Sophie Robinson, third-year LLB Student writes:
The last week in January, 5 other Law students and I visited Belfast, Northern Ireland with our lecturer for our Terrorism module. The intention of the trip was to learn more about the conflict between the Unionists and Republicans, particularly since the ‘troubles’. This conflict began when the Unionist majority wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom, however, the minority wished to become part of the Republic of Ireland. I think I speak for all of us when I say that I did not expect to have learned as much from our trip and did not expect to meet the people we did whilst out there.
Photo (C) Nick Cartwright
The first day in Belfast was long as we had been up since 4.30 and I think we would all have gladly got to the hotel and gone to bed, however we had an action-packed day. We were met at Belfast International Airport by Roy and Adree who were our fantastic tour guides and without whom the trip would not have been possible. Our first meeting was at the Lower Shankill Community Association who aim to offer hope and work with the community to reimage the area and ensure peace. They explained to us that if you were to mention ‘Shankill’, the connotations related to it were negative, however they set out to change that by encouraging the residents to cut ties with paramilitaries and to work with the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). To give Shankill a more positive reputation their idea was to communicate with the younger generation and organise activities with them and the PSNI to allow the younger generation to see that they are approachable.
After Lunch we met a mediator for Tides Training and Consultancy, a non-profit, charitable organisation. They have been very involved in mediation between the local communities and push for more integrated schools. He shared his experience about working in Northern Ireland during the troubles, including the sad stories of his two friends being killed in front of him. Although sad, the meeting ended on a happy note as he expressed how he is starting to see a change in the younger generation as they are seen walking past each other on the way to school without creating a problem. This shows that the work these charities are doing with younger people is having an impact and making a difference on the streets in Northern Ireland.
Next stop on our very busy first day in Belfast was being lucky enough to meet with the Deputy Chief Constable of the PSNI. Our luck continued when one of the detectives had just completed a masters in Terrorism studies and was able to give us lots of helpful information whilst the Deputy Chief Constable became a part time waiter, bringing us all some tea and coffee. When we thought it was over we then got to play dress up in some riot gear and had a nose around the vehicles they use during riots and learnt about how they go about controlling the riots.
Day still not over, we had one more visit which proved to be a big challenge for all of us because we were so tired, however it was made easier with the nice cake spread they put out for us! This was the meeting with the Sinn Fein Counsellor who explained the history of the divide in Northern Ireland as well as some of the political party’s principles.
Finally, after this we could all go to bed, after getting some dinner of course.
After a well-deserved sleep, day 2 of the trip began. Our guides were very good to us and allowed us a lie in which meant out day didn’t officially begin until 10.30. We spent the first half of the day looking at the murals in Belfast and visiting the Peace Walls. I think we were shocked by the Peace Walls and it wasn’t just a brick wall. It seemed the brick walls were not stopping the violence they were intended to and so on top of the brick walls was a solid fence, and with that still not being enough there was another fence added on top of that. The reason for having such high peace walls is so that petrol bombs and grenades can’t be thrown over into opposing areas. Seeing the walls and the murals in the city was a real eye opener as it made the conflict real and not just something I had read. Especially as one of the Peace Walls had a police station built inside with no windows and submarine doors. When we were there we discovered that they are hoping to take down the Peace Walls by 2030, after speaking to our guides and other people along the way, it seemed the locals believed this to be a bad idea as although there is a shift in people’s mindsets, if the walls were to come down, there is no saying what would happen.
Next stop was a big white building with a strong resemblance to the White House, it was Stormont. Our tour guide, although rather patronising, showed us around the beautiful marble building with extravagant ceilings and chandeliers before we had a brief encounter with Paula Bradley, a member of the Democratic Union Party. I think we were slightly apprehensive about this meeting due to some of the views the DUP holds, however I think we all managed to behave in a polite manner, despite some of us finding that very difficult. After a quick freshen up we went for a drink at the John Hewitt Bar, a bar that was open to both Catholic and Protestants. After a couple of pints of Guinness, we were in Ireland after all, the younger lot headed off to bed and left the proper adults to it.
On our third day was a fairly early start as we had to head west over to Derry where we saw large murals in the Bogside, a Republican neighbourhood, visited the Fountain Estate which was mainly inhabited by Protestants. Our driver and tour guide did not seem so keen to let us get out and take photos on this estate and so on we went to visit the some of the museums, including the Free Derry Museum, the Guildhall, where we enjoyed dressing up in the mayor’s gown and sitting in the Mayors chair, although I looked a little odd as I could not reach the floor. Finally, we visited the Siege Museum before being introduced to the Restorative Justice Group. I have to say I have a huge amount of respect for the two men that we met, Peter and Jim, Jim who was Sinn Fein and Peter, the biggest man I think any of us have ever seen, was former member of the Ulster Defence Regiment. Both men had complete polar views and this made the fact they were both sat opposite me working together to bring a change in Derry surreal as they still have different views. Our final meeting of the day was with the Pat Finucane centre. Pat was a lawyer who was assassinated and this centre was set up to help family members of people who were killed by paramilitary groups, allegedly in collusion with the Government, seek justice.
For me, this was the best day as it was amazing to see the hard work that these people are putting in to make Northern Ireland better and safer, of course all the groups we met on this trip who are working for change were inspiring. We topped of this day with a lovely dinner at the most bombed hotel in the Europe, the Europa in the centre of Belfast. This dinner was especially nice as we were joined by Roy and Adree who had both put in so much effort to make it a successful and interesting trip, safe to say the atmosphere that night was very happy and we all had a lot to talk about.
Unfortunately, we were on our last day and were heading back to the beautiful town of Northampton in the afternoon, but not before we had one final important meeting, a meeting with Gerry and Colin, a former INLA and former UDA combatants, both of whom have been in and out of prison for the acts they committed whilst being part of these groups. I can’t thank these two men enough for how honest they were with us about everything they had done and participated in whilst being involved in these groups. After learning about the victims, the day before, I have to say I did not want to like them, however their honesty about what they had done and the compassion they showed made it difficult to dislike them, especially as Gerry gave us a lift back in his black cab!
All in all, the trip was a very busy and tiring trip but that is because we got to meet so many amazing groups and people that all had different perspectives on the history of Northern Ireland. I learnt a lot on this trip and it has really opened my eyes to see first-hand the damage caused by the troubles as well as meeting with the groups who are working hard to ensure the next generation learn from the mistakes made in the past. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Belfast and would strongly recommend it to future students if it is offered, I might even try and tag along again!
Thank you to all the people who gave up some of their time to speak to us, to Roy and Adree for organising everything and being fantastic tour guides and driver, despite a couple of risky hill starts, and also to our lecturer Nick and the students who came for making it such a good trip.