The conflict known as the Troubles was a long war on many fronts. There were some people fighting against those they saw as invaders and oppressors and others fighting to show how loyal they were to the country they felt part of. There was also a propaganda war being fought as various groups tried to reach sympathetic audiences (and large pocketbooks) around the world. The third battleground was the deadliest of all and it was comprised of all the tit-for-tat, mostly Sectarian killings between various paramilitary groups. This last front resulted in the vast majority of civilian deaths throughout the region and it was the hardest to prepare for or justify. It includes the Devil’s Night massacre at the Rising Sun bar in Greysteel, which happened on this day in 1993.
The newly revamped Museum of Free Derry has been mired in controversy since before its doors reopened. At issue is an exhibit that includes the names of all the people who were killed in the area during the Troubles. This seems harmless except that the names of British soldiers and police officers are also there, right alongside many innocent victims who were killed by those very same squads. The decision to include those names may seem reasonable from a purely educational viewpoint but the Museum underestimated the emotional response from locals who lost friends and family members during the conflict. For some of them, the inclusion of these government contingents is an affront to the memories of their loved ones and a blatant disregard for their own feelings and their continuing fight for answers and justice.
The North of Ireland is a complicated place – especially in July. Every year makeshift towers of debris, old tires, and wooden pallets reach higher and higher into the sky. They are decorated with sectarian slogans, political effigies, Irish flags (or Ivory Coast ones, since some can’t tell the difference between the two), and serious threats against Catholics, opposing politicians, Irish men and women, minorities, and the gay community. These dangerous displays are what they call culture this time of year and they are a horrifying example of the division that continues to exist in the North.
On this day in 1974, Dublin City Center was devastated by three large bombs that went off without warning in the span of about 90 seconds. They exploded in the middle of rush hour during a public transportation strike which had left more people in the area than usual. Injuries and casualties were astronomical. When a similar bomb exploded without warning in the city of Monaghan ninety minutes later, the incident became the worst and largest loss of life in Ireland’s more recent troubled history. The explosions injured nearly three hundred people and killed thirty-three civilians in all and decades later, despite multiple investigations, reports, and a mountain of evidence, no one has ever been charged or prosecuted for these attacks.
On this day in 2013 Margaret Thatcher died. I can’t very well write about Irish history without acknowledging her passage, so there it is. I always try to write passionate and fair pieces and I choose my subjects with that in mind which is why I will skip anything more about her at this time. Perhaps there will come a day when I can actually write about her without getting angry, biased, and opinionated, but today is not that day so I’ll let these photos I’ve snapped throughout the North of Ireland speak for me. They’re worth at least a thousand words anyway.
“Our revenge will be the laughter of our children” – Bobby Sands
Reading headlines from Ireland over the last few weeks was strange because I could have sworn I’d read them before…and I have. Hunger Strike commemorations, anger over parades, riot police protecting interlopers over residents, arson fires at community centers, the birth of new political parties, and spies in the IRA have dominated the media of late. The anger, frustration, and general sense of “what the fxck” that came with it all was a bit stronger in the last couple of weeks than it has been in much of the last few decades. The pictures, headlines, and videos gave me a sense of foreboding and a lingering confusion which kind of felt like I was having a bad flashback. Unfortunately, that was not the case.
Tradition is a word that is thrown about a lot. It’s used as justification for both good and bad deeds of the past and it’s a word that is often trotted out by hate groups throughout the world in an attempt to excuse their continuing and horrifying behavior. The KKK uses it as a recruiting tool. The Orange Order uses it as a weapon for blackmail and destruction. Other groups use it as well. Politicians use it to garner votes. Parents use it to pressure their children. But tradition is an outdated ideal that doesn’t exist anymore on many, many levels and it’s time to let some of it go.
I arrived in Derry during a downpour, even though the sun was still peeking through the gathering storm clouds. By the end of the trip, I felt like the weather was a perfect metaphor for the city itself. Derry is rare. It is dark, but light pierces through it. It is grey but full of color. It is gathering and ready, but still and waiting. It is tragic and beautiful. Derry is a very special place.
Today Bobby Sands would have turned 62 had he lived beyond his hunger strike. Since he did not and I happen to be in Belfast, I decided to visit him (and others) in Milltown Cemetery, bringing flowers that were long overdue.
Lawyers are a group of people in an occupation that everyone loves to hate. Endless jokes use them as the punchline, there’s an eternal stream of songs and stories about how evil they are, and it seems that no matter which area of law they practice, they’re always hated by someone. It takes a thick skin, an obsessive attention to detail, endless patience, and a lot of manipulation to succeed in the field. In the North of Ireland, the law not only takes over their lives, but sometimes it ends them. It is not a job for the weak.
Rosemary Nelson lived her life trying to make the world a better place for everyone. She lived in a hotbed of Sectarianism during the Troubles but she represented people on both sides of the religious divide in small matters for years and went to bat for those that other people would ignore. She fought on behalf of the Garvaghy Road residents during the long Drumcree conflict in nearby Portadown, which thrust her firmly into politics and ruined any rapport she had with the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the RUC). That relationship only got worse when she decided to represent Colin Duffy, a man accused of killing their officers. That case would change her life and it ultimately took it as well. In the North, there have been many cases where certain factions of the population are unable to separate the lawyer from the criminal, and the assumption is that they’re one and the same. Even before she got Duffy released on a successful appeal, she was getting death threats from officers and Loyalist paramilitaries alike, just for representing him. There were twenty serious and documented death threats over a two year period, and two of them allegedly came directly from police officers. She dutifully reported each one, but was consistently refused protection by the police and the government, even after the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur stated on television that he felt her life was in danger. He recommended that the British government take action. They chose not to. She eventually testified about the threats before a committee of the United States Congress that was investigating human rights in the North of Ireland. It seems everyone was concerned about Nelson, except the very people whose job it was to take care of her.
The British government, MI5, and the RUC did not investigate any of these threats, nor did they ever give her protection. In case you feel like they didn’t do anything, rest assured that they did – they put Rosemary herself under surveillance for criminal activity. Between 1994-1998 security reports about her life increased until her home was bugged. She was seen as a criminal, rather than an attorney; and a threat, rather than a victim.
Rosemary Nelson was killed when a bomb planted under her car exploded on March 15th, 1999. The Red Hand Defenders, a Loyalist paramilitary group that was mostly made up of members of the LVF and the UDA, took credit for her assassination. Many of the members of the Red Hand Defenders were also RUC officers and British Army soldiers – people who belonged to the same organizations that had ignored her complaints for years, even while they were watching her every move. Strangely though, they didn’t have much in their records to investigate when it came to her death, despite all the surveillance – at least nothing they were willing to share with anyone else. There were a few inquiries into her murder and the final reports stated that all three agencies (the Government, MI5, and the RUC) had failed to protect her and had helped “legitimize” her as a target in the eyes of Loyalist paramilitaries. It also stated that these agencies and their employees had publicly threatened her and that their intelligence information had been “leaked”, making it easier for the murderers to get to her. It noted that numerous requests and warrants for surveillance footage or reports had been ignored completely. The inquiry couldn’t prove definitively that anyone in these departments had directly been involved in her death, but it certainly couldn’t prove otherwise either and their report clearly stated that investigators could not rule out the possibility that officers or soldiers might have aided the murderers.
Nelson was awarded the Train Foundation’s Civil Courage Prize after her death – an award that honors “extraordinary heroes of conscience.” Her humanitarian status was celebrated and mourned world-wide in the aftermath of her murder – and while some Loyalists still see her as a symbol of hate, those who she spent her life trying to help remember her as an incredible and determined woman, who wanted justice for everyone whether they were young, old, Catholic, or Protestant. Today would be her birthday and I humbly suggest doing something wonderful in her honor. Help someone in whatever way you can, large or small, friend or stranger. I’m sure she’d want to be remembered in that way, rather than for the horrific way she was targeted, abandoned, and killed.