by Hailey Brewster and Michael Kelly
After three days at the tranquil Beech Hill Country House, we left Derry and made our way across Northern Ireland to its east coast and its capital city of Belfast. Belfast was a city heavily impacted by sectarian violence during The Troubles. Our guide Gabe informed us that our walking tour of Belfast was aptly titled, “A History of Terror.” Gabe was born in Belfast and was 10 years old when the Troubles began. The Troubles were a sectarian conflict that arose between paramilitary groups, with the Provisional IRA fighting on behalf of the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland and a unified Ireland and the Ulster Defense Association and Ulster Volunteer Force representing the Protestant majority who wished to remain a part of the UK, and the British military who intervened as a peacekeeping force as the violence intensified.
Gabe began our tour with a succinct five-minute summary of centuries of history of the period leading up to The Troubles.
In the 1960s discrimination in Northern Ireland was heating up with the remnants of old Penal Laws that still kept Catholics from holding office. Catholic youths planned a peaceful protest that quickly turned into riots on the streets of Derry, reverberating throughout Northern Ireland. In 1969 sectarian violence in Northern Ireland reached a breaking point when the rioting got so bad that British paramilitary troops were sent in to keep the peace. Catholics welcomed them initially until they were raided and hundreds of people were displaced when their homes were destroyed. A provisional IRA was formed in response, getting guns from previous IRA members who emigrated to America.
In 1971 the IRA planned to take on the British Army by bombing Northern Ireland, kickstarting the worst years of the Troubles.
The Celebrity Club in Belfast was popular on Sunday nights because the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland closed down most shops and didn’t drink on Sundays. On October 29, 1971 four young IRA members pulled up to the second story club. Three of them rushed the club, holding the bouncers at gunpoint and setting the bomb in the lobby. Putting it here forced people to go past the bomb or jump out of the second story windows, most chose the latter breaking arms and legs on the way down, but none were fatalities. When the British paramilitary arrived, the young women in the group of three IRA members was shot in the back as she fled back to the waiting car, permanently paralyzed and never charged. One of the young men was sentenced to fifteen years in prison, and the last was shot down by police, and eye witnesses reported police brutality, as they shot him more times than necessary.
Bloody Friday, a bombing that claimed the lives of nine people in Belfast on July 21, 1972. Close to twenty bombs were planted by the Provisional IRA and went off, scattered around the city, all detonating within eighty minutes. It was thought that this would be the final blow to the British occupation of Belfast, but Bloody Friday only increased the number of troops, and anyone suspected of IRA involvement was arrested.
The Good Friday Agreement, passed in 1998 put the Troubles to rest. This agreement was based on Northern Ireland’s political relationship to Britain as part of the United Kingdom, as well as the relationship to the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland, and the greater UK. This multi-party agreement helped to ease tensions between the polarized groups, and set up a working relationship.
The lasting legacy of the Troubles in Belfast present themselves in the sheer lack of pubs in the city center following the Ring of Steel enforced by the British forces. They closed down the city center early in the night, forcing businesses out of the area, sprawling nightlife further out in the city.
Recently, a car bomb exploded outside a courthouse in Derry. A group calling itself the ‘IRA’ has claimed responsibility for the attack. ‘Brexit,’ the impending withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, has created an air of uncertainty in Ireland, especially with questions regarding the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The border between the two countries is currently a ‘soft’ border- people and goods can move across it with ease. There is talk however, that a ‘hard’ border could be reintroduced, with security and checkpoints. Many are worried that this uncertainty could galvanize long dormant paramilitary groups like the Provisional IRA, who might see it as an opportunity to rekindle the Troubles and achieve their goal of a united Ireland through a guerilla war. Although Brexit raises some tough questions for Belfast and Northern Ireland, the car bomb attack was largely condemned by the majority of the country, both Catholic and Protestant, and although the memories of the Troubles may never leave the minds of the people of Belfast, they are committed to maintaining the hard-won peace that still endures.