The Queen is today visiting the Republic of Ireland, the first reigning member of the British monarchy to do so since King George V in 1911, a historic moment which is attracting attention worldwide.
“sectarian violence and terrorism was still a regular occurrence”
There has already been a great deal of opposition to the visit, petitions being produced on the social media website Facebook, Sinn Fein President described it as “premature” and there have been protests prior to and during the visit. Even today a bomb was apparently discovered close to Dublin hours before the visit.
The reasons for all of this opposition is historical and deep routed, it is not so very long ago that sectarian violence and terrorism was still a regular occurrence in the province of Northern Ireland, which is still a part of the United Kingdom.
This partition of the country caused a great deal of unrest and division between the ‘unionist’ largely Protestant population and the smaller ‘nationalist’ Catholic one. Both parties had their own paramilitary groups and the violence was not confined to the province but often spilled onto the streets of the mainland.
The ‘troubles’ date much further back than this however, land that was confiscated from the native Irish was distributed to both English and Scottish settlers at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Persecution of the Catholics worsened with restriction of their religious and political rights.
Eventually in 1801 the Irish Parliament was abolished and it was incorporated into the United Kingdom. However in the early twentieth century self government was on the brink of being returned, but this was vehemently opposed by the unionists.
“the early 1970s that the violence really erupted”
Throughout the following decades there was continued unrest which finally boiled over into the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force UVF which was possibly a result of the reformation of the Irish Republican Army IRA.
It was during the early 1970s that the violence really erupted and was to continue right up until the signing of the Good Friday Agreement on 10 April 1998. During this period many lives were lost on all sides, including security forces and civilians caught up in the crossfire or worse actually targeted by more extreme factions.
This is a very short and simplistic summary of the ‘troubles which only scratches the surface of the history and divisions of a nation.
As a soldier that served during some of this period, living constantly with the threat of a terrorist attack regardless of where stationed, England, Germany or Northern Ireland it was with great relief this agreement was reached and genuinely felt like a moment in history.
Serving a tour in Northern Ireland meant accepting that many of your own basic privileges of living would be restricted. It was not possible to just go into the city centre on your own for a drink or to do some shopping; we were of course considered the ‘enemy’ and legitimate targets for violence.
It was slightly sad to witness a city that was also partitioned with a fence running through its heart with a ‘no-mans’ land. There were security posts throughout the city and every police station resembled a fortified gun post. There is not any animosity to the people, they were doing what they believed in, that civilians were also targeted however does not ‘bathe’ them in glory.
“often rocks and other ‘missiles’ would rain down”
I was actually on detachment to the province at the time of the signing of the agreement, as part of the resident battalion. Accommodated at the infamous Maze Prison, even then there was plenty of tension, patrols in the streets invariably attracted the attention of numerous children, often encouraged by parents we would be the targets for both verbal abuse and often rocks and other ‘missiles’ would rain down.
Many of the ‘general’ population however were extremely tired of the continuing sectarian violence, certainly did not support it and I am sure are glad it has for the most part been discontinued.
Actually being out on a patrol on the ‘historic’ day really felt like being a part of history that was being made and it is with some gratification that Belfast is a much less troubled city now.
It must feel in some way how people have felt in the past on historic days, where they can always recall exactly where there were or what they were doing; the assassinations of President Kennedy or Martin Luther King, the Apollo landing or going back further the cessation of hostilities in the two World Wars.
“the Irish people suffered atrocious injustices”
In some small way because I witnessed a little of the ‘troubles’ which makes this feel a little personal to me. It may not become termed as one of the ‘great’ moments of history. It would be amazing if it did become a great moment of peace however, is it not time the wounds of history are healed? There is little doubt the Irish people suffered atrocious injustices at the hands of the British monarchy and its governments but dredging up the past will do little to improve the situation of anybody living now.
All people deserve to live with a dignity, it is unlikely the people of Ireland will ever receive any apology for the injustice of the past which is a shame as it may go a some way to starting the healing process. These divisions still run very deeply but maybe a sincere apology could help repair them and would not cost anybody anything but a little humility.
It is now time that the conflicts of the past in all corners of the World were put behind us and we moved on and started living for now and for our futures. My prayer is for peace and if this visit can go just a tiny way to ensuring that then it will truly become ‘a great moment in history’.
In the words of John Lennon “All we are saying is give peace a chance”
What do you think is the Queen’s visit likely to help heal or damage the peace process in Ireland, is it possibly a great moment in history? What about other ‘great’ moments where were you, what were you doing?