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BELFAST

RELIABLE

NEWS

© 2020 BELFAST RELIABLE NEWS

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“We done an exhibition about the Pound Loney, which was a very small Catholic community at the bottom of the Falls Road that was uprooted and Divis Flats was built on top of this really old community. There’s this old woman coming in and she was standing crying, she was about 80 odd years of age. And I went up to her and I says, ‘Are you ok, I noticed that you’re upset.’ And she says to me, ‘Son, I just seen a photograph of a little boy that I had,’ and he had died when he was something like eight years of age. And she never had a photograph of him. One of her neighbours had put the photograph in the exhibition. That to me was the essence of community photography.”

       Sean McKernan, co-founder of
BELFAST EXPOSED

17    BX!

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Sean McKernan presenting poster of first exhibition by BELFAST EXPOSED

© Sabine Troendle, 2022

Photo school back in the 1990s was all about contemporary – interpretive, non-descriptive but conceptual and at best serial – photography. With the help of books, exhibitions and endless discussions we were slowly ground into ambassadors for the imagery reflecting the school’s brand in the international contemporary photography scene. That was all very well, but I got bored easily and I had to come to Belfast to experience the wealth and satisfaction deriving from an art that back in Switzerland was all but inexistent, the community arts.

The arts have always been used, in and after conflict, to explore controversial issues, accommodate competing narratives and give the voiceless a platform. For people affected, hurt and damaged by conflict, to express themselves within a safe space can’t be underestimated as it proposes an alternative to violence, an opportunity to understanding, and can support the process of healing.  

The many clashes with community arts activists fighting for their recognition, though, laid bare the Arts Council’s idea of culture, favouring the Ulster Orchestra and the Lyric Theatre over any form of working-class background arts. Its delegitimisation of art forms emerging from politically, socially and economically marginalised sections of society was creating significant barriers for working-class communities to accessing the arts, leaving them with no means of communicating beyond or even within their own community.


“It [the arts] was so removed – it was irrelevant to the lives of most people in disadvantaged marginalised society. Where I came from, the arts were non-existent.”  Sean McKernan

The Arts Council in the 1980s wanted to keep the community arts sector out of the established arts. Addressing issues such as inequality, discrimination, state violence – questioning social issues affecting a large section of society on a daily basis rather than high-culture themes – it was perceived as an inferior art form. Giving a voice to a story within a community for a community was seen with suspicion if not outright contempt by the people outside the arts and if the voice was coming from a nationalist community, the accusation of siding with terrorists was imminent. Political art was perceived as divisive and disruptive and the Arts Council turned its back on it altogether, finding it too hard to deal with the realities of a divided society and an imperial watchdog.

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Remembering the GIBRALTAR THREE, Mairéad Farrell, Danny McCann and Sean Savage, West Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2022

The Troubles were in full blow when in 1988 the WEST BELFAST FESTIVAL/FÉILE AN PHOBAIL offered the community an alternative to riots that usually took place around the internment bonfires – a reminder of the biggest injustice perpetrated against the Catholic population since the British Army’s OPERATION BANNER launched in 1969. It was the year of the assassination of three IRA members by the British Army in Gibraltar under very suspicious circumstances and loyalist Michael Stone’s subsequent killing of three mourners on Milltown Cemetery at the funeral of two of the GIBRALTAR THREE, resulting in the execution in broad daylight and media coverage of two British Army corporals who drove into the funeral of one of Stone’s victims. The people of west Belfast thereafter were described as savages by British media. Photographer Sean McKernan remembers:

“Gerry Adams called together about 25 people who were engaged in Arts, cultural activities and he put forward this idea of a festival taking place over the 9th of August which always was a challenging time. You had the internment parade and after the speech, half of the crowd, all the young people attacked the British army, the police, riots kicked off, buses were burnt, all hell broke loose and on the back of that there was more shootings, bombings. So what Gerry at the time was thinking is that the 9th of August is going to be a very difficult time for the West Belfast community because of the tensions and the vilification, the accusations that we’re all savages. It was a very intelligent manoeuvre: we’re gonna try deal with this culture of violence and rioting, let’s do something positive to stop that.”

So the festival came about. It was a very successful week-long happening with simple events such as egg and spoon races, street parties, a concert and a parade up the the Falls Road – a vehicle to help local groups to do their own thing and it sure helped to calm the rioting and the tension down. Like in so many other walks of life, instead of shutting up, people worked their way around the status quo by self-organising and innovation in order to articulate their communities’ needs and views. Quite a few established positions in the arts today have their roots in the long years of communal activism, volunteering and determination of people who believed that what they had to say was worth hearing.

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80s night, Falls Park, WEST BELFAST FESTIVAL / FÉILE AN PHOBAIL

© Sabine Troendle, 2021

The British Army’s level of force mainly against the Catholic working-class people – using plastic bullets against the civil population; shooting unarmed people; torture of prisoners; colluding with loyalist paramilitaries; falsifying evidence – clearly violated democratic standards which the government had a keen interest of keeping from the outside world. What they wanted the world to see was a peacekeeping army fighting the IRA, a terrorist group with no legitimate grievances and a lack of community support.  

“Those in positions of power, both in government and the media, have proved most reluctant to provide a full picture of events in the North or their context, and have made considerable effort to prevent journalists, dramatists and film-makers from exploring the situation from any angle other than that favoured by the British establishment.”  Liz Curtis, 1984

By regulating and controlling the media independent reporting, with a few exceptions, was as good as inexistent. The Catholic community – censored and silenced – not only grew away from the state even more but also from TV, radio and national newspapers. When in 1981 Bobby Sands MP died after 66 days on hunger strike, international media was parachuted-in to capture a bit of controversial history. A key experience for Sean:

 

“They had a stand full of the world’s press, there must’ve been at least a hundred photographers, cameramen, covering this major event. I looked around and I couldn’t recognise anybody that I knew from where I live or anybody from Belfast, and that struck a cord with me, in a sense that nobody was documenting this event that lived and grew up here in the area I lived. I felt that there’s a need for people to take some control and to document purely for posterity. Here was a major historical event happening and I felt it wasn’t being covered. Even to this day, it’s very rare to find any photographs taken by local people from the hunger strike period.” 

Northern Ireland was one of the most photographed places in the world during the Troubles and the imagery saturating the world’s media was one of visual trauma. Bombs going off, riots, violence, devastation – common pictures of war from another zone of conflict seen through the lens of professional war photographers often lacking context and subtleties of the region and its people. On the back of the social trauma of the hunger strikes coupled with the vocal isolation of the Catholic community, teacher, trade unionist and community activist Danny Burke and his pupil and photographer Sean McKernan initiated BELFAST EXPOSED, an exhibition with over 600 photographs taken by local people from both sides of the sectarian divide, reflecting the experience of Belfast from the inside. They too, photographed riots and violence. It was happening in their streets. But the vast majority of images were pictures of another Belfast, of birthday parties, street characters and architecture. Pictures of gritty Belfast humour and reality of the common working-class experience of unemployment, poor housing and social deprivation. Everyday life tinged with political violence. Seamus Heaney described BELFAST EXPOSED as ‘a marvellous moment’ and remarked on ’the powerful, democratic feel running through these photographs.’

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Sean McKernan with picture of Danny Burke at original 1983 BELFAST EXPOSED exhibition, © Sean McKernan

© Sabine Troendle, 2017

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Exhibition panels from original 1983 BELFAST EXPOSED exhibition

© Sabine Troendle, 2022

In 1983, BELFAST EXPOSED was planned as a one-off event, an exhibition in the Conway Mill in west Belfast. But it was so successful that it travelled nationally and internationally up to 2001. There were no taboos of what was shown. No censorship whatsoever. People were allowed to put up photographs of IRA funerals, UVF murals, sectarian killings – nothing was a ‘wee bit too gory, too republican or too loyalist’, the whole idea was to confront this sense of self-censorship and the censorship imposed by the mainstream media. Some people would take offence at one or the other picture. Instead of removing these pictures, the offended were encouraged to participate, to bring their own images to counter or confront the image that has done offence. BELFAST EXPOSED would offer cameras and basic training, so everybody could tell their story without being censored.

BELFAST EXPOSED was a cross-community project, with exhibitions and workshops across the sectarian divide. But in the early days, Danny Burke and Sean McKernan worked from the Falls Road, the heartland of Irish republicanism and on various occasions they were accused of being a front for the IRA. A personal vendetta between a powerful politician and Danny Burke, who in the 1970s had been associated with the republican movement but had moved on since, led to BELFAST EXPOSED being banned from the leisures centres and all funding was withdrawn. To level accusations of involvement with the IRA. was dangerous in an environment like 1980s Belfast, where people got themselves killed for no other reason than their religious background:  

“For a politician who should be aware and responsible because of the position of authority, to level accusations was tantamount to giving the green light for the UVF, UDA to come along, ‘ok, let’s kill somebody in BELFAST EXPOSED, because Belfast City Council politicians accuse them of being involved with the IRA. To have that hanging over you, that somebody in the City Council was accusing the project to be an IRA front BELFAST EXPOSED mainly by contributing their work to the exhibition. We were just used as an easy way for politicians to reenforce their own bigoted stance. By having this ‘oh, we’re attacking the IRA.’, maybe they thought will get them some more respect and some more votes.”  Sean McKernan

The ban led them to have a one-day protest exhibition outside Andersonstown Leisure Centre. In front of the press they publicly refuted the dangerous allegations of IRA. involvement and flagged political bias. ‘BELFAST EXPOSED is banned by City Hall because it originated in West Belfast’  and ‘BELFAST EXPOSED banned by City Hall’  it read on a board. They asked for an apology and a lift of the ban what eventually happened. Soon after, BELFAST EXPOSED moved out of West Belfast into the city centre –  

“If we are to keep our premises in West Belfast, it would fuel the nay-sayers who were saying it was a West Belfast republican scheme. We would be victimised because it happened to originate in West Belfast. If it had originated in the Malone Road, the University, or some neutral place, by two people who weren’t from West Belfast, we wouldn’t have gotten all these accusations. We would have got more support quicker. So I said to Danny, that we really want to be a neutral organisation in the eyes of the public, we needed to be in the city centre to be accessible by everybody, north, south, east and west.”  Sean McKernan

The owner of their new premises in Donegall Street was the COMMUNIST PARTY OF IRELAND, and of course, some people suggested that they were a communist party front.

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Protest exhibition by BELFAST EXPOSED in front of Andersonstown Leisure Centre after being banned

© Sean McKernan, ca 1984

By 1992, bigger premises were needed and BELFAST EXPOSED moved to King Street where for the first time they had their own gallery and where legendary parties took place. Meanwhile the Cathedral Quarter was developing fast and Sean, now the director of BELFAST EXPOSED, was urged to move back into the area. There was a lot of gentrification going on and the arts were used  as an economic tool to develop a run-down area into a thriving commercial space, with the government benefitting of the rates from restaurants, bars and hotels. Trying to secure some of that gentrified future prosperity for BELFAST EXPOSED, Sean discussed with various funders the benefit of a bar or restaurant licence and was told it was a non starter. Since the arts obviously weren’t supposed to reap any of their own crops, wouldn’t be given the chance to become financially independent, wouldn’t be allowed to get away from governmental funding/control, after 18 years Sean decided to leave BELFAST EXPOSED.

Today’s BELFAST EXPOSED GALLERY is Northern Ireland’s first contemporary photography gallery, a nice and safe, contemporary, uncontentious middle-class project. It epitomises gentrification in all shape and form. In 2001, with a new management, they moved back to Donegall Street into a fancy building, got rid of the history, the legacy and everything that the original BELFAST EXPOSED ever stood for, no mentioning of Sean McKernan, co-founder of the whole project, no recognition – but they kept the archive and they kept the name.

“It felt like a total slap in the face for anybody that was involved. They totally discarded the whole ethos, using all that work that was done over 20 years, like ok, this is great, we’re here now, let’s go down this nice contemporary route which wasn’t anything new. We would never approach these galleries, because it was a different style of photography. A different concept. Our concept was about using photography to highlight social issues, to highlight campaigns, and to give people the opportunity to have a say in their own communities, to have their say about what was happening in a very divided city, we were trying to bring people together through photography and also to deal with realities, to deal with social issues. That changed within a few years into a very nice, flowery, non-challenging style of photography.”  Sean McKernan

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‘Gold Rush 69’ and UDA mural, Shankill

© Sabine Troendle, 2017

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‘Night Taxi’ mural by Dan Kitchener, Enfield Street, Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2021

There was a controversial scheme after the GOOD FRIDAY AGREEMENT – ‘Re-imaging Belfast’ – replacing paramilitary and other contentious murals with undisputed historic scenes, comic figures, flowery landscapes. Raw reality of everyday life in Belfast was replaced by a new vision of a commercially successful, thriving, culturally and artistically mature city that doesn’t want to be reminded of the dark days. The old BELFAST EXPOSED must have met the same fate.

“I had arranged an exhibition in Washington DC, I had the largest public union in America come up with funding to have the exhibition in their headquarters next to the White House. That was the last time the BELFAST EXPOSED exhibition was shown. In fact, that exhibition and some of the old boards of the original exhibition were found in the skip outside the gallery of BELFAST EXPOSED. Basically, that’s what happened to the BELFAST EXPOSED exhibition.”  Sean McKernan

The total disregard for all the hard work that has been done building up the project to where it was in the early 2000 and simply being written out of contemporary BELFAST EXPOSED's history, coupled with an inactive archive and abuse of copyright issues, sees for unfinished business. Meanwhile, Sean continues to work with communities in the spirit of the original BELFAST EXPOSED, while running his own gallery SHOOT BELFAST and selling and exhibiting his own work nationally and internationally. And if you’re lucky, you’ll find yourself at a BX party – not quite the legendary King Street kind of party, as I’m told again and again, but hey, it’s BX!

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Film shoot for short film by Sean Murray

© Sabine Troendle, 2021

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Community exhibition in Lenadoon, Sean McKernan and Frankie Quinn, original BELFAST EXPOSED photographer

© Sabine Troendle, 2021

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Exhibition at Screening of LYRA by Alison Millar

© Sabine Troendle, 2021

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Sean’s photographic contribution for the movie LYRA by Alison Millar

© Sabine Troendle, 2021

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BX!

© Sabine Troendle, 2019

A big THANK YOU goes out to Sean, who’s been so supportive throughout the process of BELFAST RELIABLE NEWS. I wouldn’t be where I am without him!i


CBC News, Guardian, Irish Central, Irish Examiner, Irish News, Irish Times, Liz Curtis, The Propaganda War, 1984
Winston Irvine, Gauntlet Thrown Down to Custodians of Arts in Northern Ireland posted on FB by Eamonn Mallie on 17 Aug 2017
Sean McKernan, Interview on 1 August 2022
Northern Visions, In Our Time – Creating Arts Within Reach, 2011
Northern Visions, A Century Later: The Day I Captured Life, 2013

Irish News, Irish Times


“In 2011, the Queen of England, for the first time of a century came for a visit to Dublin and at a banquet in Dublin castle she had to give a speech and she opened up with ‘A Uachtarán agus a chairde’. Uachtarán is the word for president. It derives from the word ‘uachtar’ which means cream. You milk a cow, the cream goes to the top. And the president is at the top. You don’t need a separate word for president when you can say ‘that one who has risen to the top’ by using the word ‘cream’.”

      
Colm Mac Aindreasa, child of the Shaw’s Road Project and native Irish speaker

 

16    Roots

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Irish Language Act protest, Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2022

You can tell a Swiss writer from a German writer both using the High German language by the flow, the precision of words, the construction of a sentence, by the overall tone and rhythm of the text. Even if the Swiss author doesn’t employ vernaculars, the language comes across rather descriptive than sharp and distinguished. As if a Swiss story needs more time and space than a German story.

Something similar could be said regarding the Irish English, the so called Hiberno-English or Anglo-Irish, where the English language is amalgamating with grammars and narration of the Irish language.
“We’re not long after finding that you weren’t in bed.” “Sure didn’t I take my own mother’s name and never any harm did it to me.” “Is he in? He’s not but he bes here every Friday.” “That was me sitting in the middle of my dinner.” “I went to the shops, so I did.” Even if you don’t have any Irish, that’s how the English here works. A flowery English, found in the works of Irish writers and praised for by the international literary world. It uses imagery, comparison and analogy demanding creativity to express yourself and a broad mind to understand and make sense of what is being said. The English language, in contrast, has a word for everything. Every possible situation, emotion and scenario finds a precise definition, requiring knowledge to let it blossom.  

Cultural values and mentalities are reflected in the use of language and you have to understand the underpinning context in order to do translations any justice:  


“When you translate the Irish word ‘Rí’ – a Rí in Irish was an administrator of the tribe. A Rí in Irish was elected by the Thuath [the people, the tribe]. The Rí was not a law-maker, he was a law-giver. When you translate the word ‘Rí’ into English it translates as ‘King’. A King, he’s royal descent. It’s a God-given right to rule. It’s the law-giver and the law-maker. Totally different societal and most particularly power relationships. The minute you describe a Rí a King, you change everything. The Rí is given the power that he never had as a Rí but he does have as a King.”  Jake Mac Siacais, Director of Forbairt Feirste

An Irish Rí has got nothing in common with an English King. The concept of a Rí embraces something very different from the concept of a King. Therefore, translating Rí to King ignores and devalues the culture embraced by the Rí.

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Eithne, figure of Irish mythology, Teach Eithne, New Lodge, Belfast. Painting by Danny Devenny.   

© Sabine Troendle, 2020

Since the Norman invasion into Ireland sometime in the late twelfth century, Ireland’s been struggling in one form or the other against exploitation, subjugation and conquest, trying to prevent the overthrow of its social system, its values, and its identity. British imperialism – with its inherent assumption of cultural superiority – did not recognise the Irish as equals and it was the English colonial spree of the fifteenth century and onwards which saw English, Scottish and Welsh farmers being given the good land to strategically subjugate the unruly Irish. All over Ireland, but especially in Ulster, plantations started to emerge on the land that the Irish previously owned and the planters, the now inhabitants, began to introduce a new way of life, a different culture and an alien language.

Britain eventually gained control over the whole island of Ireland. It brought in the Penal Laws which outlawed everything Irish and Catholic, everything that didn’t conform to the established Church and the Queen’s English. It denied Catholics ownership of land and livestock, to vote and to be educated about their religion. Speaking Irish was made illegal, leading to generations of parents not speaking to their children in order to protect them from punishment in school. To succeed in life and progress in the official world, you had to speak English.

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Penal Cross, Catholics’ secret mass stone, Co Monaghan

© Sabine Troendle, 2018

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Falls, West Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2021

The Great Hunger or the so called Famine –
“There was no famine, the Irish people were only allowed to eat potatoes, all of the other food, meat, fish and vegetables were shipped out of the country under armed guard to England while the Irish people starved.”  Sinead O’Connor, Lyrics from ‘Famine’


The Great Hunger from 1845 to 1849 was being used to full capacity to coerce the Irish into renouncing their identity. Soup kitchens were denying food to Catholics unless they converted to Protestantism. Convert to Protestantism or starve. Renounce your identity or starve. Speak English or starve. It’s the thing a coloniser does. Make the native people feel bad about their own culture, persuade them through military, legal, economic, social and every other means to abandon their language and culture and adopt the ways of the oppressor.

“Military conquest is not enough. If you want the whole of the territory you must destroy not just its territory, you must also destroy its soul. And any indigenous culture will have its soul built around its language. The English knew that early on. They moved towards suppressing the language, as they did in Scotland, in Wales and elsewhere. ‘Destroy the local culture and then they will have nothing to do but become like us.’”  Colm Mac Aindreasa

For the colonial project to succeed it was essential to make the natives despise their own culture. To understand that being Irish was shameful. They were taught contempt for their own identity. It was backwards, associated with poverty, remoteness, farming, no education. The unionist Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Lord Craigavon, in 1936 cynically stated that,

“What use is it here in this progressive busy part of the Empire to teach our children the Irish language? Is it not leading them along a road which has no practical value? We have not stopped such teaching; we have stopped the grants – simply because we do not see that these boys being taught Irish would be any better citizens.”  Lord Craigavon

Politicisation of Irish has deep roots in colonial history. After Partition in 1922, the new government in the north strategically frustrated efforts to keep the language alive by banning it from the curriculum in schools, burning Irish language books, removing funding, ignoring the wish of students to learn the language. Never sounding like the British and missing a real sense of their cultural inheritance, the Irish grew up with the sense of being less than the British, of being second-class citizens.

Throughout the decades, various Irish language activist groups have done their best to keep the language alive and to reintroduce it into society. There’s an expression in Irish that says –
ná habair é, déan é – don’t say it, do it! In 1969, just when the Troubles were about to kick off, that’s what a group of working class families were doing. With no funding, they built a mini-Gaeltacht in west Belfast – a row of houses and a primary school consisting of a portacabin – where the official language taught and spoken was Irish. The unionist government threatened them with prosecution should they ever try to set up an Irish school but as the six counties tumbled deeper into turmoil, “prosecuting a small group in west Belfast for setting up a school that didn’t speak English was pretty low on the list of priorities” and the state was trying to pretend that it wasn’t happening, as Colm states.

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Colm Mac Aindreasa

© Sabine Troendle, 2022

The Shaw’s Road project was trying to establish a non-political Irish-speaking community. They were referred to as ‘The Irish Houses’ by the community around them who didn’t really understand what was going on there. They were those weirdos who spoke Irish to what point escaped them. But that was to change with the evolving trauma of the 1980 and 1981 hunger strikes where Margaret Thatcher’s government let ten people die just to then quietly give up their brutal stance on the treatment of political prisoners in Northern Ireland.

The collective trauma of the hunger strikes led to a massive shift in the nationalist community mindset. Anger and hatred towards everything that Thatcher represented led to even soft nationalists becoming more Irish or ‘not British’. Never has Britishness been more rejected than during that period. This new sense of identity manifested itself in a hype of everything Irish. Pubs and clubs started beginner classes for the Irish language and Irish dancing and traditional music replaced the Top of the Pops in these venues.

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Commemoration for Thomas Ash who died on hunger strike in 1917 after having been force fed, Ballymurphy, Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2017

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The Belfast Story, Maddens Bar, Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2018

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U16 County Hurling Championship Final, Ruairi Og v Rossa, Dunloy

© Sabine Troendle, 2018

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Sinn Féin campaign poster, New Lodge, Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2019

The anti-British sentiment of that time, this sudden mutual understanding of Irishness, harmonised with Sinn Féin’s political line and gave the party a major push. They quickly adopted the Irish language, creating bilingual election documentation despite the fact that most of the people had only basic Irish if any. Sinn Féin’s success in adopting the Irish cultural identity galvanised unionist objection of everything Irish – in particular the language – and alarmed the British government into ‘counter-investment’ by finally funding Irish medium education and creating the ULTACH trust for cross-community Irish language programmes, devaluating Sinn Féin’s political leverage as the lone arbiter of Irish cultural identity. Historically supporters, they jumped on the Irish language bandwagon driven by the blanket protestors when it became politically useful to them, whilst the Shaw’s Road families have been quietly planting a seed twenty years ahead.

Not everybody had the privilege to learn Irish after a good night’s sleep in a warm bed and a hearty breakfast. Many of today’s Irish speakers didn’t go to Irish dancing and language classes in their social club around the corner. They were teaching each other from prison cell to prison cell, first through the door and then – after the guards threw boiling water through the door scalding their bodies – out through their windows. The blanket and later no-wash protest which evolved into the hunger strikes was on and the protesting prisoners found themselves in a cell naked, with a mattress, three blankets, a chamber pot and a gallon of water. No pens, no paper, no radio, no exercise, no nothing and under these circumstances they set up their Irish language classes. They learned their Irish in the ‘Jailtacht’ as opposed to the ‘Gaeltacht’ and for that they deserve nothing but respect.   


“Wh
en we arrived in the H-Blocks, which was a totally different kettle of fish [from the Cages, where the prisoners availed of political status and had access to Irish media and the Gaeltacht, exclusively Irish speaking cages], Bobby Sands functioned as an education officer. During the breaks when the screws went off to their meals and when they went away in the evening, we would jump up to the door and teach Irish. We had a basic class, an intermediate class and a high class. The transmission of news from cell to cell could only be done in Irish. Orders were only issued in Irish. There were five who didn’t want to learn Irish. So people with Irish had to translate to them. But after five years on the blanket they all ended up fluent Irish speakers despite themselves.”  Jake Mac Siacais

Educating themselves in the Irish language and culture not only put them at an advantage over the wardens in a practical sense, it also boosted their morale, realising how the human spirit can triumph over abhorrent surroundings.


“I think that what the H-Blocks did was they inculcated a massive love for Irish amongst prisoners. And they also taught us that the liberation of an individual and then the liberation of the community comes through the reversal of the colonisation process. And so to role back the conquest you needed first of all within yourself to de-colonise your mind. You then had to de-colonise your community.”  Jake Mac Siacais 

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Jake Mac Siacais

© Sabine Troendle, 2022

The Irish language has a widespread symbolic significance in the nationalist community whereas unionism – especially on a political level – shows nothing but contempt for the language and culture. The Arlene Fosters (feeding the crocodiles) and Gregory Campbells (Curry my yoghurt) of this world appear to be uneducated and ignorant not knowing their own background. Was it not the Protestants, the Anglo-Irish of the 19th century, who did most to try to revive the Irish language. Was it not the Reverend Rutledge Kane, Grand Master of the Orange Order, taking up the post of secretary of the Gaelic League to promote the Irish culture in the face of its massive decline. Did not the Gusty Spences, David Ervines and Billy Hutchinsons of the loyalist prisoners learn the Irish from their republican counterparts, acknowledging an Irish element to their identity. Was it not in 2011 their own monarch, Queen Elizabeth, beginning her speech in Dublin Castle in Irish – A Uachtarán agus a chairde, President and friends. A number of Orangemen are fluent in Irish. The Irish language wasn’t politicised by Irish speakers, it was politicised by the unionist state of the late 1890s when they started to disassociate themselves from rural Ireland exchanging their ‘loyal Irishness’ – Irish people loyal to the monarchy – with ‘Britishness’ – people of cultural supremacy.

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‘Maintain our [British] Culture’ election poster, Shankill, Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2019

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Larne

© Sabine Troendle, 2021

Sinn Féin’s growing popularity during the painful and violent period of the hunger strikes in the early 1980s, aggravated unionists’ proclamation that Irishness meant Sinn Féin, who of course to their mind was a terrorist organisation. To this day, unionism parallels Irishness and the Irish language with republicanism and republicanism with terrorism, though, finally, that narrative is being contested from within the unionist community as well.

“Irish was never the affront I took it to be. It was my culture that supplanted Irish, burying it in the peremptory administration of imperial bureaucracies and commerce. I cannot relate to the dislocation and alienation that native speakers must have experienced. Yet, I do recognise the loss. I do feel the narrowness of my inheritance. Irish is not my language, but it’s part of my story, too. In opposing the Irish language, we oppose a part of ourselves.”  Richard Irvine, Teacher  

Political unionism’s deep hatred for the Irish language, claiming it undermines their Britishness (any form of expressing Irish identity is a threat to British cultural hegemony), discriminates against them, turns them into second-class citizens – that age-old fear of the unknown and terrible lack of generosity denies their community to embrace an identity that belongs to everybody and enrichens a society altogether. Ignorance only feeds uncertainty and insecurity and today’s grassroots unionism knows.

Irish Language activist and unionist Linda Ervine, sister in law of the late loyalist paramilitary turning politician David Ervine, runs
TURAS, an Irish language project on the Newtownards Road, in the heart of Protestant east Belfast. TURAS upholds the ethos that the Irish language is not a threat to the unionist identity or antithetical to Britishness but rather a contribution to the linguistic diversity of these islands, part of a continuum of Celtic languages such as Scottish Gaelic and Welsh. It brings people together and Linda is adamant that this is the perfect medium for reconciliation. The message seems to catch on, it’s said that the fastest-growing cohort of Irish language learners is now amongst Protestants.

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Irish Language Act protest, Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2022

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Irish Language Act protest, Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2022

It has taken an awful lot to move towards a situation whereas the Irish identity as a whole has a good chance to become legally recognised. It’s yet to be seen how it’s all going to play out, but on May 25, 2022, the IDENTITY AND LANGUAGE (NORTHERN IRELAND) BILL was introduced in Westminster. It will grant the Irish language as well as the Ulster Scots official status in the north of Ireland, as did the GAELIC LANGUAGE ACT 2005 in Scotland and the 1993 WELSH LANGUAGE ACT in Wales.

The repeal of the ADMINISTRATION OF JUSTICE (LANGUAGE) ACT (IRELAND) dating from 1737 will allow Irish to be used in the Stormont Assembly and to register births, deaths, marriages and wills in Irish and if it does succeed –  

“This could be an historic day when being Irish is no longer a crime, I will be allowed to speak Irish in court. It legitimises the language and therefore me and my identity which did not exist prior to now. People have been arrested and prosecuted for refusing to speak English with police and in court in the past. I’ve had full legal status as a speaker of English but as an Irish speaker that aspect of my identity has always been legally denied me until now. I hope we have finally taken that last step to re-legitimising Irishness in this country.”  Colm Mac Aindreasa  

An estimated 17,000 people took part in this May’s Irish language protest march. Over 7,000 children are enrolled in Irish medium schools and the boys and girls who live in today’s 22 houses on the Shaw’s Road don’t see themselves as special, living in the Gaeltacht, it’s just a home where they speak their language which happens to be Irish. In a
way, that’s what the Shaw’s Road project was all about from the start: normalising the language and accepting it as part of life. More and more people in these parts of the world understand that.

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An extra THANK YOU goes to Colm Mac Aindreasa and Jake Mac Siacais for their generous time and unique insight into aspects of their lives as a native Irish speaker growing up in Belfast’s own Gaeltacht and a former prisoner discovering the love for the Irish language in prison.

Choyaa, The Orange Order’s complex relationship with the Irish Language, Slugger O’Toole, 12 January 2020
Niall Comer, posted on FB by Cormack Buzz Ó Briain, 24 December 2019
Colm Mac Aindreasa, Interview on 25 May 2022
Jake Mac Siacais, Interview on 27 May 2022
Scéal Phobal Bhóthar Seoighe – The Irish Houses, BBC iPlayer, 16 March 2020
Andrew Walsh, From hope to hatred – Voices of the Falls Curfew, 2013
Jaira Wilsey, Surnames in Northern Ireland: A key to history and identity, 2013

CBC News, Guardian, Irish Central, Irish Examiner, Irish News, Irish Times, Rebelnews


“When a city is re-developed a pattern of life is laid down for at least a century. I find myself in disagreement at the proposals that the divisions in the community should be accepted as a feature of life which must inevitably persist for a hundred years or more. ... This seems a counsel of despair. The word ghetto has been lightly and loosely used in the past. These proposals would give the name substance, and would attract criticism from all over the world.”

      
Anthony Hewins, Office of the United Kingdom Representative in Northern Ireland, 1971

15    Divide

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Peace Wall Cupar Way, West Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2017

It’s been estimated that between 1969, on the outbreak of the Troubles, and its heights in 1976, more than 60,000 people have fled their homes because of sectarian violence, intimidation and fear. The attacks on Catholics and the burning of Bombay Street in 1969 initiated the biggest inter-city migration process western Europe has ever seen since World War 2. Where before people lived side by side in some kind of peace, they now would seek the sanctuary of single-identity estates. Persistent disproportion and inequality in housing distribution facilitated Protestant refugees finding a new home with relative ease while Catholic areas were already over-crowded.

If the homes of leaving Protestant families haven’t been completely destroyed in order to prevent any Catholics from moving in, they were squatted by those Catholic families that couldn’t find refuge in clearly designated Catholic areas, contesting of course the existing boundaries between the two communities. Because these areas were still perceived as Protestant territory, the authorities couldn’t just allocate the freed houses to the displaced Catholics. The looming threat of Catholics spreading into Protestant areas had to be stopped or rather controlled to prevent confrontation and violence to erupt. The solution seemed to have been found not by building houses but by letting the highest ranks of army and security forces – quite outside of public view – get involved with assessing security issues and planning decisions, leading to permanent inter-community barriers and therefore fixing the boundaries of disputed borders for good. 

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Short Strand, East Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2017

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Duncairn Gardens, North Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2017

The military’s divisive security-planning policy that transformed Northern Ireland into a war zone included heavily fortified police stations, army observation posts on roof-tops of residential tower-blocks and the now dismantled watchtowers which in 1986, to the dismay of neighbouring residents in South Armagh, interfered with their signal on TV during the World cup in Mexico.

Oblivious to history and make-up, Belfast’s tribal logic was lost on the soldiers stationed there to support the local security forces. This was a problem. The Victorian-era gridiron layout of the city, where roads were connected throughout the neighbourhoods, made travelling by car from, through and to different areas easy and most paramilitary attacks were carried out using cars. This was a problem. Thus, besides getting a grip on community boundaries, the militaristic redevelopment strategy of the 1970s and 1980s was all about control over pedestrian and vehicular movement as well as army access into housing estates.

Open-ended road networks were being closed off and divided into cul-de-sacs, rendering car-escapes almost impossible and frustrating normal everyday access into the areas to this day, as all intuitive understanding of the neighbourhood is gone. Dead-end alleyways and single entries would lead into courtyards – intimate residential clusters – where a non-resident stands out immediately. The scheme was sold as slowing down traffic and offering the residents safety, peace and some kind of ownership over their area. While this would have been welcomed in principle, the security aspect wasn’t lost on the residents and they complained about feeling under surveillance from security forces and neighbours.

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Crumlin Road, North Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2018

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Falls, West Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2017

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Springmartin, North Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2018

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Ardoyne, North Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2017

Disruption of and obstacles on through-roads confront residents with long journeys and dependency on cars just to get to the shop around the corner. If you want to go from the WELCOME CENTRE to the Presbyterian Church situated within a hundred metres on the one and same road, you’ll be sent through the Catholic Falls over to the Protestant Shankill in order to get to your destination – unless you’re lucky and the newly transformed gate on Townsend Street is open. Then you can also just stroll over. It won’t take more than two minutes.

Security-focused redevelopment made use of everyday architecture creating buffer zones such as shopping centres, roads, industrial zones, hotels, recreational space or tight hedgerows to reinforce spatial division between nationalist and unionist communities and would keep undeveloped land or derelict areas unused instead of building houses for communities in housing distress. These hidden barriers remain largely unrecognised as such but play their role in dividing communities and hindering access to the city centre.  

Probably the most persistent barriers rest in people’s minds. Separated by walls and other dividing structures, Protestants and Catholics live in close proximity without necessarily interacting with each other at all. Knowledge of past violent events and injustices build on mutual generational distrust, impacting on movement and behavioural patterns and leading to so called activity segregation. People take detours to avoid certain areas, they refuse to go to the adjacent park perceiving it to be a Protestant park. Instead of using the bus around the corner, they walk a longer distance to the bus servicing areas within their comfort zone. There might not always be a physical barrier between communities, but history, events and memory provide for invisible demarcation lines. 

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New Lodge/Tigers Bay, North Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2021

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Ardoyne/Woodvale, North Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2018

These hidden barriers and invisible boundaries continue to encourage conflict-era behaviour and keep society’s mindset trapped in time. They’ve become part of the communal fabric, normalised, people just live with it, though they affect their lives and wellbeing – even the DUP’s Nelson McCausland in his former role of Minister for Social Development agreed –

“There are still areas blighted by dereliction and decay, with empty houses that are boarded up and land that lies derelict and undeveloped. These problems drag a community down, becoming magnets for anti-social behaviour and dumping. They blight the lives of residents.”

However, these less visible barriers are not evaluated conflict-related divisions and there’s no specific governmental body assigned to tackle the issue, quite unlike the clearly visible and in 2021 officially recognised 59 peace walls owned by the DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE (DoJ) and the 20 peace walls owned by the HOUSING EXECUTIVE – out of the close to 100 identified by the BELFAST INTERFACE PROJECT in 2019. While the structures were put up for protection and safety, it’s well been documented how people living in the shadow of peace walls are more likely to battle physical and mental health problems. About one in five receive anti-depressant medication compared to one in eight for the rest of the population. Educational attainment lies low, economic achievement stays persistently below average, and violence and anti-social behaviour projects high above other residential layouts.

Launched in 2012, the
PEACE BARRIERS PROGRAMME funded by the INTERNATIONAL FUND FOR IRELAND pledged to have the barriers down by 2023. While various political breakdowns and instability around Brexit and the Protocol are vamping up division anew, tensions in interface areas have always been high. It’s not pure sectarianism, but mainly boredom, general frustration, the desire for some ‘craic’ that gets the kids going. Nevertheless, many interface residents favour the dismantlement of the barriers – although, alas, not in their lifetime and by 2022, 46 of the
barriers are still standing.

It’s a sensitive task, reaching the point where communities feel safe enough to discuss options of removals or alterations of barriers. It requires a deep understanding of complex issues, as well as a clearly outlined socio-economic after-care package. Most of the negotiations happen on grassroots level with dedicated members of the community working tirelessly building up mutual trust. The
BLACK MOUNTAIN SHARED SPACES PROJECT and the DUNCAIRN COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIP’s successful engagement with interface communities has, for example, seen some easing of physical division on the Springfield Road in the west and in North Queen Street and Duncairn Gardens in the north of the city.    

Mesh fence replacing corrugated steel wall in Duncairn Gardens, North Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2021

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Low garden fence replacing high peace fence, North Queen Street, North Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2021

Prior to the change, residents of North Queen Street didn’t use there front door and garden. With the replaced fence, which is barely recognisable as a peace wall, came more room and just the other day a barbecue was simmering on a grill in one of the residents’ new gardens. Replacing the four metre high wall required the windows and doors being enforced with security glass but for the first time in thirty years the sun shines into these homes unhindered.

The dismantling of a huge corrugated steel wall replaced by a transparent mesh fence gives way to a panoramic view from loyalist Tigers Bay into the republican New Lodge. There’s no opening through the scaled-down barrier but floral landscaping along the fence and a wandering gaze into the unknown space beyond maybe help to alter feelings of fear and held prejudice against that unknown community on the other side –


“My mum always told me: never go through that entry. But little did we know it was a Catholic area, you know, we were just told we were never allowed to go through. But of course me and the sister and a wee friend stuck our head round the wall to see, you know, what is going on round here. But everything just looked normal to us.”  Woman from East Belfast

Erected in 1989 to protect residents, the partial removal of the three metre high security wall facing the police station on the Springfield road is a significant step forward for the Springhill community. The only fly in the ointment, a good part of Gael Force Art/Gerard ‘Mo Chara’ Kelly’s Palestinian mural is gone too. 

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Mesh fence replacing concrete blocks, Springfield Avenue, West Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2017

Bimper Archer, Anti-social behaviour triples at so-called peace walls, Irish News, 13 Nov 2019
Bimper Archer, Barriers to peace still, Irish News, 16 Nov 2021
Belfast School of Architecture + the Built Environment, Hidden barriers, SuperStudio 3 + 4
David Coyles, Brandon Hamber, Adrian Grant, Hidden barriers and divisive architecture, June 2021
Nick Garbutt, Who plans Belfast?, ScopeNI, 12 Dec 2014
Nick Garbutt, Defensive planing – how the military shaped Belfast, ScopeNI, 5 Jan 2015
Rita Harkin, Anything goes – architectural destruction in Northern Ireland after the Troubles, 2014
Andrew Sanders and Ian S. Woods, Times of Troubles. Britain’s War in Northern Ireland, 2012
Andrew Walsh, Belfast ‘69: bombs, burning and bigotry, 2015

Belfast Interface Project, Belfast Telegraph, Irish News


“At the very start of Noah going missing I put my trust as a member of the public in the authorities. I knew no different. My eyes are wide open now. This investigation, my mind is blown by how little the police seem to have done. We as a family have done quite a bit of investigation ourselves and we dispute their line of inquiry.”

      
  Fiona Donohoe, mother of Noah

14    Qualm

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NOAH?

© Sabine Troendle, 2021

In the summer of 2020 Noah Donohoe, a 14 year old boy from south Belfast went missing while on his way to Cavehill to meet his friends. After an extensive six-days search he was found in a storm drain in an area of Belfast unknown to him. The pathology report states that Noah had drowned. He was naked. His computer has been found – a drug addict tried to sell it. His bicycle has been found in an area Noah wouldn’t have gone to. Parts of his clothes were found. Witnesses had seen him running up the street naked. CCTV footage shows Noah distressed and exhausted. As a legacy of the Troubles, Belfast is heavily equipped with surveillance but there’s a whole stretch where CCTV footage of Noah is missing. Noah was a Catholic boy of mixed race, happy and popular in school, he loved sports, basketball and his cello. He never gave his mommy Fiona any bother. The police very early into the investigation said, no foul play was at stake. Noah might have fallen from the bike, hit his head, got confused, went into the storm drain and drowned. They never took rumours of Noah having been drowned in a bath tub and loyalist paramilitary involvement seriously. The water in the storm drain has never been compared with the water in Noah’s lungs.

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P.S.N.I. STOP HIDING NOAH’S KILLER, New Lodge

© Sabine Troendle, 2021

It is a very sensitive and controversial inquest and many unanswered questions, investigative shortcomings and a looming PUBLIC INTEREST IMMUNITY (PII) certification request by the police in order to withhold evidence that – in their estimation – could be damaging to public interest feeds into presumptions of loyalist paramilitary machination. The most common reason for a PII request is paramilitary, intelligence or informer involvement.

Noah went missing in a staunchly loyalist area where sectarian and racist attacks do occur but where a community centre immediately organised a search operation and locals dropped off provisions for hundreds of people from all over the town searching for the mixed-race Catholic boy – testament to community activism, so typical for Belfast working-class communities. They gathered day after day until the police urged the public to leave the search to professionals.

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HUBB Community Resource Centre, east Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2020

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Search party, east Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2020

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Entrance to Noah’s school, St Malachy’s College, north Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2020

Noah’s mum is still hoping to get to the bottom of her son’s death. Whilst the police try to nurture the narrative of misadventure or even suicide, suspicions of a much darker story circulate amongst the people in Belfast – a story so many families have fallen victim to in one or the other way – the story of paramilitary power, information and infiltration. It happened during the Troubles and it’s still happening within the republican NEW IRA or the loyalist UVF and UDA. Protection for information. There is no proof of paramilitary involvement in Noah’s death. There’s only a lot of loose ends, coincidences and a police force that considers to refuse disclosure of certain evidence.

Paramilitary groups represent themselves as the harbingers of justice in communities with a policing vacuum by going after the hoods, the joyriders, the petty thieves, the drug addicts, the dealers and everyone that steps out of line. They impose discipline on the area. They say they’ve been put under pressure by the community to do something about crime because the police are ineffective. Weekly reports on punishment shootings and beatings are normal. It’s swift justice versus state bureaucracy. An acceptable way of punishing criminals.


“Masked men forced their way into a home and beat and shot a teenager.”  Irish News, 15 Feb 2022

“Two men dressed in black clothes took the man into an alleyway and shot him in the left leg. It was not clear last night if the shooting was by appointment.”  Irish News, 27 Oct 2020
“Deaghlan Collins (30) was shot twice in the legs on Springfield Road after being chased from outside a fast-food outlet. He was under threat from an armed group.”  Irish News, 20 July 2019
“The man, who was in his thirties, suffered life-changing injuries when he was shot three times in the legs.”  Irish News, 2 Oct 2019

This vigilante justice has brutalised society. It’s taken for granted that being shot in the knees and ankles is what happens. And if the paramilitaries command you  to a certain place at a certain time, instead of going to the police and ask for protection, you’ll take a few painkillers and fresh underwear for the hospital and show up. Shooting by appointment, they call it.  


“My mommy was ‘where are you going?’ I was like, ‘no, I’m just down a bar.’ So I went down, had a few wee pints, got a wee text and all, and I walked over at me own. I was like ‘mate, I hope you’re not trying to pull a dirty one, here, shoot me with a bigger gun and all?’ He was like ‘I’m not, kid, I’ll look after you, I’ll look after you.’  And he showed me the gun in his hands, it was a hand-sized gun. He didn’t lie to me, like. He didn’t. He told me to lie down and bite my arm. I heard the first one and I thought like, wow. He was like, ‘did it hit, did it hit?’ I said ‘of course it did, just do the other one!’ I did do bad shit and I accept that. I got shot four times.”  Anonymous victim

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DRUG DEALERS WILL BE SHOT, AAD! (Action Against Drugs), New Lodge

© Sabine Troendle, 2021

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HOUSE BREAKERS (will be shot), Larne

© Sabine Troendle, 2018

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Cisco, Ballymurphy

© Sabine Troendle, 2017

The UVF and the UDA recruit young members by selling drugs and let them get into thousands of pounds of debt. Then they can choose between becoming foot soldiers for the organisation’s money laundering and extortion business or being beaten up, banished or shot. People say, ‘it’s not part of my life’. Societal shrug is the reaction. But it’s not just about the person who gets hurt and maimed for life. It’s about sending out a message to the whole community. It’s about saying, ‘we run this place, we are in charge’. This way they maintain their coercive control they need to be able to reside and exist in these areas. They are tightening their grip on communities who are in fear to speak out against them.

Andrew Peden lost both his legs in a loyalist paramilitary attack. He knows the perpetrators but will never seek justice. He’s afraid for his family. Hugh Brady is a former republican prisoner turned community worker. He would rather be dead than tout on armed republicans. The worst thing an Irish person could be accused of is being an informer. Be it on political grounds – as it is the case in some republican areas where the security forces are the enemy – or pure fear of retaliation, people in working-class communities with paramilitary presence almost never go to the police.

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© Sabine Troendle, 2017

TOUT (Informer), New Lodge

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PEOPLE SHOULD NOT INFORM, Falls Road

© Sabine Troendle, 2017

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PSNI NOT WELCOME IN ARDOYNE

© Sabine Troendle, 2017

Toni Johnston-Ogle made an impressive exception of the rule when she stood up against the UVF, accusing them of months of intimidation culminating in the stabbing of her father Ian Ogle in 2019. She believes that her community in Cluan Place will never forgive them and is hopeful that people will rise up. Close to 2,000 mourners attended the vigil – a strong sign of support for a brave person who is ready to confront the power structures of east Belfast’s paramilitaries.


It took the police four days to admit that it was the UVF, who was behind the Ogle-murder when everybody around knew it right away. Why are they so slow in admitting to paramilitary involvement? Who or what are they trying to protect? MI5 infiltration in various groups is not just a memory, the latest exposure of agent Dennis McFadden within the New IRA is an ongoing case. Is it right to gloss over an investigation in order to keep the identity of an informer or agent hidden? Is it more important to keep an operation involving agents or informers going than giving a grieving family justice and closure? How far will they go to protect their sources? As it stands, using the paramilitary power structures constitutes an integral part of politically rubberstamped policing practice creating a murky justice wish-wash. This is not good enough and won’t make people feel safe to come forward with information. It’s exceptionally hard for Fiona Donohoe to bear the silence surrounding her son’s death knowing there’s people out there willing to help but too scared to speak out.

“There’s anonymous phone calls with people saying they have information but they have to keep their families save. They never call back. I just pray that someday somebody will do the right thing and come forward to give information. There’s more good people on both sides and it’s just a minority that poison a community.”  Fiona Donohoe

More than 280,000 people have signed a petition for the police to release the files on Noah Donohoe uncensored. NOAH’S ARMY, a formation of friends, sympathisers and human rights campaigners, is supporting Fiona in her battle to get justice for her son. Not allowing to be silenced, Toni and Fiona show courage and determination on their journey against societal apathy and political status quo.

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NOAH’S ARMY campaigning for justice, Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2021

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Justice For Noah campaign, New Lodge

© Sabine Troendle, 2021

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Ian Ogle remembered one year on, east Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2020

Since the signing of the GOOD FRIDAY AGREEMENT, a lot of money has gone into helping paramilitary organisations transition to peace. Those groups who moved on, and there’s a lot of people who’ve played a positive role and done a lot for the peace process, they moved on a long time ago. What is left is criminals.

“We need to move away from the language of paramilitary and Troubles romanticism. What we’re talking about is gangsterism, criminals terrorising and controlling their communities. For children and young people to escape from power and from that control, there’s an awful lot to be done. And also in order for these communities to feel strong and safe enough to come forward and to say, you have no place here. But that can only happen when there’s confidence particularly in the police and social services that they will actually keep them safe.”  Koulla Yiasouma, Children’s Commissioner

Transition cannot continue indefinitely, but 24 years on, money from Westminster still runs into the hands of the groups. It seems that violence pays.

Trevor Birney, Above the law, Documentary, RTÉ, 2015
William Crawley, Is eradicating paramilitarism how we build a shared society? Talkback, BBC Radio Ulster, 29 Sep 2017
Fiona Donohoe, Interview with James English, Youtube, 30 Jan 2022
Stacey Dooley Investigates, Shot by my neighbour, BBC, 2018
Stephen Nolan, Paramilitary Punishment, The Nolan Show, BBC Radio Ulster, 15 Oct 2021
Sinead O’Shea, A mother brings her son to be shot, Documentary, 2019

BBC News, Belfast Telegraph, The Guardian, Irish News, Sunday Life


“And at one point Pat was talking about his community and what they suffered and how he felt. How he cared about them. And I saw in him now a man with a story, who suffered, who struggled. He’s not just the man who planted that bomb. I didn’t meet him to change him, I didn’t meet him to get an apology. I met him just to see him as a human being. Because he was THE most demonised person in that time. And that wasn’t gonna help me. But it would help me to see him as a human being.”

      
  Joanna ‘Jo’ Berry

13    Reconciliation

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© Sabine Troendle, 2022

Patrick Magee

In 1984 a bomb went off in the Brighton Grand Hotel where the Conservative Party was hosting their conference. Over thirty people were injured and five died: Muriel MacLean, Jeanne Shattock, Roberta Wakeham, Eric Taylor and Anthony Berry. The main target, Margaret Thatcher, walked out of the blast unscathed. The IRA claimed responsibility and Patrick Magee, the only ever convicted person for the bombing, ended up with multiple life sentences in prison. He served over fourteen years when paramilitary prisoners whose organisation had signed up to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement were granted an early release. Around 500 loyalist and republican volunteers walked through the prison turnstiles before completing their sentences. In 1999, Pat Magee was one of them.

Ex-prisoners play a crucial role in creating conditions for peace, a fact that is often overseen. Former prisoners helped to bring about the West Belfast festival as an alternative to the confrontational bonfires that were lit annually to commemorate internment. During the Holy Cross dispute in 2001, when loyalist residents tried to prevent Catholic girls to walk through their street in order to get to school, ending up with the army having to escort them, it was mainly down to former prisoners that the months-long gauntlet-running came to an end. Prisoners were not merely released, many involved themselves in some sort of community work, focusing on young people and interface violence, increasing cross-community interaction, trying to contrive situations to get people together. 

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Ex-Prisoners Interpretative Centre, Woodvale Road, Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2017

Being involved in cross-community tension transformation doesn’t necessarily imply discarding key ideological views or decrease inter-community distrust. Polar ideological opposition between former enemies often remains, despite the willingness of line-crossing, engagement and openness to dialogue. They work with each other without trying to persuade one another of their respective believes. Or as a UVF-member states,

“I firmly believe that there are differences that I have with republicans and nationalists that are never going to be resolved. But my relationship with them has been transformed from one of demonisation and just wanting to destroy them, to trying to create a society in which we can live together and have those differences.”    

There will never be an agreement on history narratives and that’s not a solely Northern Irish experience. The peace process with the
GOOD FRIDAY AGREEMENT at its heart has somewhat ironically consolidated difference by institutionalising ‘Otherness’. Instead of tackling the fundamental issues of division it went for appeasement and accommodation which surely ameliorated the situation in a sense that it brought an end to open war and facilitated political participation for all, but – for the sake of peace – pushed basic grievances under the carpet and kept the unionist and nationalist communities segregated.

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Catholic and Protestant side of Alexandra Park, Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2020

There are sports clubs and the arts and there are welfare organisations and community centres promoting cross-community engagement and inter-community care. However, a hurt people can’t heal on the shoulder of civic society when the political agenda doesn’t support it. Right across the divide, families still seek for answers on why or how their loved ones were killed, injured, punished, targeted, disappeared, defamed, locked up, interned or otherwise banished. The past hasn’t been dealt with properly and it lies there, underneath, nagging and to resurface and to become the question and pain of the next generation.

“Dealing with the legacy of our past and building meaningful reconciliation is complicated and delicate. If we are to unite hearts and minds and nourish a genuine hope for lasting peace and reconciliation in Ireland, then we have to work together on healing the legacy of our shared past, because peace can only flourish in the light of knowledge, truth and justice.”  Eamon Martin, Archbishop of Armagh

The British government is doing the very reverse. With a blind-eyes-deaf-ears-and-concealment-of-truth-strategy it is planning to implement a statute of limitations to end all prosecutions of military veterans and ex-paramilitaries for Troubles incidents predating the GOOD FRIDAY AGREEMENT 1998. It’s been complaining about the ‘witch hunts’ and ‘vexatious prosecutions’ of soldiers now in their 70s, 80s and 90s. The reality is, the British government doesn’t lose anything by granting paramilitaries amnesty but risks its reputation if details around army and MI5 proceedings during the Troubles emerge. British state violence, collusion with loyalist paramilitaries and sectarian manipulation shines an uncomfortable light on the government. So the secretary of state Brandon Lewis and his boss Boris Johnson say that prosecutions don’t work, don’t do justice to the people, there is too little evidence after such a long time, and that amnesty is a great idea, it will allow the people to draw a line under the past and help them to move further along the