As part of the MyIreland program, our group was taken on a three-day tour of Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is actually a country that is part of the United Kingdom. When the Republic of Ireland declared independence from Great Britain in 1922, unionists of Northern Ireland chose to remain a part of the UK due to the many descendants of English colonists living in the north.
Although Northern Ireland remained a part of the UK, there are still many Irish nationalists in the north who wish to be a part of the Republic. It is also important to know that the English colonists and their descendants are mostly Protestant and the Irish nationalists are mostly Catholic. This difference in beliefs both religiously and politically has caused tension in Ireland for many years. This tension led to many years of violence, often referred to as the Troubles.
We made our first stop in Northern Ireland to Stormont, the Parliament building. Although there are many parties in the Northern Ireland Parliament, the two majority parties represent nationalist views and unionist views in order to facilitate agreements between the two groups. When one party leader resigned due to disagreements in January of 2017, all Parliament activities were suspended. The government has not been active in about 18 months. As we toured the building, we learned a great deal about how the government of Northern Ireland works, and how the country is coping with its current state.
The most moving part of the trip was certainly our visit to the town of Derry. On January 30, 1972, British Soldiers shot 20 civilians during a peaceful protest, killing 14 of them. This massacre in the Bogside area of Derry, is commonly known as Bloody Sunday. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association organized this peaceful march to protest the mass internment of Irish nationalists suspected to be in the Irish Republican Army, or the IRA.
When you enter this small walled city (one of the oldest in Europe), you can still feel the effects of the massacre and the tension of the Troubles to this day. Almost everyone in town has some kind of connection to Bloody Sunday or the Troubles. Whether they lost a family member or a close friend, or they themselves were imprisoned, everyone has a unique story.
To finish off the day, we visited the Museum of Free Derry, which gives a comprehensive background of the Troubles leading up to Bloody Sunday and the Good Friday Peace Agreement. At the museum, volunteers also share their stories about how they were affected by the conflict. Learning about the effects of the Troubles and the devastation on both sides was an extremely impactful and moving experience. It is one thing to be aware of the Northern Ireland conflict, but to walk the streets of a town so affected by it was an unforgettable experience. I think it’s safe to say that the trip made everyone in the group appreciate where we live a little bit more.
In the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland agreed to have equal power between unionist and nationalist parties in Parliament, and the two sides of the conflict have started to have discussions about how they can resolve these issues. Although a visit to Derry can be emotional, I highly recommend it to anyone traveling through Ireland. The Troubles were an integral part of Irish history and we can learn a great deal from the conflict.