Reflections from Derry, Northern Ireland

The conflict that has been going on for decades in Northern Ireland and considered by many to have been brought to an end with the signing of the Belfast “Good Friday” Agreement in 1998, was brought into clear focus for me when I attended a conference on conflict and divided societies at Magee College, University of Ulster in Derry, Northern Ireland, two weeks ago. The theme of the conference was ‘divisions within divisions’ and examined the role women played within politically divided societies as a result of conflict and internal strife. This conference was organized by Dr. James Skelly on behalf of the BCA Study Abroad Program, in partnership with AEGEE (European Students’ Forum), Foundation for International Education, University of Ulster and University of San Diego.

Free Derry Murals

A mural depicting the Troubles in Free Derry – More photos on Flickr here

Prior to the conference, I really did not know much about the conflict happening in Ireland, specifically in Northern Ireland, let alone understand the full intensity and gravity of the historical divisions that runs deep between those who fought for an independent Irish republic, the mainly-Catholic nationalists; and those who fought to remain a part of the United Kingdom, the mainly-Protestant unionists. My perception of Ireland and the Irish in general, was rather limited to St. Patrick’s Day celebrations held every March 17; Guinness; four-leaf clovers; and leprechauns sitting on a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. This, I believe, is a fairly typical North American perspective to say the least–I would hazard a guess and say this is the perspective a majority of people hold who are not from, or have lived, in Ireland/Northern Ireland/United Kingdom for an extended period of time. In any case, I am almost embarrassed to admit what my stereotypes of Ireland were prior to this experience.

Free Derry Murals

Another mural depicting the Troubles in Free Derry – More photos on Flickr here

I also don’t fully understand the complexities or know all of the history behind the troubles of Northern Ireland. I am, however, very curious about the peace process that has brought about a relative amount of peace and calm across Northern Ireland for the past decade or so; specifically in Derry, said to be the epicentre of the Irish Troubles back in 1968 and also where Bloody Sunday took place on January 30, 1972, when 13 civilians were shot dead by the British military in a civil rights march in the Bogside area. On a side note, there was a recent car bombing that took place in Derry in early October of this year; fortunately, no one was injured as a warning was given ahead of time. This time around, a group calling themselves the Real IRA claimed responsibility for the attack. And as with many conflicts around the world, there are always two sides to every story. A cursory search on YouTube regarding the ‘The Troubles’ in Ireland reveals countless documentaries on the nature of the conflict. However, within minutes, you can usually tell which ideological lens and perspective the video stems from and seeks to portray. Wikipedia also has a fairly comprehensive overview of ‘The Troubles’ of Northern Ireland, with a long list of references to look into, should you be interested in understanding the history of the conflict in Northern Ireland in greater detail.

Derry, Northern Ireland

Derry, Northern Ireland – More photos on Flickr here

There was one particular aspect of the conference that I found to be one of the most intense experiences that I have ever encountered in my life. On day two of the conference, we were extremely lucky to have had 3 cast members of the Playhouse Theatre of Witness production, “I Once Knew A Girl…” , along with the director, Teya Sepinuck, come in to give us a rendition of the play specifically for delegates of the conference. Since it was a fairly small academic conference with around 50 conference attendees (including speakers), to say that the atmosphere in the small(ish) lecture room was intimate was an understatement.

#iPhone #photos from Derry, Northern Ireland

“I Once Knew a Girl…” – More photos on Flickr here

“I Once Knew A Girl…” is described as an original multi-media production performed and created by women whose lives were affected during the Troubles. The play is based on their true life stories and the production is by daughters, mothers, grandmothers and partners who through the circumstances of history, became involved as witnesses, survivors, and active participants of the Troubles, as well as more recent years of peace building. The one story that really got to me was the story of Mrs. Gillespie, the wife of Patrick ‘Patsy’ Gillespie, a Catholic from Derry who worked for the British Army as a cook, and thus, seen as a legitimate target; kidnapped by the IRA and forced to drive a van loaded with explosives into a military checkpoint outside of Derry, killing Mr. Gillespie and five other British soldiers in the process. By the time Mrs. Gillespie had finished telling her story, I was in tears just like a little child and completely speechless for close to half an hour. Prior to Mrs. Gillespie sharing her story and concluding the conference rendition of the play, we had also heard from a woman who was a former IRA paramilitary member, as well as from another woman who was a police officer. Given the history and complexities of the Troubles, the fact that these women have the strength to come together to share their stories in the face of conflict, adversity and tragedy, and in the end, are able to move and carry on with their lives, doing their part to build lasting peace in their community, sends a very strong message that peace can be achieved.

Free Derry

You are now entering Free Derry – More photos on Flickr here

Directly following the play, we then heard from world renowned journalist, Isabel Hilton, who showcased her documentary, Condemned to Live (1999), a report about the after-effects of mass rape and genocide in Rwanda. Isabel then spoke briefly about the state of uncertainty in the world today and the pending environmental crisis that humanity is facing, beginning with the melting of the polar ice caps as a result of raised temperatures due to climate change. When asked a question from the audience why she continues to do what she does, given her long and illustrious career as a journalist having covered many important stories for more than three decades from all over the world, she responded, (paraphrasing slightly), “you cannot ‘un-know’ what you know… and when you know, you can no longer claim moral innocence and just stand there and do nothing about it.”

Delegates of the BCA Students Conference on Divided Societies

Some of the delegates from the BCA Divided Societies Conference 2010, Magee College, University of Ulster – More photos on Flickr here

Needless to say, by the end of the second day of the conference, I was a broken man, but not yet beaten; disheartened, perhaps a little; yet, I still remained positive in the goodness of humanity despite what I had just seen and witnessed. Earlier during the first day of the conference as well, we had also heard from Jody Jensen from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (and Director of the MA International Economics Relations program at ISES), about the case of Agnes Gereb being thrown into a Hungarian prison, for championing home births in the face of the authorities’ hardline childbirth policy. However, this issue is important enough to me to merit its own blog post, which I will be publishing very shortly.

At the end of the day, I learned a lot more about the Northern Ireland conflict; walked away with a much deeper appreciation of the role women play when it comes to peace building within divided societies; and made a lot of new friends with some of the coolest people in the world.

In the words of Yann Arthus-Bertrand in the documentary, Home, it is too late to be a pessimist.