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.
Our lives are full of choices. Every day we face them – some small and trivial and others that change lives. If we’re lucky (or unlucky as the case may be) some even change the course of history – and it is important to acknowledge those choices with the gravitas they deserve. The North of Ireland is about to have one of those game-changing elections and it needs to be carefully considered because the next few decades and any remaining scraps of the Good Friday agreement are just the beginning of what’s at stake.
The news out of Ireland this week has been insane – so much so that I haven’t even been able to decide which story to write about or how to keep up. There’s so much going on, and it kind of makes me want to put the entire region on a time out, just so I can catch up. In case you missed some, here are just a few of the things that have been interesting me, in the last seven days alone.
“Londonderry or Derry?,” asked a friend of mine when he was off to the North of Ireland. It’s an age old question and I found myself a little stuck when it came to answering. “That depends” seemed to be the safest bet at the time. However, the next time either of us visit, the question may no longer be an issue since last week Derry city and the Strabane District Council voted in favor of formally losing the London prefix.
On this day, March 26th, in 2007, a historic meeting was made in the North of Ireland. Ian Paisley, an avid Protestant firebrand known for his “Never” phrases sat down with the other side of his coin, Gerry Adams, who led (and leads) Sinn Féin. The two men hammered out an agreement at Stormont that promised to form a power-sharing partnership by May 8th of that year. For the first time, the ideological opposites were able to come together and reach an agreement that was mostly fair for most of their constituents . Both Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Former British prime minister Tony Blair hail this first meeting and agreement as “a reconciliatory and transforming moment in British-Irish history.”
When I was much younger and more of a punk kid, I always said I’d dance a jig on the day that Ian Paisley passed away. I even had a red dress. Now that I am older, less reactionary and more educated, when I heard that he had died this morning I sprang out of bed, got a cup of coffee and started looking for the news. I may have skipped just a little to get the coffee but there was no real jig. In my opinion, Ian Paisley was a bigot, one of the leading voices of Sectarianism and a figurehead of those who would preach hate and call it faith. There are way too many people in the world like him. The most diplomatic thing I can say about him is that he was divisive and powerful…but he was also a human being with a family and no one should ever cheer or crow about another person’s death.
His pulpits were often protected by masked men with clubs or worse. His fiery language was cruel and divisive throughout the Troubles. Moderate Protestants have gone on record saying that Paisley was likely responsible for more IRA volunteers than any other person – and many agree. The byproducts of his hate were an international sympathy toward the Catholics, high recruitment in the IRA and other paramilitary groups, and support for the civil rights movement. It was quite the opposite reaction from what he was hoping for but he continued his sectarian sermons nonetheless.
That said, without him the Peace Accord and Good Friday agreement may not have come to pass. “Dr. NO” as he was called, said yes – far later than he should have – but he finally did. Watching him stand next to Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness was a surreal and bizarre milestone, but it was one that was necessary to calm the strife in the North. I’m not sure there’s a tale of redemption in my heart for the man – but without him, things could have been much worse for much longer.
Ian Paisley passed away this morning in Belfast at age 88. Many are mourning his death, including Martin McGuinness who says they had a mutually respectful friendship even though at Paisley’s insistence, they never shook hands. In life Ian Paisley was a man who reveled in leading angry mobs, guiding immense crowds, and hogging media attention but before he died he requested a private funeral, attended only by close family. His family intends to honor that request, but has also spoken of a public memorial in the future.