Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

NORTHERN IRELAND AND TROUBLES: A visit to Belfast, 1991

In A.Graham on July 4, 2017 at 12:22 pm

a fire bombed pub in the city centre

by Alistair Graham

I paid a number of visits to Belfast during the 1980s into the 1990s. Despite “the Troubles” (as they were known), it was a vibrant city and I felt few qualms in walking the streets of this fractured community. After all, I had the anonymity of a stranger looking in, and thus was hardly a target for any warring faction.

“FACT FINDING”:

Probably the most fruitful visit was in April 1991, when I joined a “fact finding” group from the ILP to meet and interview groups and political parties from across the spectrum – sometimes singly and other times in groups.

We met representatives from the SDLP,  the Ulster Unionists, Democratic  Unionists, the Workers Party and Alliance..  We also met a number of campaigning groups – like the Peace  Women,  Families Against Terror and Intimidation – and Gusty Spence, former leader  of the UVF.

VIOLENCE;

At that time, of course, Martin McGuinness was still leader of the provisional IRA, before his conversion ushered in a new era of “power sharing” in Northern Ireland which officially brought “the troubles” to an end. In the spring of 1991 “the Provos” had established a bloody record of violence and destruction – including a half-hearted pogrom against members of the Workers Party (which had evolved from the former “official” Republican movement).  Several of those whom I’d come to count as friends were victims of armed attacks (though fortunately none were successful).

We also met Maurice Healey, from Newry (on the border) who had been taken by the Provisional IRA, tortured, subjected to a kangaroo court and ordered out of Northern Ireland with the warning that he would be executed if he ever returned.

He was charged with being an informant. But he had defied the order by returning to Belfast to make his case public.

DIFFERENT PATHS TO PEACE:

It became clear at least to me that despite the complexity of the conflict created by the warring factions there was a growing peace movement which was capable of contributing to any peace settlement. Politically there was the Alliance Party, the SDLP and in its own way the Workers Party. Elsewhere there were the Peace Women – and the remarkable case of Gusty Spence, a former leader of the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force), who’d turned his back on violence to involve himself in community politics in the Shankhill Road area of Belfast.

Few of us at the time would have believed that, after the Good Friday Agreement, it would be Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party under Ian Paisley who would emerge as leaders of the new order. “Power sharing” became the new mantra. Paisley, who had campaigned under the slogan, “No Surrender!” became Northern Ireland’s First Minister with    Martin McGuinness ensconced as his deputy.

It seemed as if the world had turned upside down. “Power” had somehow evolved to the two extremes of Irish politics, and in so doing had marginalised those forces in between that had worked so hard to create the conditions for peace during “the troubles”. It’s a funny old world.

With the death of Martin McGuinness, the status quo of power sharing hangs in the balance. What happens next in Northern Ireland I wouldn’t like to guess. But then I wouldn’t have foreseen events back in 1991 either. Now of course the UK General Election has thrown it all into limbo.

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