Today we took a walking tour of Belfast, given by an IRA member and ex-prisoner of Her Majesty’s government.
Not quite the completely biased view we expected, but a story made even sadder by its painful efforts to reach toward some sort of reconciliation and unity.
Our guide, Robert, was in prison for twelve years, beginning at the age of 18. He is now part of a group of ex-prisoners on both sides who each tell their story on tours and share what it was like for their community during The Troubles. Officially lasting from 1968 to 1998, when the Good Friday agreement was signed, there is really no way to put a date on the enmity between the Irish and English, except to say that it is not over yet, and may actually never end.
Religion comes with the territory, but the politics of the English claim to Ireland is at the core of the Republican cause.
Far be it from us to weigh in on the matter – though that is not to say we don’t have an opinion. But this is so much more than a gentlemanly spat. Many lives were lost; the wall still stands; there is a de facto curfew if one wants to get on the Unionist side of the wall; and bullets are still being fired. In fact, the wall is growing – at the request of both parties. At 10PM, the gates on the walls surrounding the Protestant section of the city are locked, and they don’t reopen until 7AM. The lower section of the wall is 40 years old. The green section in the middle and the wire section on top have only been added recently.
It seems to us that this place is a huge tinderbox. So many are trying to make it work, to move forward. But, like many civil rights battles all over the world, it may take time – generations – before real peace is achieved. And here, there is no skin color to mark the deep divide.
We hope they succeed. But our guide worries that the fallout from Brexit will worsen the problems, particularly if a border has to be reinstated with the south.
The sense of equilibrium here is fragile, very fragile.