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Abroad students travel to Belfast

Karen Langley | Thursday, October 26, 2006

BELFAST – There’s a lot of baggage that comes with being Irish and Catholic in this city. Or Irish and Protestant, for that matter.

Notre Dame students may not often have reason to think about these challenges, given the pep-band air which surrounds any campus expression of their university’s traditional heritage. But last weekend, the students of Notre Dame’s Dublin Program traveled to Northern Ireland’s capital to see firsthand about the political and religious divides that have troubled this island’s northern end for generations.

Between meeting with a representative of the Sinn Féin political party and touring Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods, students were able to learn experientially about life north of the border.

The group drove north on Oct. 13, over ground where program director Kevin Whelan said snipers used to lie in wait. Upon arrival, they toured Stormont, the home of the Northern Ireland Assembly – a legislative body which has not met since October 2002 because of tension between Nationalists, who want Northern Ireland to become part of the Republic of Ireland, and Unionists, who want the state to be totally under the control of the United Kingdom.

After the tour and an educational session, Whelan and the students met with Philip McGuigan, a Sinn Féin Member of the Legislative Assembly.

Sinn Féin is the political party that was closely associated with the Provisional Irish Republican Army, the volunteer paramilitary organization that since 1969 acted with violence in support of Nationalist causes, and so many of McGuigan’s initial statements regarded the relationship between the two.

The two groups shared the same political objective – uniting all of Ireland under one Irish government – and their membership was drawn from the same communities, McGuigan said.

“There’s no denying that some of the leadership [of Sinn Féin] was once involved in the IRA,” he said.

McGuigan, who is in his early 30s, said that he was never a member of the IRA and never “bombed or shot anyone.”

Clearly aware of his audience’s nationality, he added that those IRA volunteers who did bomb and shoot may not have been so different from the American militias who took up arms to resist their British colonizers.

“The Republicans aren’t made up of psychopaths,” McGuigan said. “Nobody wants to pick up arms and be killed or kill someone else.”

The IRA decommissioned in 2005 and has ceased intelligence and fundraising activities, Whelan later said.

McGuigan emphasized that his desire for a united Ireland did not stem from mere idealism, but rather practicality.

“It makes sense for the people of this island to decide their destinies” without the interference of British rule in Northern Ireland, he said.

This British presence in Ireland, and not hatred between Catholics and Protestants, was the cause of violence in Northern Ireland, McGuigan said.

“We have always recognized any solution on the island will have us all living together,” he said.

During the question and answer session, Whelan challenged McGuigan’s assertion that Sinn Fein was a party which appealed to young people throughout Ireland.

“Most young people now would rather have the Taliban running Ireland than Sinn Féin,” Whelan said. “You’ve tarnished the ideas of the very people you want.”

Later, Whelan said that while he was trying to provoke the politician into giving a straight, emotional answer, he said it was true that young people in the south see Sinn Féin as a relic of Ireland’s violent past.

The meeting at Stormont convinced Dublin Program participant Matt Anderson that the troubled history of Northern Ireland has not been resolved, particularly since British parliament members have governed the state since the Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended in 2002.

“A handful of British politicians come over … make random laws for Northern

Ireland, fly back, and then resume their lives again. … They don’t even live in Ireland,” he said. “How can people stand for that?”

Students from the Dublin Program have visited Belfast and met with various political representatives since the program’s founding in 1998. Representatives from all four of Northern Ireland’s major political parties – Sinn Féin, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party – have met with groups.

On two occasions, the trips to Stormont have coincided with major milestones in the Northern Ireland peace process. Notre Dame students were in Northern Ireland in April 1998 when the British and Irish governments signed the historic Good Friday Agreement, Whelan said. This weekend, British and Northern Ireland leaders meeting in Scotland came to the St. Andrews Agreement, under which devolution of political power back to the Northern Ireland assembly should occur within months.

Four years ago, students met with the now infamous Denis Donaldson. At the time, Donaldson was a Sinn Fein representative but was murdered in April after being discovered as a British spy.

On Oct. 14, the group toured the political murals located within the Catholic and Protestant communities of Belfast. These brightly colored paintings on the side of stores and homes typically commemorate those who died during the Troubles, but the murals are extremely sectarian in nature. The Troubles refers to the period of violence in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s until the Good Friday Agreement.

In the Protestant communities, the Union Jack waves from houses while murals laud Oliver Cromwell. In Catholic communities, the green, white and orange of the Republic of Ireland are everywhere, and praise of the IRA decorates family homes.

Though most students have some knowledge of the political history of Northern Ireland, seeing Belfast themselves is pivotal in their education process, Whelan said.

“It brings home to people how close and yet how far apart the Unionist and Nationalist communities are,” he said.

The human context of Northern Ireland’s political problems was evident to Dublin Program participant Becky Antas when touring the neighborhoods.

“It was sad to see the many children running about and playing in the streets next to violent, graphic murals painted on the sides of their houses,” she said.

Though Antas and her family have been active in Northern Ireland peace issues for years, touring the murals made her even more eager for the Unionists and Nationalists to “finally compromise and end the age-old conflict.”

Even outside the context of Irish studies, the situation of Northern Ireland is of international importance, Whelan said.

“It’s an example of the transition from an armed struggle and terrorism to a democratic republic,” he said.

When Dublin Program participant Michael Redding was walking through the neighborhoods, he noticed the looks on residents’ faces as they saw this group of students taking a guided tour, complete with local historian, of their neighborhood.

“It wasn’t that they didn’t want you there,” Redding said. “It was just this look that they knew that was as close as you would ever come to understanding the pain and division the Troubles have caused.”