In Northern Ireland, Getting Past the Troubles

A decade after Protestants and Catholics agreed on a peace treaty, both sides are adjusting to a hopeful new reality

In a once strife-torn Belfast neighborhood (where murals today dramatize a message of hope), reconciliation is taking hold. Even so, says Father Aidan Troy, formerly of a Belfast parish, progress must be nurtured day by day: "Peace is a delicate plant." (Andrew McConnell / WPN)
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The next morning, I drive out from Belfast to the north coast of County Antrim, where something of a tourist boom is underway. Green meadows, dotted by yellow wildflowers, stretch along cliffs pounded by the Irish Sea. I follow signs for the Giant's Causeway, a scenic shoreline famed for its 40,000 basalt columns rising from the sea—the result of an ancient volcanic eruption. Some of the structures tower four stories above the water; others barely break the surface to create a natural walkway—remnants, according to Irish myth, of a path laid to Scotland by the Irish giant Finn McCool.

Two miles inland lies the quaint village of Bushmills, its narrow main street lined with old stone taverns and country inns. I pull into the packed parking lot of Old Bushmills Distillery, makers of the popular Irish whiskey. The distillery received its first license from King James I in 1608. In 2005, Diageo, a British spirits manufacturer, purchased the label, tripled production and renovated the facilities: 120,000 visitors or so tour each year. Darryl McNally, the manager, leads me down to a storage cellar, a vast, cool room filled with 8,000 oak bourbon casks imported from Louisville, Kentucky, in which the malt whiskey will be aged for a minimum of five years. In the wood-paneled tasting room, four different Bushmills single malts have been laid out in delicate glasses. I take a few sips of Bushmills' finest, the distinctly smooth, 21-year-old "Rare Beast."

Later, from the ruined stone ramparts of Dunluce Castle, dating to the 14th century, I gaze across the Irish Sea's Northern Channel toward the southwest coast of Scotland, some 20 miles away. Stone Age settlers crossed the straits here, then Vikings, and later, Scots, who migrated in the early 17th century—part of the still bitterly resented Protestant colonization of Catholic Ireland under James I.

Farther down the coast lies Derry, a picturesque city on the River Foyle, freighted with historical significance for both Catholics and Protestants. I cross the murky river by a modern steel suspension bridge. A steep hill is dominated by the city's 400-year-old stone ramparts, one of the oldest continuous city walls in Europe. Inside the wall stands an imposing stone building—headquarters of the Apprentice Boys of Derry, a Loyalist group. William Moore, its general secretary, leads me upstairs to a second-floor museum, where multimedia exhibits recount the establishment in 1613 of an English Protestant colony in Derry—previously a Catholic settlement. The newcomers built a walled town on the hill and renamed it Londonderry. In 1689, James II, a Catholic, set out from France to capture the city, a key offensive in his plan to cross the Irish Sea and retake the British throne. During the 105-day siege that followed, Moore tells me, "inhabitants were reduced to eating dogs and cats, and 10,000 of 30,000 Protestants died of starvation and disease." William III's forces broke the cordon and sent James back to France in defeat. Since 1714, the Apprentice Boys have commemorated the siege with a procession on the ramparts. (The group takes its name from 13 young apprentices who shut the gates and pulled up the drawbridges before James' forces arrived.) Catholics have long viewed the march as a provocation. "It's commemorating 10,000 deaths," Moore insists defensively.

Catholics have their own deaths to mark. On January 30, 1972—Bloody Sunday—British paratroopers firing rifles here killed 14 protesters demonstrating against the British practice of interning paramilitary suspects without trial. (A British government-funded tribunal has been investigating the incident for a decade.) The massacre is seared into the consciousness of every Catholic in Northern Ireland—and is one reason why the sectarian split ran so deep here during the Troubles. Protestants referred to the city as "Londonderry," while Catholics called it "Derry." (The bite is going out of this dispute, although the official name remains Londonderry.) Kathleen Gormley, principal of St. Cecilia's College, remembers being upbraided by British troops whenever she used its Catholic name. "We're obsessed with history here," Gormley tells me.

Yet times are changing, she says. Gormley believes that Derry has made more progress in defusing sectarian animosity than Belfast, which she visits often. "People in Belfast are more entrenched in their mind-set," she tells me. "There's a lot more cross-community involvement here."

In contrast to Belfast, where certain Loyalist parades continue to provoke disruptions, in Derry tensions have eased. The Protestant Apprentice Boys have even reached out to the Bogside Residents, a group representing Derry's Catholics. "We recognize that the city is 80 percent Catholic," says Moore. "Without their understanding, we knew we'd [keep having] major difficulties." The Boys even opened its building to Catholics, inviting them to tour the siege museum. "It helped us to relate to them as human beings, to understand the history from their perspective," Gormley told me.

But old habits die hard. One morning, I drive to south Armagh, a region of rolling green hills, pristine lakes and bucolic villages along the border with the Republic of Ireland. It's a land of ancient Irish myths, and stony, unforgiving soil that historically kept colonists away. During the Troubles, this was an IRA stronghold, where highly trained local cells carried out relentless bombings and ambushes of British troops. "We were first seen as ‘stupid ignorant paddies,' and they were ‘Green Berets.' Then they started getting killed on a regular basis," says Jim McAllister, a 65-year-old former Sinn Féin councilman. We had met at his run-down housing development in the hamlet of Cullyhanna. Though his midsection is thickening and his gray hair has thinned, McAllister is said to have been among the most powerful Sinn Féin men in south Armagh. By the late 1970s, he says in a heavy brogue, "the IRA controlled the ground here." British forces retreated to fortified camps and moved around only by helicopter; ubiquitous posters on telephone poles in those days depicted a silhouetted IRA gunman peering down a sight and the slogan "Sniper at Work."


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