Northern Ireland 40 years ago

Forty years ago, I set off to visit Northern Ireland for the first time. A week before, sectarian rioting had broken out in Belfast and Londonderry and troops moved into the cities. Like most people in the remainder of the UK, I was shocked by the events and could not understand how this could be happening in my country.
I was starting a year as sabbatical president of the students’ union at my university at the time, so I took a week off and went over to see for myself what was happening. In both cities, I walked all the streets and districts where there had been violence, talked to lots of people on both sides of the sectarian divide, and took 60 black and white photographs.
I kept a detailed diary and concluded my visit with these words:
“Two weeks after the troops went in, it is impossible to say where Northern Ireland goes from here. The Callaghan [then Home Secretary] package appears to offer genuine hope if all sides are prepared to work for peace. However, one Catholic on the barricades told me; ‘It’s the lull before the storm’.
Yet renewed conflict need not be violent as the DCDA [Derry Citizens’ Defence Association] are certainly considering a rate and rent strike. Unrest in some form, therefore, is likely to continue, as the bitterness of decades if not centuries cannot be wiped out in weeks or even months.”
I seriously underestimated the scale and longevity of “the Troubles” which did not come to an end until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 after the passage of three decades and the death of some 3,500 civilians and soldiers. At the time of my visit, I did not know that, three years later, Jim Callaghan would interview me and employ me in the House of Commons and, five years later, I would be a Special Adviser in the Northern Ireland Office working for a Labour Government.
Incidentally, media coverage of this 40th anniversary is almost non-existent. What does this tell us?

One Comment

  • Mavis

    “What does this tell us” ?
    In my humble opinion – best ‘let sleeping dogs lie’.
    Its all still too raw, too fragile a peace and too close for comfort. Least said soonest mended springs to mind.


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