This is an attempt to record and share some observations from a study trip to Belfast and Derry in May 2022: to hold space for the many stories we heard, for sights and sounds and complex emotions, for contradictions and ambivalence, for the many legacies of violence and the messiness of a real-world peace process.
Are we there yet?
We travel through landscapes that people left for Northern Ireland 400 years ago: Yorkshire, Cumbria, Scotland. We comment on how barren some of this land looks.
I journey into this space alongside Susan, who is visually impaired. I look out for yellow lines, handrails, stumbling blocks.
In the waiting room for foot passengers at Cairnryan, we have a chat with a Scottish guy who is traveling with two friends. They are, they say, on an Orange tour for three days, Belfast and Londonderry. Two of them used to work for the Navy at Farslane. Susan tells them she used to protest on the other side. We keep talking, wish each other enjoyable journeys.
At some point, we cross a border in the Irish Sea.
What makes it feel like a crossing is not the border but the sea.
[sound of seagulls]
At one point, there’s a quarter of a rainbow.
The next morning, our taxi driver talks us through a map: Green on the left, blue on the right, for lack of an orange pen. A thick black line inbetween, with markings for the gates.
When Queen Victoria came in 1847 to open a new University, fake house fronts were built to spare her the sight of underwear drying in the backyards.
Pádraig Ó Tuama’s poem The
Potato Famine tells the story of how, in 1847, his great-great-grandfather was separated from his family after they’d decided to get some soup from a Protestant soup kitchen.
Outside Queens, we compare colonial histories – Ireland, the Caribbean, Africa.
We talk about names: Our taxi driver likes my Irish surname, inherited from ancestors-in-law whose stories I don’t know. Tells us that his mother’s maiden name was Marley, as in Bob.
Although there are places on the internet that claim Irish ancestry for Bob Marley, more reliable sources say that both his father’s family and the name Marley are of English origin.
I can truly say, I have spent some of the happiest moments of my life since landing in this country. I seem to have undergone a transformation. I live a new life. The entire absence of everything that looked like prejudice against me, on account of the color of my skin—contrasted so strongly with my long and bitter experience in the United States, that I look with wonder and amazement on the transition.
(Frederick Douglass, 1845, Ireland)
The Irish, who, at home, readily sympathize with the oppressed everywhere, are instantly taught when they step upon our soil to hate and despise the Negro. They are taught to believe that he eats the bread that belongs to them. Sir, the Irish-American will one day find out his mistake. He will find that in assuming our avocation, he has also assumed our degradation.
(Frederick Douglass, 1853, the US)
Next stop: Titanic.
The site is designed to convey a sense of height, width, length. Of stops on a journey that never arrived.
We are told that 98% of the men who built the Titanic were Protestant.
[sound of tourists taking selfies]
Opposite Crumlin Road Gaol, twenty years of neglect and arson have worn down the Courthouse. Lady Justice’s scales have gone, as has her sword. We are told that Belfast and Dublin are the only places in the world where she never wore a blindfold.
According to Wikipedia, this is not true: Lady Justice only sometimes wears a blindfold. Its meanings are contested.
Outside the Courthouse, a banner: DID YOU KNOW? THE SHANKILL HAS OVER 80 WASTE SITES THE SIZE OF 62 FOOTBALL PITCHES WITH THE SPACE TO BUILD 3300 HOMES #BUILDshankill
A FOR SALE sign advertises the Courthouse: Full Planning Permission for Hotel. Suitable for other uses.
[sound of traffic]
The Courthouse and the Gaol were connected by an underground tunnel.
Among other things, the Gaol is now a wedding venue.
The reconstructed cell in the Eileen Hickey Irish Republican History Museum contains a bed, a blanket, a guitar. A T-Shirt: Stop Strip Searching. A book shelf. A window painted on the wall. Photos of women prisoners. A sheet of signatures: names, places, lengths of sentences.
While we are there, Eileen Hickey’s sister Susan walks in with a few other visitors. She tells us that the sheet was for her brother Patsy – a gift from one jail to another.
Other exhibits cramped into this small museum: A sculpture carved from a 7000 year-old bog oak, to honour women’s roles in the struggle for Irish freedom. Pencil drawings on prison-issued paper: A rose; a leaf. A letter written on toilet paper, smuggled out of the H-Blocks: Dear Susan love, I love you with all my heart and I still love and miss you as much as ever. Did you see that letter that I sent to my Ma, I wasn’t in the best of moods for writing at all, so I had a hard job trying to think of what to say, but I hope that it done alright. Weapons. A tiny camera. Calls for young men to join the IRA, 1916-22: UNDO THE CONQUEST! BREAK THE CONNECTION!! ON TO THE REPUBLIC!!! An original Bloody Sunday memorial card. Uniforms.
Outside, murals: Eileen Hickey, 1948-2006. A Memorial IN PROUD MEMORY OF THE 10 REPUBLICAN PRISONERS WHO DIED ON HUNGER STRIKE IN THE ‘H’ BLOCKS OF LONG KESH IN 1981. Unveiled by Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein, Minister for Education, in December 2000. Donated by the Australian Metal Workers Union: Forging Our Heritage. White clouds on blue that almost blend into the sky above: This is my sky I will share it with you. A quote from Oscar Romero: There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.
The streets outside have bilingual signs: Odessa Street / Sráid Odasa. Sevastopol Street / Sráid Seibheástopol. Kashmir Road / Bóthar na Caismíre.
Along Falls Road, more murals and banners: RNU stands with Palestine. Free the Innocent. Our Struggle Continues. “In my country we go to prison first and then become President”: Madiba Nelson Mandela, Freedom Lover Friend of Ireland. Republican Network for Unity Thank All NHS Frontline Staff. Justice for Noah. People Before Profit: Black Lives Matter. #UnblockCuba. Reach Out: It’s Ok Not To Be Ok.
Also, red flags, red T-shirts with white rings: The biggest march for the Irish language in a generation.
At Divis Tower, we meet Danny, a former IRA prisoner who will be our guide on Falls Road.
In the background, some young men climb a roof in front of the tower, pull down a Ukrainian flag from a first floor window.
Danny speaks fast. I try to keep up by taking notes on my phone.
This is a conflict between Ireland and Britain: a history of conquest, rape, starvation and murder.
I have more problems with the Catholic church than most.
The Irish have never won a battle in our lives.
Over a million died.
Most people didn’t give a damn.
The British treat us like little schoolboys.
The IRA didn’t really exist then, apart from a couple of old guys in a pub and three weapons under somebody’s floorboard.
I was 9 in 1968, took up bombs and guns at 13, was arrested setting up a bomb at 17, sentenced to 15 years, spent 7 and a half in jail. Got my political education there, then straight back to the war.
We couldn’t beat them, or they us.
No matter what, for any human being to hurt another is a hard story. But my children won’t grow up being treated like dirt.
What sort of Ireland do we want? What do we need?
I wouldn’t be safe over there but they probably would be here.
I’m not justifying everything the IRA has done.
The best thing that we could do is use the experience we have to make sure no one has to go back and do it again. Educate, convince, persuade.
The loyalists are more insecure than ever.
At the gate in the wall that will close at 7, we are handed over to Mark.
[sound of pens writing on wall: we were here. peace is sexy.]
Welcome to the British Protestant side. 100% British, 100% Protestant. No mix at all.
We don’t live together, we don’t eat together, we don’t drink together, we don’t socialise together. We don’t share anything. There’s not a thing that we share here.
We’ve come from war, we’re trying to get to some sort of peace.
This is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and the Commonwealth.
I’ll show you what the British people had to put up with. I’ll show you the sites of violence and war. I’ll show you the photographs. Innocent mums and dads and kiddies and grandparents. Incredible that we had to suffer so much at the hands of people who call themselves freedom fighters.
Where will you be safer as a black person? You did not bring any harm, you’re safe either side. If you’re a Catholic from that side, you won’t be safe.
I know you’re not aware of this, but this is what happened here.
Children don’t know that we used to go to school together. We do not teach the history in any form of education. It’s too raw, too vivid.
For the last 54 years we haven’t existed.
[sound of Van Morrison, turned down to barely audible]
[sound of a football victory: 2-0 for Rangers FC]
At a street corner, Mark bumps into Robert, a terrorist, open to any questions. Again, we are surrounded by murals and plaques: A group of men with guns, guarding a barrel barricade on a street. A memorial to The Great War, in which the 36th (Ulster) Division has sacrificed itself for the Empire which has treated them none too well. In which The much derided Ulster Volunteer Force has won a name which equals any in history. A mural half-preserved; poppies on black, gold lettering:
UVF FOR GOD AND ULSTER
Here dead we
Because we did not
To live and shame
From which we s
Life, to be s
Is nothing much
But young men thi
And we were y
I have a connection with only one person – Britain. My mother wrapped me in the Union Jack. I never chose, I was born British. People find it difficult to understand.
Your truth is who you are.
Who was lucky? The people I killed, or me? I’m an arsehole.
I feel like a fucking schizophrenic because of what I’ve lived through here.
I’m afraid. What I’m seeing now is what I saw when I was 13. And it scares me. Listen: there’s no peace here.
I have great hope.
Let’s give you a wee bit of reality about shit here. Within 3 miles of this circle, 600 people lost their lives. This is the place to tell children ‘please don’t take our footsteps’.
My father spent 17 years in prison, my mother became an alcoholic.
I just told you my truth. Danny’s told you his truth. Neither of us tell lies.
[sound of Saturday night at the Felons Club]
Did you hear anyone talk about trauma?
Sunday morning in church: St Patrick’s (Catholic), 9am. St Anne’s Cathedral (Church of Ireland), 11am.
In both churches, the same gospel. John 14: 23-29: Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you, a peace the world cannot give. In the sermons that follow, hard times are mentioned: The pandemic. Increasing costs.
What on earth are we doing here?
[sound of a child playing with plastic toys in the pew in front]
[sound of a smaller child wanting attention]
[silence of men in face masks sitting on their own]
Outside, street art on a fence round a car park: 148 people registered as homeless in Northern Ireland died while waiting for social housing between 0ct 2017 / Aug 2018. At March 31 2018 36,198 households were on the waiting list for social housing. #STILLSOMEBODY. We need Change. In the background, a multi-story building, boarded up.
[sound of litter being picked]
[sound of coffee being made in the café opposite]
At St Anne’s, the choir – children and adults – sing a Gaelic Blessing.
Deep peace of the running wave to you.
Deep peace of the flowing air to you.
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.
Deep peace of the shining starts to you.
Deep peace of the gentle night to you.
Moon and stars pour their healing night to you.
Deep peace of Christ the light of the world to you.
[sound of light coming in through stained glass windows]
Also at St Anne’s:
The tomb of Lord Carson, staunch Ulster Unionist. A pall for the victims of the Titanic, a silver cross, crescent or Star of David for each one, silver on blue. An exhibition: Lives Reflected: Recognising the Impact of Covid 19. Union Jacks. A mosaic of St Patrick. Red poppies. The Spire of Hope.
In the evening, we find a place to eat – a covered inside/outside room that belongs to a Middle Eastern restaurant.
While we wait for our food, it turns out that among the people who have shared the space with us is Giuseppe Conlon’s granddaughter, Gerry Conlon’s niece.
Mr Conlon was one of the Maguire Seven, convicted on explosives charges, and his son Gerry was one of the Guildford Four, jailed for murder after the pub bombings killed five and injured 65.
All eventually had their convictions quashed after what became known as one of Britain’s biggest miscarriages of justice.
There’s a picture, she tells us, that Gerry painted of Giuseppe while both were in prison. It is in her sister’s house. Her children, she says, are not very interested in this history.
Also there, her adult daughter. The daughter’s partner, from a loyalist background.
As the days go on, we meet others whose families don’t fit into easy categories:
Jonny, an academic who researches the legacies of violence in a divided/shared society but talks of the silence between himself and his wife when it comes to how to baptise their daughter, which school to send her to, what to tell her about past and present. Who doesn’t want her to grow up in a neighbourhood dominated by flags and slogans.
A taxi driver whose father converted to Catholicism to marry his mother; whose children have married Protestants. Who shares a grandchild with a family that years before had threatened his.
Gail, whose poetry explores how to transcend other binaries of parenthood, how to be a fothermather. Who when her partner was pregnant knew only one other family with two mothers. Who when she became a parent was more or less the age her father had been when he was killed by the IRA: (not) having a father made me want (to be) a father.
We haven’t created a peace process dictionary.
I don’t think we have a language to describe this place.
As much as his words, it’s the pictures on Jonny’s powerpoint that tell stories. The architecture of conflict: Walls that are there, still, because they worked. Roads built wide enough for tanks. The aesthetics of policing: Landrovers, guns. The other kinds of policing that still force people out of their homes, sometimes out of the country. Pallets stacked into towers, decorated with enemy flags: ways of turning up the heat. Economic realities: Neighbourhoods that are less segregated, more mixed, less dominated by flags and slogans are more expensive. A sense of safety costs money.
[sound of silence: better the devil you know]
David and Jonny have talked so much that we run out of time for Maire to say much, except this:
Northern Ireland is not a great place to live if you’re a woman.
In Anna Burns’s novel Milkman, the eighteen-year-old narrator is stalked by a renouncer of the state, pushed into a story that isn’t hers by the wider community, told that her habit of reading-while-walking is beyond the pale.
In the countryside, says Matthew, the patterns of violence are different. We hear about people who feel that nobody is listening to them: Innocent Victims of republican violence. Republican groups who feel sharing power disrespects the memory of those who died for freedom. A community surrounded on three sides by the border. People who have experienced the peace process as a process for others that has been imposed on them.
How do you define violence?
How do we define victimhood?
I’ve been told I’m never bold enough with any statements I make.
Jacqueline thinks of the peace process as a gyroscope, very lightly balanced. Complex, contradictory, in flux. Shaped by the habits of our lives, the way violence can find its way into a society, and stay there for a long time in different guises. It’s the job of everyone, she says, to make the ground safe for us all to walk on.
Brian talks of a cage of violence and oppression.
Conflict always means a bonfire of human rights.
This is a deeply scared society. The past is not the past, it’s also the present.
In the evening, I ask the poets for their thoughts about language.
Pádraig longs for public language that offers generosity, choice and a sense of safety to intimate lives.
Gail knows from experience that politics is always intimate here, that that’s where it gets real.
What, she asks, are we using language for?
What is the language using us for?
What can metaphors bear?
Philip suggests that poetry can restore numbed zones to feeling, that a poem makes possible a dream of another world that we could live in.
[sound of poems that wound us and poems that heal us and poems that do a bit of both]
In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, Corrymeela convened thousands of people across the islands of Ireland and Britain to read the book of Ruth, from the Hebrew bible: A story of women crossing borders, of hospitality against the odds.
Corrymeela means not ‘hill of harmony’ but ‘lumpy crossing place’.
Have you seen Derry Girls?
The next morning, we drive through the countryside but don’t get out till we get to Derry. Out of the window, on a hill, we see a horizontal rainbow.
The Bogside is downhill from the walled city. Catholics were forbidden from living within the walls even when, in the wake of the famine, they became a majority.
The outside wall of the Museum of Free Derry is covered in weathered steel panels. Cut into them is the pattern of the soundwaves from a 21-second recording of the crowd on Bloody Sunday: We shall overcome.
Inside, we get to handle a nail bomb, a rubber bullet.
[sound of history, on a loop]
Other exhibits: A panel that traces history from Rosa Parks via Little Rock and Sharpeville to Martin Luther King and Bob Dylan, to civil rights organising in Northern Ireland. Posters advertising A CIVIL RIGHTS MARCH, in the colours of the Union Jack. A songbook: Derry Civil Rights Songs. Footage of Bloody Sunday, the stories of the victims. A painted bin lid: A woman holding a baby, a washing line, the walled city in the background, a silhouette of a march below, in red. YOU ARE NOW ENTERING FREE DERRY. The British government’s apology for Bloody Sunday, 2010.
In the centre of Derry, there is a protest against the British government’s proposal for an ‘Independent Reconciliation and Trust Recovery Commission’. Pairs of shoes worn by the victims of violence are arranged to spell out a big NO.
Each pair of shoes tells a story:
My son Vol Seamus Simpson Irish Republican Army walked in these shoes until he was executed by the British Army on 11th August 1971. He was 21 years of age.
I was 4 years and four months old when I heard the shots that killed my father. Other say forget about the past but I need the truth about what happened to my father to help to heal the wounds, so that I can look to the future. My three sons will never know their grandfather.
Oliver was one of six men murdered in a mass shooting at the Ramble Inn near Antrim on his 20th Birthday. Never interested or involved in Politics – in the wrong place at the wrong time.
My brother Eamonn McDevitt was shot by a Royal Marine Commando on the 18th August 1971. Eamonn was an unarmed Civilian. He was deaf and could not speak. For the past 43 years the British government have lied and not told the truth about what happened that day. All we ever wanted was the truth and an apology. Set the truth free.
Thank you for stopping and taking the time to read about our father’s murder.
[sound of rage just below the surface]
On the city wall opposite, there are two plaques:
In Memory of all those from within the
Derry City and Strabane District Council
Area who have lost their lives as
a result of war and conflict.
In Memory of
all those killed by
produced within this
City & District.
Paul has spent years collecting evidence on the British government’s collusion with loyalist paramilitaries, on how terror and torture techniques were transferred between Malaysia, Kenya, Yemen, Northern Ireland.
Since it became Free Derry Corner in January 1969, Free Derry Corner has been repainted many times: Pink in support of Derry Pride, yellow for a sarcoma awareness campaign, red/black/white/green for the Palestinian flag. Underneath YOU ARE NOW ENTERING FREE DERRY, the slogans have changed: Hands Up, Don’t Shoot – Derry, Palestine, Ferguson. No Justice, No Peace. Derry Girls Against Borders. Not in Our Name – RIP Lyra. Code Red for Humanity. NHS – We Salute all our Key Workers. End Israeli Apartheid.
On the other side, where once was a house is a banner: There is an invisible hard border on the island or Ireland: North West Migrants Forum. #sharetheisland
In the background, Soviet flags. The letters I R A.
In the walled city, the Apprentice Boys Memorial Hall and the Siege Museum next door aim to promote understanding of the epic and heroic story of the Siege of Londonderry (1689) and the history and culture of the loyal orders.
We only see these buildings from the outside.
Michelle tells us that ethnonationalism and hyper-religion have created a hostile political climate. What, she asks, gets squeezed out when power-sharing is based on flat concepts of identity?
Women tend to face much more backlash in politics.
In an artspace in the city centre, handwritten words on window panes:
The task was to identify your language.
To use simple materials.
To have something to say.
To notice the unintentional.
To provide order.
To return home.
The feeling was new.
Articulated in a way you’d never done before,
joyful, singular, collective.
The message was prophetic,
hopeful, secret, powerful,
personal, for you, for
all of us.
Walking together in Derry
YOU CAN’T SEPERATE
LAND FROM GAYNESS.
[sound of footsteps walking over The Peace Bridge]
In the evening news, footage of the protest. Of politicians from all of the Northern Irish parties in Westminster denouncing the proposed new commission.
On the coach the next morning, we hear people call into a radio programme to denounce comments from US congressman Richard Neal that described unionists as planters and their stance over the Northern Ireland protocol as a manufactured crisis.
Next stop: Stormont. A long drive up a wide and empty road, lawns on either side. A distant view of Belfast. Inside, marble, chandeliers, a grand staircase with a statue of Northern Ireland’s first Prime Minister. Lifesize: 6ft7, just over two metres.
We meet a unionist politician.
It’s no accident that the peace agreement begins with a paragraph about relationships.
That sense of the greater good has gone. The sense of a shared future has gone to a shared out future. We need to refocus and get back to the spirit of 1998.
The challenge for nationalism is to persuade me that I belong. How come Brits Out has now become Brits In?
I was brought up as being British and a unionist, but I’ve also examined it. What happens to my culture?
You can’t legislate for mutual trust, you can only build it.
We had a linen business until 1973, when the IRA blew it up. That’s what got me interested in the human cost of conflict.
Who wants to adopt a failed statelet? We have to stop that special case nonsense.
If we were more honest that we’re all a bit hybrid, we’d do better.
What do I like about Britishness? Pluralism, inclusivity, decency and fairness.
We know those issues linger. Truth and justice is only a small piece of the jigsaw, but mental health is a piece of the jigsaw.
If you’re gonna give someone amnesty for telling lies, that’s just corrupt.
The entrance to the Assembly Chamber is flanked by quotes.
There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind. (C.S. Lewis)
Believe that a further shore is reachable from here. (Seamus Heaney)
For now, the chamber is more likely to be occupied by visitors than by elected members.
On the way back to Belfast, our taxi driver tells us the politician we have just met is one of the bitterest people, that politicians, as soon as they open their mouth, are telling you what you want to hear. That he doesn’t vote. That mixing is the only way forward. That in his part of Belfast, a peace wall holds a children’s playground that can be entered from both sides by day.
On our final afternoon, we hear about what it takes to build relationships, to tell stories. What it takes to remember through a decade of centenaries and fiftieth anniversaries. Why there should have been a question mark at the end of Healing Through Remembering. What keeps you going through years of stalemate. How everyday objects transformed by the conflict can eventually become exhibits in a shared exhibition.
[sound of tea being poured]
We hear what it takes to turn a young man from an English mining community into a British soldier: A lack of other options. A dream of heroism. A process of radicalisation. Simple, single stories: We’re good, they’re evil. A culture in which asking an awkward question can land you in prison. Six months on high alert, of jumping over hedges rather than using gates because you never know.
And what it takes to turn him back: Reading. Asking the questions anyway. A shared hatred of Margaret Thatcher.
His daughter’s generation, Lee says, are more interested in exploring their gender identities than in sectarian politics.
On the last evening, tenx9 Belfast: A Black Box, a long bar, chairs around small round tables. A stage, a mic. Seven stories: A broken foot, ‘give me a break’, a breaking voice, a break with a guide book in Amsterdam, toilet breaks in a call centre in Derry, a fraught trip to Cork, and how a much-loved woman broke a much-loved teapot.
[sound of beer being pulled]
[sound of laughter]
[sound of waves]
[sound of froth in the wake]
Are we there yet?
For the most part, these are observations from a study trip to Northern Ireland in May 2022, with student and colleagues from the Department of Peace Studies and International Relations, University of Bradford. Thanks to the Quaker Peace Studies Trust and Rotary Peace Centre for their financial support, and to all the people who shared their experiences and perspectives with us while we were there.
Italics are direct quotes.
The phrase ‘the Northern of Ireland’ is from Pádraig Ó Tuama’s poem of the same name.
The idea of writing a ‘century’ – 100 short pieces – comes from John Paul Lederach.
The idea of captions is from Raymond Antrobus, All the Names Given.