3rd February 2002

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Rising from the rubble and ruins

Dew-kissed, pinescented mornings with the glorious countryside stretching before my eyes. Tree-lined pristine roads and one can certainly imagine W.B. Yeats strolling through the woods, giving free rein to his poetic genius. No wonder he wrote about 'soft rains and easy roads', in his Irish blessings. 

What you see around is Georgian splendour, window boxes sporting bright flowers and foliage, soft moss covered stone walls, stained bricks, verdant lawns and ivy-adorned cottages. A blissful countryside indeed!

Visiting Northern Ireland in a flowering summer with a group of journalists, eager to learn about its power devolution exercise and how the country had progressed despite the suffering caused by centuries-old bitter divisions, I couldn't help but notice the breathtaking beauty of a land threatened by its historical grudges. 

Ireland is a political hotbed, and the volcanic eruptions of a political nature bear testimony to the historical battle that has segregated its people. There is much folklore about the country's original inhabitants who lived unitedly before the divisions in the Church affected them-legend claiming the first Irish inhabitants were nomadic boatmen who crossed from the South of Scotland about 5,000 years ago.

Being Sri Lankan, perhaps I was more sensitive to the country's problem, one that has kept its people divided at heart. But unlike in Sri Lanka, where volatile political expression is not a regular feature, Northern Ireland throbs with feeling and nationalistic fervour- rendering divisions more apparent, with protests being a regular feature.

My first impressions of Northern Ireland were somewhat negative- of a country violent and divided. But the reception I received in the Emerald Isle was one of warm hospitality.

Our tight schedule didn't permit much exploring, compelling us to settle for brief glimpses, as the programme was a hectic one that combined catching flights and hurried conferences leaving us sleepless and breathless!

Our first day began early in Belfast, also known as the City of Welcomes, fabled for its legendary hospitality. Mark Lamour, a professional tour guide took us on a coach tour around West Belfast which served as a scene setter. The isle with a population of over 1.6 million people consists of six counties of the Old Irish province of Ulster. It had its own Parliament from 1921 to 1972 in which the Unionists, mainly representing the Protestant community held a permanent majority and were responsible for local affairs excepting a few.

But Northern Ireland's fate changed drastically with street violence breaking out in the late sixties which caused the British Government to assume direct responsibility in 1972, and todate, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland remains responsible for matters that were not devolved. A glimmer of hope came when the Belfast Agreement (known as the Good Friday Agreement) led to the creation of a new Northern Ireland Assembly paving the way for extensive power devolution. 

What the visitor might not see is how strong the loyalists feelings run for the "cause"- separation from the British administration. Belfast, I gathered was extremely significant to the Irish. It was also home to literary figures like Jonathan swift and W.B. Yeats. Once, Belfast was the fastest growing city in Europe, with some of the finest cotton mills, shipyards, whisky distilleries, tobacco, limestone, linen mills, and crystal and lemonade factories aiding massive economic growth. By 1895, Belfast equalled other European success stories, but with the serious segregation of the people that culminated in violent eruptions, the country's progress slackened.

The hurt manifests itself in vibrant graffiti. One solgam read: "You may kill the revolutionaries, but not the revolution".

Our friendly guide laughingly noted how the deep-rooted political sectarianism was being changed through education and attitudinal changes, adding that it was only at the Belfast Cemetery that people from both sides of the political divide came together! As one official commented, it's not just a war of two religions, but of two traditions. 

Our assignment proper began with a background briefing by officials of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister at Castle Buildings in Stormont which houses many significant government offices. 

Top government officials explained the difficulties faced in the release of political criminals and the decommissioning of illegally held weapons, two most controversial issues marring the fruition of the Good Friday Agreement.

Despite agreements, decommissioning, they claimed, was confined to words, though Sinn Fein Leader Gerry Adams' pledged to travel that extra mile in pushing the IRA to decommission. The inspection of weapons dumps was another sour issue, in their estimation. 

It was an exciting moment for us to enter the Belfast City Hall where counting was going on after the local polls, and to stumble upon Dr. Ian Paisley, a respected Northern Ireland politician whose contention was that the entire Belfast Agreement needed to be re-negotiated to something that would result in the union of people. The day's political intensity wore off by evening. Enjoying our stay at the Belfast Hilton down Lanyon Street, we decided to walk around and attempt to discover the pulsating Belfast life, the constraints notwithstanding. 

Despite the very late night, we woke up the next morning, invigorated by pine-scented air and the streets washed by the previous night's drizzle. And it was business as usual with a meeting with Dr. Michael Boyle, director of the Parades Commission to see how this unique institution functioned as it now carries out the police duty of authorizing parades/ protests.

Our next stop was Londonderry, or Derry, as it is popularly known.

Our working dinner at an exotic country hotel named Beech Hill Country House, down Ardmore Road in Londonderry was unforgettable. The thick red old carpets, old brocade covered comfy sofas and the stained glass were Gothic to the core. It was a typical British countryside cottage that had been converted into a hotel. And a framed picture of former US President Bill Clifton with daughter Chelsea carried the words, " I truly enjoyed our stay, and hope to return" bearing Clinton's signature. 

What gave us a better picture of this divided nation was the walk around the walled city where people were segregated, physically kept apart. The quick tour was inadequate to capture the true Irish essence or the impact of a 400-year-old division. Even today, different colours connote areas where a particular faith is dominant, the city being largely Catholic dominated. 

What is striking about the people of Derry is their firm resolve to regain what they have lost. The IRA flag flew in the midst, near the Church of Ireland, an elegant 12th Century creation. Below the dividing wall, the people who had a camp style existence sans proper housing are now experiencing a major change in their lives with the regeneration programme. The once wrecked city is being rebuilt, and the city planners told us that Philadelphia had the same plan.

The city is having new housing, employment, health and sanitation plans, and in the officials' words- Derry is one of the most disadvantaged areas of Northern Ireland, Derry having been bombed many times during the eighties. 

As I boarded the British Midland flight to get back to Heathrow, my mind was weighed with many regrets. I wished I had more time to explore the breathtaking beauty of the Land of Welcomes, enjoy its traditional pubs, relish Irish cuisine and peep into those ivy-covered churches. And to learn how these people, with ancient grudges would pursue a fragilely- held peace. How they would fight sectarianism to usher in a new order. And I wished that the people of Sri Lanka had the same resolve to attempt to rebuild a future on the rubble and ruins of yesterday.

Our sponsored Themed Group Visit to Northern Ireland was organized by the International Press Section (IPS) to introduce journalists to Northern Ireland and the progress in devolution.

Next week: Teaching them young

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