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Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Life in Northern Ireland....

I got myself in a bit of a critical exchange with Scott from Brooklyn who was taken aback by the comments I made to a local reporter in New Jersey who was asking about conditions in Northern Ireland.

The occasion for the story (published August 9 in the Bergan County Herald News) was a court hearing involving whether to grant asylum to Malachy McAllister, a former member of the Irish National Liberation Army who was convicted in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s for his paramilitary activities. The details of the McAllister case are posted here and here, and it seems to me that that nothing much is to be gained by the US deporting Mr. McAllister, especially after his wife (now deceased) and children were granted asylum by the courts already.

As for my comments, they related to current conditions in Northern Ireland, and nothing more. I realize that Northern Ireland is not heaven, and that there are still quite a few examples of violence that can be linked one way or another to past sectarian conflicts. Scott pointed out that "there are thousands of sectarian attacks each year in Northern Ireland, documented in the daily press and by the Pat FInucane Centre (". Yes, there are many incidents -- although I would think the term "thousands" seems a bit of an exaggeration; I suspect that almost any item on the PSNI police blotter can somehow be attributed to sectarianism. And the Finucane center certainly does a great service in tracking and highlighting many real and potential incidents (although most of their resources are appropriately devoted to tracking and seeking justice for past criminal acts).

But the impression that Belfast is a war zone, or that hit squads from either side of the sectarian divide are roaming the streets seeking revenge for past crimes, is just plain fantasy, and perpetuating that image serves no one's interest.

Belfast is, quite frankly, a heck of a lot more livable and less scary than many American cities. Yes, there are nieghborhoods I would not walk alone in at night -- and I know from my acquaintances that there are some norms that govern whether folks from one area would walk into the pubs in another area. But this is life in any urban area where current or past tensions still linger.

Scott also noted that he had just come back from Derry, and according to him, he and his wife "could indeed tell that there were any troubles at all". I don't doubt that, especially this time of year when the tension of the annual "marching season" reaches that part of the region (in Belfast it is the week of July 12). Sorry to say, all this is the residual of the Troubles, and it will probably linger on for years. But no one I met in Northern Ireland would compare this to past circumstances, just as no one in LA's Watts section or in Newark would compare the intermittent confrontations of this summer with those of the past. (In fact, in Watts they actually hold a Watts Festival to mark the anniversary of the worse riots....)

All I would suggest to Scott and others is that they visit Belfasst and other parts of Northern Ireland during the fall or spring and experience the daily life there. Yes, take the Black taxi tour and let the driver show you the murals and tell you of all his near escapes and dangers -- enjoy the show, but also notice how friendly everyone is, how the normal pace of life goes on along Falls Road, in Shankill and in City Centre on any business day. Stay a bit and enjoy the reality of Northern Ireland -- I think you will find it pretty near normal....

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