbiased.  It's very clear that each of these folks works in the tourism industry, and they all are emphasizing how it's quite peaceful now, nobody has so much has thrown a rock at a march in the past year, please pay no attention to that bomb they found under a car in Derry last month.  It's all Protestants and Catholics going to the same schools, and the Queen and the Sinn Fein guy shaking hands, and the posters that used to provoke people to violent action have been changed to promote peace.

Like this one in Derry:

(Note how the gun on the side is broken in half.  And the butterly is all bright and colorful.)

Or this one in Belfast:

It's historic handshakes that took place here, at the Bloody Sunday Memorial:

And the Peace Bridge in Derry or the rather beautiful sculpture in Derry of a Protestant and a Catholic reaching out toward each other but not actually touching.

Of course, I don't actually have photos of those because they didn't let us out of the bus anywhere near them.  We actually had only a very brief walk in Derry proper -- we had a short guided tour upon the city's old walls (which were impressive from a historical point of view), but it couldn't escape attention that they didn't exactly, y'know, give us free time to wander the streets.

We have genuine free time in Belfast -- a few hours today and more tomorrow -- but this is following a bus tour in which we saw some posters that are not, as the guide put it, "moderate."

And we were assured that our part of town is a nice, safe part of town.  We were also assured that things like the "Peace Walls" -- which were, in places, higher than the Berlin Wall -- are simply just historical relics (but they're still, y'know, there).

Look.  I live in the Greater Los Angeles Metropolitan Area.  I know there are areas of any town that it's best to avoid; and that, in many many places, there is hatred and distrust and you shouldn't expect everyone to make nice-nice with each other.  I know all that.

And I know Belfast in particular and Northern Ireland in general have made massive, massive strides toward peace and normalcy, and these things are rightly celebrated.  But the peace hasn't been around for very long, and the hatred is still on display.  And seeing this country try to work past the seemingly unbridgeable divide -- that's the real attraction here.  

It's tough -- you can see it in something as basic as whether the city is properly called "Derry" (say the Catholics/Republicans) or "Londonderry" (the Protestants/Unionists).  You see it in the flags flying (or not flying) at any particular location.  But they're trying.  Really genuinely trying.

A little quirk of the political speech out here is that the Protestants/Unionists sometimes fly Israeli flags while the Catholics/Republicans fly Palestinian flags.  Indeed, some of the less moderate posters we saw spoke rather directly to the conflict in Gaza, with the Republicans drawing parallels between the situation faced by the Palestinians in Gaza to their own struggle for independence from the UK.

This depresses me.  I would rather think that if peace is possible here, perhaps it would be possible there.  Northern Ireland is trying (perhaps its tourism industry is trying harder) to position itself as a place that has accepted forgiveness over endless retaliation; disarming over attacks; and hope over hatred.  It can act as a model for those wanting to move forward; it shouldn't be taking sides. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love the sky in the Belfast murals photos.