March 2007 Reflection

After returning to Derry from a winter vacation in Cyprus and Israel/Palestine, I took my first semester exams and then spent the last week of January attending a number of events commemorating the 35th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. It was an interesting time to remember Bloody Sunday – when 14 unarmed civil rights marchers were killed in Derry by British paratroopers in 1972. The anniversary more or less coincided with a Sinn Fein Ard Fheis (special party convention) that determined that the republican party historically tied to the IRA – the ranks of which soared in the wake of Bloody Sunday – would finally accept and support the reformed Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). This was a controversial decision, as I heard in community discussions leading up to the Ard Fheis. At one event, hundreds of nationalists gathered to hear several politicians – including one from the Social Democratic and Labor Party (the SDLP, which had already accepted the PSNI), one from Sinn Fein, one fiery socialist, and one unaligned republican – discuss issues related to policing and police reform.

At another event, over a thousand nationalists gathered to hear Sinn Fein leaders, including Gerry Adams and Gerry Kelly, explain how accepting the PSNI fit into their larger political strategy for achieving a united Ireland through peaceful, political means. No matter what one thinks of the past and politics of Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein’s President, he proved a charismatic and commanding speaker. I found it particularly provocative to hear Gerry Kelly, the current Sinn Fein spokesmen for policing and justice who had himself spent years in prison as an IRA volunteer, respond to accusations that Sinn Fein was betraying the republican cause by claiming that Sinn Fein sought to “colonize” policing in Northern Ireland. Kelly and his colleagues acknowledged that they were accepting a British police force but explained their intent to gradually but surely wrest control of Northern Ireland from the British. For Sinn Fein’s leaders, signing up to policing was just a step on the way to finally and totally reversing the effects of centuries of British “colonial” control of Ireland.

I also attended the screening of a film about the killing of 13 Arab Israeli youths by Israeli security forces in October 2000 and the subsequent official inquiry, events which in many ways paralleled those of Bloody Sunday. The film was particularly powerful for me because it featured the story of Aseel Asleh, an outstanding Seeds of Peace camper who was murdered by an Israeli policeman in an olive grove near his home. I met Aseel’s mother, who attended the screening and was also a keynote speaker at the end of the Bloody Sunday commemorative march the following day. While the march itself was uneventful, I found it telling that after the march most of the younger members of the crowd stayed to listen to the Sinn Fein speaker but departed before hearing the SDLP politician, signaling the fading fortunes of what was until 2003 the most popular nationalist party.

Fast forward about five weeks, and on the first full day of our Mitchell Scholar gathering in Belfast, John, Sarah W., and I observed SDLP politicians and employees canvassing for votes in the Northern Ireland Assembly election at a polling station in Carryduff, several miles outside of Belfast. The main competition in the election was not between Unionism and Nationalism but rather within each of the two political traditions, with the Democratic Unionist Party (the DUP, Ian Paisley’s party) and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) competing for Unionist support and Sinn Fein and the SDLP competing for nationalist support. In the heavily Unionist district of which Carryduff is a part, where Sinn Fein received negligible support from the Catholic minority, the SDLP was hoping to beat out either the Alliance Party or one of the Unionist parties for one of six Assembly seats; in 2003 they had fallen some 300 votes short.

It was a chilly, overcast election day, but fortunately the rain held off. For much of the day, the SDLP folks were trying to determine voter turnout levels; they wanted to make sure their supporters came out to vote before the evening’s Celtic and Manchester United matches began and kept voters from the polls, which remained open until 10pm. At the polling station, one of the SDLP employees carried on a conversation with a DUP politician in which both lamented water charges and housing taxes and criticized Sinn Fein policies. What I found most interesting was the SDLP employee’s explanation of the difference between his party’s vision of a united Ireland and that of Sinn Fein: the SDLP would seek to maintain the integrity of Northern Ireland – and continue power-sharing between nationalists and unionists therein – within a united Ireland. Later in the evening, we followed the SDLP employee around a neighborhood as he made a final effort to get out the vote before the polls closed. As it turned out, the SDLP candidate ended up 30 votes shy of a seat in the Assembly. Overall, the DUP and Sinn Fein increased their representation in the Assembly at the expense of the UUP and SDLP, respectively. Of course, it remains to be seen whether the DUP and Sinn Fein will be able to reach agreement on the formation of a power-sharing executive within the March 26th deadline set by the British government.

I learned a good deal about Northern Ireland politics on election day and quite enjoyed the rest of the Mitchell trip in Belfast as well. It was great to spend time with my Mitchell friends and I especially liked the beautiful day we spent hiking at the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge and Giant’s Causeway and sampling whiskey at the Old Bushmills Distillery. I also discovered The John Hewitt, a traditional pub on Donegal Street in Belfast with fantastic live music and, in my opinion, one of the world’s best beers (no doubt along with Guinness) – Innis and Gunn, which I had not been able to find anywhere else since first trying it in Edinburgh almost two years ago!

As someone who enjoys exploring the outdoors, one thing I like about both Belfast and Derry is their proximity to scenic hiking. In Belfast I ventured up the Cave Hill (near the Belfast Castle) for a beautiful sunset view of the city. Near Derry, I’ve explored some of the coastal mountains of County Donegal (at Horn Head and the Knockalla Mountain) with the Magee Hillwalking Club and am still hoping to make it to the top of the mountains just outside the city. A week before the Belfast trip, two other Mitchell Scholars (Kara and Victoria) and I hiked from the Castlerock train station to the Downhill Demesne to take in the spectacular coastal vista from the Mussenden Temple, a romantic rotunda situated several feet from the edge of a seaside cliff.

I’ve also continued coaching for Playing for Peace (now called PeacePlayers International) and managed to make it to Zermatt, Switzerland in February for a wonderful weekend of Alpine skiing with a friend from Seeds of Peace. Second semester coursework hasn’t been too onerous thus far, but I expect things to pick up as deadlines begin to appear on the horizon and as I get into thesis research. I find it hard to believe that my next journal entry will be my last from Derry; hopefully I will have many more interesting experiences and exciting adventures to report!

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