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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McAllister says that the IRA's paramilitaries have evolved into a powerful local mafia that controls the smuggling of diesel fuel and cigarettes from across the border—and tolerates no competition. Because of higher duty taxes, diesel in Britain is more expensive than in the Republic of Ireland; the open border here makes it absurdly easy to bring cheaper fuel across illegally. (Smugglers also transport low-priced tractor fuel into Northern Ireland, where it's chemically treated for use in cars and trucks.) "When the war finished, a lot of IRA men said, ‘This is over, forget about it.' But a small number are still at it," McAllister says.

We drive down country lanes to the cottage of Stephen Quinn, whose son, Paul, fell out with IRA members in Cullyhanna in 2007—some say because he was smuggling fuel without their permission. (McAllister says that while Paul did a little smuggling, it was more his attitude toward IRA locals that got him into trouble.) "My son had no respect for them. He got into fistfights with them," Stephen Quinn, a retired trucker, tells me. One evening in October, Paul and a friend were lured to a farmhouse across the border, where Paul was beaten to death with iron bars and clubs with metal spikes. (His companion, also beaten, survived.) "We're the bosses around here," the survivor reported one of the men as saying.

In the aftermath of the murder, hundreds of local people, including McAllister, braved threats from local "provos" to protest. As we drive around the tidy central square in Crossmaglen, south Armagh's largest village, he now points out a placard bearing a photograph of Paul Quinn over the words: "Is This the Peace We Signed Up For? Your Community Is in the Grip of Murderers." "It would have been unheard of to put up a poster like that two years ago," McAllister says. "By murdering Paul Quinn, the IRA has changed things big-time." McAllister says Quinn's murderers—still unidentified—will be brought to justice.

Four separate criminal tribunals are currently underway in Northern Ireland, examining past atrocities including Bloody Sunday. In addition, families of victims of the August 15, 1998, Omagh bombing, in which 29 people died, are pursuing a landmark civil suit against members of the "real" IRA, a dissident splinter group of the IRA. (The group "apologized" for the killings several days later.) In 2007 Northern Ireland also established the Consultative Group on the Past, to explore ways of illuminating the truth about the thousands of deaths. Chaired by a former Anglican archbishop, Lord Robin Eames, and a former Catholic priest, Denis Bradley, the group issued its recommendations in late January. Among its proposals were setting up a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission and making payments to victims on both sides.

But like everything else in this country, the issue is fraught. Loyalists contend that such a commission would let the IRA off too easy. Catholics, meanwhile, want all murders, including those of republican fighters by British soldiers, to be investigated. "The definition of what a victim is remains one of the most contentious issues in Northern Ireland," Bradley told me. "We have moved past armed conflict and civil unrest. But we haven't moved past the political issues on which these things had their basis."

Even as the dispute continues, individuals are making their own attempts to confront the past. Back at the yoga studio in Derry, Don Browne, the former member of a hit squad, tells me that he wouldn't be opposed to a private meeting with the family of McElhinney, the former UDR man murdered 24 years ago. He admits he is anxious about the prospect: "I'm worried about retraumatizing the family. I don't know if they've found closure," he says. A decade after the end of the Troubles, it is an issue with which all of Northern Ireland seems to be grappling.

Writer Joshua Hammer lives in Berlin.
Photographer Andrew McConnell is based in Nairobi.

About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

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