A Weekend in Northern Ireland

22 Oct

Last weekend was a rather eye-opening experience as it was spent in two different cities in Northern Ireland: Belfast and Derry (Londonderry).  For two days we learned about the civil unrest that occurred during the 1970s and 1980s with walking tours of each city.  Prior to this trip, I wasn’t really sure of what Northern Ireland would be like.  I knew that religion played a critical role in the communities of Northern Ireland in the past and continues to influence daily life to this day.  However, I wasn’t fully aware of the violence that occurred back then.  Visiting these two cities gave me a better understanding of the tension that existed between British Loyalists and Northern Irish Nationalists thirty years ago.  It all started with the Civil Rights Movement in Derry/Londonderry in 1969.  The marchers were attacked by a group of Unionists, which caused a series of violent outbreaks and hunger strikes for the next thirty years.  Major events in this time period include the 1981 Irish Hunger Strikes, Bloody Sunday, and The Battle of the Bogside.  Civil Rights protesters and innocent bystanders were shot by paramilitary groups (such as the IRA and UVF) for their political beliefs, and some for no reason at all.  Catholics were discriminated against by British Protestants because of their political views; they wanted Northern Ireland to separate from the UK and join the Republic of Ireland, whereas Protestants wanted the opposite.  A total of 3,529 people died during “The Troubles” of Northern Ireland.  In 1989, these gruesome attacks finally came to an end with the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.

One aspect of the study tour that I found intriguing was learning about the Peace Walls that divide the Nationalist and Loyalist groups in Belfast.  In 1971, these large concrete walls and chained-link fences were implemented throughout the city to protect neighborhoods from any sporadic attacks and to maintain peace between the two communities.  From 7pm to 7am the the gates are locked, prohibiting people from crossing over to the other side.  Albeit weaker than in the past, tension still exists between the Unionists and Loyalists today.  Seeing these physical barriers in person made me sympathetic towards both parties and hopeful that one day they will not be necessary in order to retain peace in Belfast.

– Christine Lee

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