Mending walls after ‘The Troubles’

As the poet Robert Frost famously penned, “Something there is that does not love a wall.” And, as experience teaches, walls can be made of stone, wire and, often, attitudes.

I was recently invited to join a “Trek” involving a dozen graduating students from the Johnson School of Management at Cornell University on a tour through Northern Ireland to learn about intractable conflicts and obstacles that hinder reconciliation almost 20 years after the Good Friday/Belfast Peace Agreement.

It was a week-long listening tour, filled with conversations for which the Irish are well known. In the end, we noted that walls continue to exist; some are made of stone and wire, but the more divisive ones have been shaped and built on attitudes, prejudices, and hate.

First, some background. The Trek was directed by Gen. George W. Casey, a visiting professor at Cornell and the retired chief of staff of the US Army, whose career included the command of coalition forces in Iraq and negotiations for the peace-keeping mission in Kosovo. In other words, he was at the center of cauldrons of historic hate and violence in the Middle East and the Balkans, where conflicts are Intractable with a capital “I.”

The spiritual director of this Trek was Boston’s Padraig O’Malley. His insightful discussion of the centuries-old conflict of the indigenous Irish and their colonizers set the foundation for the journey. His position as distinguished professor of peace and reconciliation at the University of Massachusetts Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, his decades-long work for peace during “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland, and his Rolodex enabled our students to meet civic and political leaders from Derry to Belfast and the coastal communities in between.

Most of the graduate students came from careers before landing at Cornell. Half were service veterans who served in combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. The students left the US with the purpose of developing negotiation skills.

Each took away from the trip significant lessons in human rights and the promotion of just societies often ignored or forgotten by others engaged in business pursuits. They shared these “takeaways,” which are consolidated below and which have relevance to the legal community as well.

And for this judge, who is sensitive to the impact of bias (real, implicit, and imaginary) and its companion, distrust, upon the fair administration of justice, the experience was an awakening.

To paraphrase Padraig O’Malley’s introductory remarks, the Tudor royalty, particularly Queen Elizabeth I, sliced up Ireland like sausage links, awarding the land to their relatives, the nobility, and favored Scottish Presbyterians and English Episcopalians, who promptly dispossessed the native Irish Catholics.

The long-serving queen noted: “I have sent wolves not shepherds to govern Ireland, for they have left me nothing but ashes and carcasses to reign over.” Thus began 400 years of repression, violence, and starvation, inciting continuous rebellion and war in some measure.

When a truce was declared in 1921, and 6 counties in the north were separated from the 26 in the south, Elizabeth’s royal descendant, George V, on a journey to Belfast appealed “to all Irishmen to pause, to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and forget, and to join in making for the land they love a new era of peace, contentment and goodwill.”

Neither side extended or received the other’s hand. While the south struggled to create a country, the minority Catholics in the north were as divided as ever culturally, religiously, and economically from their Protestant neighbors, and were as resistant as ever to governance by the British Crown.

This was the backdrop for the civil rights struggle in the early ’60s that spiraled into the assassinations and bombings that left more than 3,000 dead during a 30-year era known as the Troubles.

When the Good Friday Agreement was negotiated and signed in 1998, providing for power-sharing and strong anti-discrimination laws, everything was in place to break down historic divisions; to learn to trust; to collaborate for the common good; and, in short, to move forward. It happened. But it was not enough.

Good fences make good neighbors

The cities of Derry and Belfast, which anchor the counties in the north, are booming. Cranes dot the skylines, the downtowns are modern and vibrant, and the people wear an air of success. Tourists flock to their old towns, the stunning coastal villages, fabulous golf courses, and welcoming pubs.

During an all-day tour of the divided sections of Derry, and particularly at the location where, in January 1972, British paratroopers fired upon dozens of Irish Catholics peacefully protesting, killing 14 and wounding twice that number, Derry community organizer Michael Doherty eloquently described the tragic history of his city.

While all appears well, peaceful and progressive, he noted, the walls remain, and he and others do not take for granted the peace they earned with their families’ blood. The River Foyle and the 15th century city walls provide the obvious separation, but the mistrust remains, and the willingness to find common ground is in short supply.

Doherty’s days are spent bridging the divide, for public matters as mundane as parade permits; to the significant, such as preventing youth violence; and the beneficial, such as uniting the business communities for projects for which religious affiliation should not be factored.

Doherty’s brother Des, a prominent civil rights lawyer who represented family survivors of the 1972 Bloody Sunday Massacre, confidently plugs away in the halls of justice. “Surprisingly, even after all the cover-ups and unfair treatment, we still look upon the courts with respect and hope,” he said.

The Doherty brothers, like all the civic leaders, politicians, and community organizers who shared their experiences, were personally victimized by the violence directed toward themselves or family. And by that I mean bombings of businesses, threats, maiming, and death.

Even with 19 years of peace, 90 percent of the population is segregated by religions that ironically are nearly identical in theology and dogma.

The power-sharing arrangement has produced gridlock. And as moving forward toward cultural tolerance becomes difficult, looking backward to the conflict becomes inevitable and easy, especially for the young men who glamorize their fathers and grandfathers.

Within a mile of Belfast’s bustling downtown are the public housing “estates,” where ugly war zone walls snake through neighborhoods with Catholic and Protestant separated on either side. Most of the residents, Catholic and Protestant, are poor, unemployed, and disenfranchised. Yet many of them prefer the security of the walls. Points of access are limited, and many of them are gated and locked in the evening.

As Frost wrote, “Good fences make good neighbors.” In walled-off North Belfast, they make, at least, less dangerous ones.

Peace wall in North Belfast

Just outside one section of the wall, in a neutral area described as an Interface, a modern sports complex and community center have been built where a prison and British Army barracks once stood. Perhaps recalling Frost’s rhetorical question, “What was I walling in or walling out,” it is here that dedicated social workers bring a new generation of Protestant and Catholic youth together, addressing similar problems, including teen suicide and addiction, and promoting common goals with tutoring, coaching and counseling.

Our speakers argued that as long as there are divided communities, the fragile peace is threatened. That is why our host, Quinton Oliver, has dedicated his adult life to peacemaking in Belfast and beyond.

“The divisions still exist. But at least they’re fought with elections and not with bombs,” he said.
It is why Belfast Deputy Mayor Mary Ellen Campbell, herself imprisoned as a member of the IRA, now concerned that the young have glamorized the “heroes” of the sectarian conflict, tells them: “I was in jail, and jail is horrible.” It is why she serves food at all council meetings, forcing the political party members to mingle. It is why she, like George V, exclaimed: “You should always extend the hand of friendship. It is their decision to take it or not.”

And it is why Gen. Casey, on the final evening of our Trek, encouraged a DUP Assembly member who resisted power-sharing with his Sinn Fein counterparts to “Keep at it. It takes time. But it is worth it.”

And, finally, as some propose new walls, and old barriers remain standing, it is why lawyers and judges from far away Massachusetts should take note that what citizens are feeling and how we treat each other, inside and outside of our courthouses, impact our roles and define our responsibilities and duties.

This article first appeared in the Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly. Christopher J. Muse is a judge on the Massachusetts Superior Court bench.