Crossing the peace line…

This is an interesting encomium to David Ervine from an African American blogger, who has had a long term interest in Irish affairs. But it is interesting less for what he says about Ervine, than how he relates his changing view of the conflict (or what is left of the conflict). Most enlightening is his recounting of a private tour of the former troubled areas, and how the tone changed from one side to the other. The visit took place some time ago, but it is worth quoting at some length:

In fact, there is a growing commercial trade in tours infamous Belfast conflict zones, decked as they are in colorful and militant murals. Some are more authoritative than others. The economics of tourism Again, however, much to our astonishment, we were given these tours alone, for free, as a personal favor to Ervine.

Our guide on the Unionist side was Noel, who spent several years in prison and was a gunman for the Ulster Volunteer Force. Noel was unsparingly candid, open and genuinely moving in his explanations of the outbreak of violence known as the “troubles”, his own motivations for involvement as well as the tragic outcome for his community. The paramilitary groups, while explained, were never justified or apologized for. There were simultaneous expressions of regret, contrition, pride and hope in his narrative. It may sound ridiculous, but for the first time, I began to see that these people were people, and that they could be represented with a voice that was neither vengeful nor reactionary.

Noel is part of a network of former UVF and IRA militants who now work to diffuse conflict on the ground. They regularly patrol areas surrounding both sides of the “security wall” that separate Unionist from Nationalist neighborhoods. If kids on one side start throwing rocks, a cell phone call puts a stop to it before it escalates. They do the work of the United Nations.

On the Nationalist side, we were handed off to a Sinn Fein activist who worked for a Republican veteran’s organization. I hate to be overly sentimental, but the entire tone of the experience shifted at this point. It may have been that the veterans themselves, who normally give the tours, would have struck a similarly nuanced tone as Noel had. However, our tour was struck in a much more linearly Republican timbre. We were reminded that David Ervine was a murderer. We were given the Sinn Fein perspective on the peace process, which cast doubt on the sincerity of the Catholic and Protestant “moderates” who helped broker the peace agreement. This was interesting in itself, of course, and I understand that Sinn Fein is also engaged in a political strategy. The point, however, was that the contrast seemed to reinforce the special character of a figure like Ervine, and the folks like Noel who followed his lead.

Sinn Fein, for obvious reasons, is still playing the politics of posture, not admitting to any wrongdoing, defending the armed struggle as a necessary response to British and Loyalist oppression. Ian Paisley and other Protestant reactionaries are doing the same thing. Probably, no solution will be workable until the two “extremes” come to some sort of settlement. Thank god, however, that there are people like David Ervine who are willing to call them all out, but also to argue forcefully that all voices must be heard.

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