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sabine-troendle.ch

04    Tell

“There is no human situation so miserable that it cannot be made worse by the presence of a policeman.”

      
Brendan Behan



 

© Sabine Troendle, 2018

 

Before I took two months off to come to Belfast to work on my photographic project on divided societies – which of course was nowhere near finish after the two months, in fact, I’m still here – I’ve spent a lot of time reading. I loved the danders to the library through early morning Zurich, descending to the underground levels of the old building and walking through endless corridors of shelves full of books. Politics, history, military, art, literature, law, anything broadening my mind regarding Irish complexities was welcome. The history of Ireland is primarily a history of exploitation, famine, migration, and demands for independence. After so many dives into stories of colonialism, miscarriages of justice, doomed battles and human suffering, I subconsciously read my way into the literary section, though ignoring Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, straight into crime fiction’s haven. Probably muttering on an even deeper subconscious level Walter Benjamin’s

"No matter what trail the flaneur may follow, every one of them will lead him to a crime."

When I walk into NO ALIBI on Botanic Avenue – THE bookshop for crime fiction, THE bookshop for inspiration, one of the few survivors in this neoliberal rage against small business and independent thinking – I can choose from a wide range of award winning local crime fiction writers. That hasn’t always been the case. For a long time crime fiction was snubbed upon, wouldn’t have been accepted in the grand world of high literature, and the same verdict fell on romance, science fiction or graphic novels. This literary bias mirrors an underlying class bias, a much bigger issue here in Belfast than in Switzerland. (I have to say that my mum, a professional bookseller herself, looked down on crime fiction wholeheartedly, though this had nothing to do with class snobbery but with her inability to bare the suspense.) The situation has considerably improved and it’s widely accepted by now, that the best crime novels are written by working-class writers and feature working-class heroes with working-class villains that chase each other in blue-collar towns and estates.

© Sabine Troendle, 2017

 

Until the early 1990s, many thrillers on Irish matters were written by non-Irish people characterising the Irish as the jolly ploughboy, the Irish rebel, the romantic gunman, the brutal and misguided terrorist. In prison for bombing the Brighton Hotel in 1984, Pat Magee wrote his PhD on the representation of Irish Republicans in Troubles fiction. Most striking, he found, was that

"Britain is rarely depicted as part of the problem; never mind, as republicans would argue, the problem. Various permutations of the formula reveal a blarney-spouting thug with a ‘ferrety look’ and halitosis or ‘the Fenian world of rotten teeth and puffy botched skin’. In this murky light, the violence attributed to republicans results from an ingrained bloodlust and is not the effect or symptom of profound political grievances."

It’s much harder to explore and express what has happened by drawing from experience, talking about things that you know, feel, smell, fear, live through than helping yourself to widely recognised and accepted narratives. But cliche is dangerous and turns quickly into banalities. It is important to contest prejudices and stereotypes by humanising the characters and correct misrepresentations for the sake of adequate understanding.

© Sabine Troendle, 2017

 

© Sabine Troendle, 2018

 

Belfast, an economical mecca in the empire turning provincial backwater after partition and war-zone during the conflict. A bleak, eerie, ghostly place, with military structures, soldiers and helicopters, eternal rain and fog, bomb sites and a dying industry. A place where suspicion, fear and violence were moulding hearts and minds and dark things were happening – a perfect location for crime stories. But there was a very defined lack of interest from editor, to writer and reader to delve into dark things when what you had outside your door were dark things happening and where you had to consider your word carefully.

“Many of us walked a tightrope with the IRA at one end, and the British Army and loyalist paramilitaries at the other. You had to be careful abut what you said and wrote. Words could kill. If you said the wrong thing, you might never be seen again. The phrase whatever you say, say nothing was a mantra for survival.”  Sharon Dempsey, writer

(Something that journalists, solicitors and politicians still need to consider today, if they don’t want to get into the backsight of officially disbanded but still existing paramilitaries.)

But it’s not just the paramilitaries or non-Irish upper-class that made it difficult for the crime fiction genre during the best part of the last century. There was also State and Church. Rigorously they spread their protective wings over a potentially mislead people by confiscating immoral crime novels from ferry passengers at the ports. There you go.

© Sabine Troendle, 2018

 

Over twenty years into the peace process, society based on tit for tat, based on revenge and vengeance merge into a more civilised society where the responsibility for revenge is passed to the state. Writers obviously feel more at ease to explore the violent past in a new imaginative form, navigate this potential minefield and retelling the story of Belfast. With time and distance it’s easier to tackle sensitive issues that haven’t completely gone away. People have suffered, people live with trauma as a result. It’s not something to make light entertainment out of. And it’s not something that a portion of Irish humour would shy away from. Something I learned at NOIRLAND, the crime fiction festival that in 2017 took place at the most bombed Hotel in Belfast – the EUROPA.

© Sabine Troendle, 2017

 

Adrian McKinty grew up in a Protestant housing estate during the Troubles but eventually moved to Australia, where, in order to write, he pulls down the shades and puts on a soundtrack of gusty rainfalls.

He is the author of the Sean Duffy thrillers, a series of books where the hero, a Catholic policeman in the 1980s is confronted not only with a civil war in the streets of Belfast, but with sectarian skirmishes from within his workspace and threats from the republican as well as the loyalist paramilitaries. During an interview with Martin Doyle, book editor of THE IRISH TIMES, Adrian pointed out how much fun it was for him to create

this character:


MARTIN DOYLE       
Was Sean Duffy always going to be a Catholic policeman?
ADRIAN McKINTY      
Oh absolutely. I was going to put him up in my house where I was born and grew up, I was going to put him in my street as well, with all my neighbours under fake names and I thought: What would annoy those neighbours the most? Well first of all, he’s gotta be a Catholic. That’s gonna really really tick them off. Second of all, he’s gonna be a policeman, they’re not gonna like that. A Catholic and a policeman, he’s gonna have authority over them, that’s gonna tick them off. And third of all I’m gonna make him bohemian. This middle-class guy, bohemian, he knows who the Velvet Underground are.”

During the Troubles, Catholics made up only around 7% of the police force. For Catholics, it was a dangerous career move, not only because policing in a war zone IS dangerous, but because it wasn’t in the IRA’s ethos to take part in protecting a state that in their view – and in the view of about a third of its population – was illegitimate. Or as Sean Duffy in GUN STREET GIRL stoically puts it,

“It certainly didn’t help that I was a Catholic. A Catholic in Carrickfergus was bad enough, but a Catholic policeman? My life expectancy could be measured in dog years.”

Whilst this line really makes me laugh, the situation today is not altogether different, if not as harsh, not as obviously absurd anymore. The Royal Ulster Constabulary is now the Police Services of Northern Ireland and Catholics make up around 32% of the organisation. On the upper echelons Catholics (as well as women, but that’s not a Belfast speciality) are a rare species.

The threat against Catholic police officers from dissident republicans, who didn’t buy into the peace process, is still ongoing. In 2010, a bomb under constable Peadar Heffron’s car exploded and left him with an amputated leg. The year after, constable Ronan Kerr was killed and in 2009, constable Stephen Carroll responded to an emergency alert where he was shot dead. In this specific case it’s not so clear who really was behind the attack. Two men are in prison, but the case is weak and talk of miscarriage of justice is loud.

© Sabine Troendle, 2017

 

After the PSNI replaced the RUC in 2001, a 50/50 recruitment policy – one Catholic recruit for every one person from a Protestant or other background – was set in place, it ran until 2011. Today the numbers of Catholic recruits are falling dramatically and the call for a return to 50/50 comes not only from nationalist politicians, but from the Catholic Primate Eamon Martin himself. Another plan to push the numbers is to establish a Catholic Police Officers Guild to provide pastoral care for practising Roman Catholics in the police service. And by the way, with only a few more Catholics, the PSNI GAA might even survive.

Back in the days, local authors were told to place their stories in Glasgow or Liverpool. Nobody wanted to be reminded of Belfast, that desolate failure of a town, that awful place where all the terrorists come from. They didn’t see how inspiring this – in their view – societal and cultural backwater was. How an artist could meander through the darkness of a society pushed to the extreme, and explore it forensically. How a talented writer could turn horrific realities into suspense and entertainment without trivialise the actual event. Crime calls for a dark city full of lost and hopeless souls. Belfast lends itself to crime fiction.

© Sabine Troendle, 2018

 

With the end of daily acts of sectarian violence and relative peace in the streets of Belfast, there is now space for dark writing.

 

 

Paul Burke, Nothing in Isolation: Irish Crime Fiction, The Troubles and The Last Crossing, 08/05/2020
Sharon Dempsey, Nordy Noir Knocks at the Door, 01/01/2019
Aaron Kelly, The Thriller and Northern Ireland since 1969, 2005
Patrick Magee, My Troubles with fiction, 22/10/2015
Adrian McKinty at NOIRLAND, 28/10/2017

03    Lost

“And then you start calling them ‘wee bastards’ because they keep you awake at night. Part of you wishes they’d just crash and get it over with, and let you go back to sleep.”

      
Belfast Resident H

"This is Gerry Adams..."

© Sabine Troendle, 2019

 

When Gerry Adams made his election stunt for Sinn Féin, driving through the neighbourhood with a soundsystem on top of the car, he was met with flying recycling bins by local youth. I wouldn’t read this as a political statement from young people to the former president of Sinn Féin, former internee at Long Kesh, partisan for the nationalist cause and crucial contributor to the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process. I don’t think, that these kids are interested in politics. I think they are bored out of their heads. And I know from experience that boredom can foster your fantasy, it’s a good precondition for creativity.

So if some youngster came up telling me, this was all performance art, well, why not. After all, trying to kill some politicians up in Stormont was said to be performance art and I must say, the leftovers of my wheelie bin are beautiful objects. Though as little the Stormont performance artist’s performance was appreciated by the public, these boys and girls fall on deaf ears in the neighbourhood when it comes to their art.

Wheelie Bin

© Sabine Troendle, 2019

 

A group of kids have dedicated themselves to bring havoc into the neighbourhood. They steal cars and motorbikes using them for joyriding. They take your wheelie bin and burn it in the middle of the street, trying to attract the police in so they can have a wee riot. They hijack cars at knife-point and they beat each other up at interface flashpoints. Masked boys and girls, some aged as young as eleven, attack police with bottles, bricks and petrol bombs. They have no fear of any authority.

You can find it in every city of the world, you’ll find it in the deprived areas of these cities. Young people in deprived areas tend to have a hostile relationship with the police. What’s different is the situations that spark those events and the readily politisation of it. Summer is always a good time, when Loyalists and Unionists celebrate an event that four hundred years ago resulted in the subjugation of the majority of the people of this island. And when Republicans and Nationalists commemorate the introduction of internment in 1971, which resulted in people being locked up for an indefinite time, the majority of them innocent.

Bonfire in Cluan Place

© Sabine Troendle, 2018

 

Both events are marked with bonfires. One community celebrates, the other commemorates. And whilst the bonfires in the protestant areas widely enjoy the support of community and politics, the internment-bonfires are anathema to most Catholics. As the peace process proceeds, they’re no longer deemed necessary and indeed, have been replaced with the Félie, the west Belfast Festival. So when a bonfire emerged in the New Lodge in 2019, it was no political, cultural or identity statement – the kids wouldn’t be able to explain the history of internment and the Troubles – it was a demonstration of power. UTH. Up the hoods. Orchestrated by some shadowy figures, performed by the kids. And of course, the kids got into trouble when the police tried to remove the bonfire, as it was dangerously close to two highrisers.

The same problem occurs in some loyalist areas every year, when they try to outdo each other with the size of their pyres. And when they burn tyres. And the Irish flag. And the picture of Martin McGuinness. (Or dead police and prison officers respectively in catholic areas). The problem is not celebrating their culture, the problem is that some of these bonfires got hijacked by the UVF. And when it comes to paramilitaries, law and order tiptoes around in circles.

Cluan Place

© Sabine Troendle, 2018

Trying to remove bonfire

 

© Sabine Troendle, 2018

 

Interfering with bonfires on either side of the divide is a difficult task, and more often than not leads to serious trouble and rioting. For days and weeks the bonfire in the New Lodge in 2019 filled the papers.

18-year-old man left in critical condition after being stabbed when fighting broke out close to the bonfire site.

Three police officers injured after crowd hurling missiles in the hours before the bonfire was lit.
Two teenagers charged after week of rioting.
Police withdraw after contractors attempt bonfire removal.
Women and children used as shields in violence, residents told to evacuate homes.
Police apology for bonfire removal failure


In east Belfast, the council invested in environmental changes to the location of a contested bonfire, to prevent it from being put up so close to residents’ homes. In another occasion the police sent anonymous and masked contractors in to dismantle a huge pyre. When the names of some of the hired hands started to appear in threatening graffiti on the walls, the contractors didn’t come back anymore.

I can’t help but thinking of the bonfires on the first of August, celebrating the birth of Switzerland in 1291. Innocent wee things, widely secured, surrounded by people who don’t have a clue what it’s all for, but greatly enjoying a bank holiday. According to the Newsletter of Swiss Vistas,


We gather around the fire, stick lanterns in the ground, play Schwiizerörgeli –Swiss accordion, dance a little and sing our national anthem while waiting for the fire to subside so we can start grilling Cervelats – a Swiss Sausages – over the remains of the fire.

Bloomfield Walkway

© Sabine Troendle, 2020

 

Kill All Taigs (Catholics)

© Sabine Troendle, 2018

 

New Lodge

© Sabine Troendle, 2019

 

Antisocial behaviour is a noisy affair, but a disrupted night’s sleep is nothing new for the people of Belfast. Back in the days, raids by police and army and noise of rioting, gunfire and helicopters were a familiar feature in many working class communities. In recent years it has been screeching tyres, power-roaring engines and the smell of overheated clutches that make the residents’ feelings run high.

Joyriding used to be a real problem during the Troubles. People in the streets got killed, joyriders got shot dead by police and army or were punished by paramilitaries. Many young men started out in life with a prison record. With the peace process in place it has slowed down somewhat, but never completely gone away. According to an article in The Irish News in November 2019, antisocial behaviour had tripled within two years, mainly in interface areas. With so many insecurities that Brexit, Tory politics and wild lockdowns have brought along in the last few years, antisocial behaviour and joyriding is back in the streets of Belfast.

Joyriders

 

© Sabine Troendle, 2019

 

The Baby Survived. His Mummy And Daddy Didn’t. JOYRIDING. Where Is The Joy?

© Sabine Troendle, 2017

 

I was very impressed with the boy depicted in the mural, who lost his parents to joyriders when he was just a toddler and was then raised by his aunt. He made an appearance in order to raise awareness about joyriding. A teenager by then himself, he addressed and challenged the hoods of the community. It takes some guts in a climate where you risk being exposed if you don’t fit in or threatened if you don’t play by the book.

The pain of losing someone through a criminal act, the hurt and loss lasts forever and voices of those broken families left behind are mostly unheard. But antisocial behaviour will not magically disappear. The many problems that deprived communities are facing need to be tackled on a political scale. In 1988, west Belfast’s answer to antisocial behaviour was a festival. Féile an Phobail – The Community’s Festival. It was a huge dance night, with DJs from all over the place and free tickets given away to young people across Belfast, encouraging them to stay away from the bonfires. It’s still going strong. (That is not to say that west Belfast is free from antisocial behaviour, far from it. And sadly, it’s still deemed one of the most deprived areas in Europe.)

There are still a few of these places in the city, in catholic and protestant working class areas, with highrisers and council flats, where the council deposits trouble-makers, mainly young men who were driven out of their own community. Young, disfranchised people with mental health issues, no education, no jobs and no perspective of any change. Just thinking, that’s life. That’s all there is. The dole office, then benefits and then – 


‘Welfare reforms brought in by the Conservative government have pushed many young people out of the benefits system entirely. They find themselves entitled to nothing at all unless they can show that they have been actively seeking work for 35 hours a week. Some simply stop registering. The state agencies have lost track of 40 per cent of those leaving the register. Literally, a lost generation.’  Eamonn McCann

‘ They need intervention. They need intervention socially, they need intervention medically, for mental health, addiction issues, and they also need some sort of hope and pride in the place they live. If you have pride in the place that you live in, you wouldn’t be trying to destroy it.’  Allison Morris

New Lodge Road #1

© Sabine Troendle, 2020

 

Belfast now exhibits loads of fancy hotels and restaurants. The gentrification
of the city centre is going ahead and the annex of the Ulster University is about to be completed. The  movie industry is flourishing, series like Game of Thrones, In the Line of Duty or The Fall have been filmed here. Tourism is getting big, especially in the summer months and you can even get a hamburger from McDonald’s meanwhile. But as Colin Coulter, professor of sociology at
Maynooth University observes,


‘The signing of the Good Friday Agreement was meant to signal an era of economic prosperity for those working-class communities that suffered most during the Troubles. Over two decades on, this much vaunted ‘peace dividend’ has yet to materialise. A combination of persistent economic stagnation and the onset of austerity has ensured that the poverty and inequality that marked the era of political conflict continue to blight Northern Irish society.’

With the money coming from Europe and the British government, they want to invest it in something that shows. They want things to look good. Want to show progress. And the politicians play along, make the various institutions build show-programmes in order to draw that money in. They want the world to see that the people in Northern Ireland are coming together. So projects that give a strong and easy proof of progress are more likely to be funded than others. The communities outside the centre and out of immediate visibility are not the premium target.

Despite all promises. No news on that side, really.

But there is no longer much to worry about, with Brexit, that money will probably stop coming in anyway.





Colin Coulter, Northern Ireland’s Elusive Peace Dividend, 2018
Heather Hamill, The Hoods, Crime and Punishment in Belfast, 2011
Eamonn McCann, The Irish Times, 27/04/2019
Allison Morris, BBC Talkback 08/08/2019

 

02    Quiet

“And we must try to find ways to starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity on which they
depend. In our societies we do not believe in constraining the media, still less in censorship. But ought we not to ask the media to agree among themselves a voluntary code of conduct, a code under which they would not say or show anything which could assist the terrorists’ morale or their cause while the hijack lasted?”

      
Margaret Thatcher, Speech to American Bar Association, July 1985​

There’s a bit of a routine I’ve developed over the years. I listen to the radio. Talkshows. Mostly about everyday political and current affairs. It’s entertaining and it gives me an insight in what’s going on in this place, the mood of everyday life and citizen but also the role of the media, mainly the BBC. Its need to appear impartial, always operating on the equality ethos. Which of course is not possible, given the fact that we are talking about a British Network, paid mainly by the British and a handful of Irish taxpayers. Not many programs made in the North of Ireland would spark a flame of interest on the British island. Not too many people over there really care whether this wee country belongs to the United Kingdom or not. They probably think they’d be better off without it. Brexit is the latest proof of how the British live in oblivion when it comes to that part of their precious union. When even the secretary of state doesn’t know about the two main entities and their affiliations either to the Crown or to the Republic down south, well, it just seems a little bit upity to me. A bit of a colonial hangover maybe?

During the Troubles in the 70s, 80s and 90s, any journalist with a desire to keep the job, would only

report from Northern Ireland with certain safeguards in place.  It was easy to get on the wrong page of the British government’s upper echelon so eager to portray itself in a positive light. Ever the peace corps, the good samaritans, coming over to settle an argument between two rivalling native tribes. Law and order fighting a terrorist gang. A friendly army drinking tea with the locals. That was the kind of picture they wanted to imprint in the spectator’s mind. There was no room for an alternative narrative, no room for reports about young unarmed men killed by soldiers, ill-treatment and torture in Castlereagh, shoot to kill policies and collusion between the army and loyalist paramilitaries. And there was certainly no room for the republican voice that could evoke the so dreaded question of WHY. To protect the people from being informed, a new legislation was introduced.

From 1988 until 1994, the Tory government put a ban on broadcasting the voices of all those who support terrorism. They were particularly concerned about television, its huge audience and the great impact of visual images. The BBC was said to be more influential than Parliament, the press, trade unions, the civil service, the monarchy and the church together. Eleven loyalist and republican paramilitary groups were listed, however, the real target was Sinn Féin, a democratically elected party and an integral part of the political process. They practically disappeared from television with a few moments of airtime that could just as well have been an episode in Monty Python’s FLYING CIRCUS. Not banning someone’s ideas, but banning the voice, it’s so bizarre and yet beautifully absurd.

Take
REAL LIVES for instance. A documentary about Martin McGuinness, former IRA member turning Sinn Féin politician, and Gregory Campbell from the DUP, two politicians from two opposing parties, only that one of the parties, Sinn Féin, was under the broadcast ban and the other, the DUP, which also happened to be the leading party in Northern Ireland, was not. So whilst Gregory Campbell was free to promote the shoot to kill policy, Martin McGuinness and his wife had do be dubbed – at least partially.

“It was all really non-sensical. When you have Martin McGuinness’ wife speaking as the wife of an IRA commander, her voice is done by an actress, but when she sighs, she sighs in her own personal capacity, so it’s her real sigh.” 
Keith Baker

© Sabine Troendle, 2017

 

From 1988 until 1994, the Tory government put a ban on broadcasting the voices of all those who support terrorism. They were particularly concerned about television, its huge audience and the great impact of visual images. The BBC was said to be more influential than Parliament, the press, trade unions, the civil service, the monarchy and the church together. Eleven loyalist and republican paramilitary groups were listed, however, the real target was Sinn Féin, a democratically elected party and an integral part of the political process. They practically disappeared from television with a few moments of airtime that could just as well have been an episode in Monty Python’s FLYING CIRCUS. Not banning someone’s ideas, but banning the voice, it’s so bizarre and yet beautifully absurd.

Take
REAL LIVES for instance. A documentary about Martin McGuinness, former IRA member turning Sinn Féin politician, and Gregory Campbell from the DUP, two politicians from two opposing parties, only that one of the parties, Sinn Féin, was under the broadcast ban and the other, the DUP, which also happened to be the leading party in Northern Ireland, was not. So whilst Gregory Campbell was free to promote the shoot to kill policy, Martin McGuinness and his wife had do be dubbed – at least partially.

“It was all really non-sensical. When you have Martin McGuinness’ wife speaking as the wife of an IRA commander, her voice is done by an actress, but when she sighs, she sighs in her own personal capacity, so it’s her real sigh.” 
Keith Baker

But my all-time favourite is the IRA sausage scene in Peter Taylor’s documentary THE ENEMY WITHIN where several loyalist and republican paramilitary prisoners are speaking un-dubbed about their situation, their lives, their views and so on. As they speak in their purely personal and private capacity and not as official representatives of the IRA, UDA or UFF, talking about their membership in a paramilitary group doesn’t bother the observing censorship board. But beware, it definitely gets ticklish when the IRA food spokesman comes in, his voice had to be silenced:

IRA FOOD SPOKESMAN      

The thing about the sausage rolls... they’re getting smaller. In terms of size and all that there, you know. The quality is still alright.
PRISON OFFICER               

The quality is good but they’re a bit small...

IRA FOOD SPOKESMAN              

They’re getting a bit small you know.
PRISON OFFICER             

Yeah but they taste a bit better.

IRA FOOD SPOKESMAN              

Getting a bit better.
PRISON OFFICER             

They were made frozen from the British one, there’s nothing we can do with this thing, just how they’re made.
IRA FOOD SPOKESMAN               

Right. There’s two things you put on, the stir-fry for the main meal last week and the fish cod type thing. ...

According to Steve Foster, the right to freedom of speech is a fundamental right, basic to human worth and dignity. Not granting that right is like treating someone with less value. It causes pain and distress. It violates their dignity as an individual and it’s damaging to society as a whole. There is a public benefit in the prohibition of torture or arbitrary censorship or discrimination. Article 15 of the European Convention – which was not yet in place during the time of the broadcast ban – recognises that different considerations may apply to the safeguarding of human rights in times of war or other situations of emergency. Any measure will need to be passed or carried out for a legitimate, and objectively justified, purpose and will also need to be reasonable and proportionate.

What personal effect the ban had on Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, Bernadette McAliskey, or anybody else who was silenced, I do not know. But with the actors perfecting their accents and local mannerisms, and them coming across much more articulate than they might have in their own voice, viewers tended to pay more attention to what was actually being said. In fact, it was a big boost for Sinn Féin, as they knew how  to turn the whole sorry farce to their advantage by promoting their case in America, where attacks on freedom of speech didn’t go down very well. So when Maggie in hindsight said that –


“I have no doubt that not only was it justified but that it has worked, and there is reason to believe that the terrorists think so too.”

– well, I just like to quote Keith again: “It wasn’t – aah – but they have to say that.”


    

Keith Baker, Interview on 6 September 2017
Liz Curtis, The Propaganda War, 1984
Brice Dickson, The European Convention on Human Rights and the Conflict in Northern Ireland, 2010
Steve Foster, Human Rights and Civil Liberties, 2008
Paul Hamann (Director), Speak No Evil, 2005
David Miller, Don’t Mention The War, 1994
Peter Taylor (Reporter), The Enemy Within, 1990

01   Welcome

“Sir, - Ireland is an island surrounded by water. It has 32 counties and four provinces. One of these provinces,

Ulster, has nine counties, six of which are occupied by a foreign country. The occupation of these six counties was forced on this country by a threat of war. This all happened in 1922, after the first World War when many Irish

men had been killed and the Irish leaders had been executed in 1916.”

    Reader’s Letter to the editor of the Irish Times, 18/06/1996​

© Sabine Troendle, 2018

 

Welcome to Northern Ireland, The Occupied Territories, The Six Counties, Ulster, Our Wee Country, or the North of Ireland, where the use of place-names indicates where your allegiances are and whether or not you think that the British presence on this part of the island is legitimate. Without having expressed any political view, you give yourself away. Thank goodness there’s a wee bit of leeway for the immigrant, caught up in this terminological minefield. The island has been colonised. The loss of personal, national and ethnic identity has ignited many violent conflicts – wars – with the most recent one lasting a good 30 years. About every aspect of cultural, political, societal and personal life is somehow defined by US and THEM. Despite the ongoing peace process, the Good Friday Agreement, the lack of reporting on the region abroad, peace and quiet it is not. I've been in Belfast for three years now. I've spoken to many people, read book after book, worked with local NGOs, got in touch with organisations dealing with legacy issues, walked the city from north to south and east to west. I'm doing my best to understand the pun, the craic, Belfast-English, and I've discovered a rich place. Full of history, ancient and not so ancient. Wonderful people, funny, with stories to tell that are not funny at all and empty buildings, waste land, unobstructed boardwalks along the river, the city with the most car parks in the world, thanks to the steady bombing campaign back in the time, as the local saying goes. There's so much here and I love every aspect of it, even if there's a lot to despair about. Political zero-sum-situation. Numbness. Exasperation. Injustice. Poverty. Mental health issues. The solidarity within communities and sometimes cross-community, the grass root activism across the age spectrum, the protest culture and unions that still deserve the name are an answer. It feels like people care.

 

The neighbourhood I live in has had it bad during the war. The Troubles. There's murals, plaques, a Remembrance Garden, annual commemorations and the Hunger Strikers on top of the tower blocks to remind and remember. On my way to a meeting with ex-prisoners I was chatting to a neighbour. She lived in this neighbourhood all her life and she was almost disgusted that I, a Swiss woman, wanted to get involved with any of it. She just couldn't understand. I've been asking myself this very question many times and never found the one catchy explanation. But it made me remember a photograph of my uncle's first child's christening – or was it his wedding? However, my grandparents stand at the very edge of the frame and don't look too happy. Apparently they were extremely upset with their son marrying a protestant girl and raising the children in the protestant tradition and they only attended the christening because my uncle threatened to cut all ties with them. I never thought much of this until I came to Belfast. It's here that I've learned about inequalities and oppression on sectarian grounds. And it's here that I've started to ask more questions about my own family background. This is not the answer to why I'm getting involved with a culture that's not mine, but it's an unexpected result of it.

I grew up in Basel, a border town to France and Germany. There was a house where you had dinner in Switzerland and went to bed in France – it's always this bit of  fascination with borders. But you cannot underestimate the power of borders as well. Especially if it's an arbitrary one. People's livelihoods and human rights are in question and the consequences of that can be seen in Ireland as well as in other places of the world, such as Palestine or Cyprus. Politics are everywhere, in health, education, sports, festivities, environment, architecture, city planning and economics.

It's a question of identity.

Of this and much more
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