Belfast, United Kingdom
As a tourist in Belfast, you are spoilt for choice when it comes to ways and means of touring and learning about ‘the troubles’ in Northern Ireland – walking tour, bus top tour, black cab tour etc but today I was once again privileged to get the inside scoop with my very own personalised tour by Grainne McKenna, not merely my friends sister (and new friend in her own right) but also the Centre Manager for NICE – Northern Ireland Children’s Enterprise who’s mission is to promote peace, reconciliation and mutual understanding between the communities of Northern Ireland for primary and secondary school children.
Grainne picked me up at my hotel and took me for a spin about town with an illuminating, no holds barred account of the situation both past and present from the perspective of someone who has lived through it and dedicated her career to the peace process. Grainne spoke of her parents extreme diligence and dedication to protecting their young children from awareness of and involvement in the conflict taking place all around them in order to keep them safe from harm. And although as an adult Grainne makes a living from her involvement in the process, she is the shining example of ‘being the change you wish to see in the world’.
Grainne reiterated the point that for the most part, ‘the troubles’ and ongoing divide are a result of a political struggle that doesn’t really factor into the lives of the average person going about their daily business. None the less, the machinations of the politics continues to effect the communities where the battle lines are drawn. A particularly moving example was the conflict centred around Holy Cross Primary School in the Ardoyne area of Belfast. At the time the ‘peace lines’ were drawn when the troubles arose, this Catholic school found itself on the wrong side requiring students to traverse a mere 200 meters of Protestant turf. This arrangement was honoured for decades until a dispute arose in 2001 which escalated to the point where primary school students from both the Catholic and integrated school directly opposite were under attack by protesters, including the hurling of concrete blocks at school buses and the requirement for students to be escorted through picket lines and blockades by riot police. This went on for two years before a peace agreement was negotiated between the communities.
Grainne graciously answered my unending barrage of questions from her encyclopaedic knowledge, conceding that she could have talked about it all day which was just as well because I could’ve listened all day but sadly the time came for me to say goodbye to Grainne and to Northern Ireland. I breezed through Belfast airport without question or incident despite my newly acquired and oversized contact lens solution.
A quick flight back to London and unhindered train trip delivered me back to Vic and Pete’s before sundown. After a week of adventure, it’s nice to be ‘home’.