Despite Everything: “Solidarity, Heart and Humour on the lips”

A retrospective on the Northern Ireland conflict until the peace treaty of 2007 by Dr phil. Titine Kriesi

by Diana and Winfried Pogorzelski

With her book, Titine Kriesi has published an important work at a time when the conflict regarding Northern Ireland has almost faded into oblivion. The author developed interest in postcolonial repercussions during her six-month stay in Sri Lanka. This point in time also marked the beginning of her interest in Ireland, or Northern Ireland to be more specific, which had been separated from Ireland by the United Kingdom through arbitrary demarcation in 1920. Her motivation to write this book was to contribute to a better understanding of the “Troubles” (1969-2007) and former Irish rebellions as well as to express her despise against war in the world (p. 17). Over a timespan of three years, the author resided in Northern Ireland for three months each year.
  The first part of her book consists of an outline of Irish and Northern Irish history and of the background of the Northern Ireland conflict until the peace treaty of 2007 (p. 12p.). Her experiences and encounters with those who had been affected are written down therein. This part is shaped by commiseration for the personal fates of the people affected by this conflict. The second part named “Citizens in troubled times” consists of previously unreleased interviews and documents. These are transcriptions of tape recordings, which have not been altered whatsoever (pp. 117-237). The work is rich in pictures; from the approximately 60 black and white photographs, all but two are made by the author.

“Regarding the background” – a historic overview

The emphasis in this part of the book (pp. 15–116) lies on the so-called “Troubles”, meaning the armed conflict from the 1960s until 2007 – a war in the eyes of the author – between the catholic republicans who took a stand for a united Ireland and therefore a disengagement from the United Kingdom and the protestant unionists and loyalists respectively who fought for remaining a part of Great Britain. A chronology depicts the history of Ireland from 3000 B.C. over the conquest of the autonomous kingdom of Ireland by Oliver Cromwell (1649) up to the Easter Rising (1916) and the war of Independence which leads to the division of the country in 1921: Northern Ireland with its “Irish-Catholic” population saw itself drawn into a British dominion by a two-thirds majority of previously settled-down protestants from England and Scotland – up to this very day” (p. 19). The demographic development will lead to the catholics being the majority, opening the possibility of elections going in their favour.

The “Troubles” – almost 40 years of war (1969–2007)

“‘Troubles’, that was a euphemism” (p. 21), because actually, it was a war right in front of our doorstep. There was barely a family “from which members had not been shot, interned or were on the run” (p. 22p.). The British occupation forces went on against the catholic Irish population with unimaginable hardship. The inhabitants of the slums, which defended themselves fiercely against the British soldiers, were particularly affected. The population was not prepared for being confronted with British elite troops, leading to windows and doors being walled shut.
  Political prisoners were common, they were interned at the “Internment Camp Long Kesh” or “Maze Prison” (p. 23), where torture also occurred.
  In the following, only a few striking incidents are listed to make the character of the “Troubles” clear:

  • In 1969, loyalists burned down 700 houses of Catholics in Bombay Street, Belfast. Many people were incarcerated without having any link to the IRA. The violence grew, the “Ballymurphy Massacre” took place in 1971 when eleven civil rights activists were killed by the British Army.
  • The starting point of the 1972 “Bloody Sunday” was a peaceful demonstration of 15,000 to 20,000 citizens in Derry against Britain’s internment policy. With the untenable accusation that Irish snipers had fired first from rooftops, the British army opened “live fire on the stunned crowd fleeing for their lives” who were unarmed (p. 97). Fourteen civil rights activists, including seven youths, were killed by the British paratrooper battalion.
  • In 1972, the British army destroyed the barricades in Derry and Belfast, thanks to some personalities bloodshed was prevented as they stopped the youths from pointless resistance. They were also the ones who rebuilt the destroyed centre of Derry with the youth during the IRA bombing campaign of the 1970s and 1980s.
  • Political negotiations to settle the conflict were hard and tough, and the interests of the two sides diverged widely. War and peace negotiations dragged on, costing more lives; the conflict could not be resolved militarily. Agreements in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement included the disarmament of paramilitary fighters on both sides and a guarantee by London to respect a vote in Ireland and Northern Ireland for a united Ireland. A Northern Ireland Assembly elected in the same year represented the interests of both Protestant and Catholic populations and elected the Northern Ireland government; however, dependence on the British government remained. In 2007, a peace agreement was reached and the British troops left. The goal of a united and independent Ireland remains unachieved to this day.

The author draws a mixed “preliminary balance” (p. 109): People had to get their act together and face challenges, the overcoming of which was still a dream of the future. British colonial policy had left “bitter, bloody traces” (p. 111), which rather strengthened the resilience of the Irish; the conflicts had resulted in a “seriously undertaken, successful peace process” (ibid.). However, the peace is fragile and the wounds are far from healed.
  She concludes with a moving tribute to the Irish Catholic population of Northern Ireland: “A people deeply rooted in its Gaelic-Christian values, politically minded, with its own culture, historical consciousness, close social ties, a distinctive form of mutual aid and sympathy for the suffering of its neighbour and the world, public spirit, heart and humour on its lips – a people who have immeasurably enriched the world in science, literature, music and art.” (p. 113)

“Citizens in troubled times – interviews and documents”

This part of the book contains numerous sources such as transcripts of interviews by the author with Catholics, letters, speeches as well as a prayer and a moving account by the author of her visit to “Her Majesty’s Prison Maze”. The texts, of which only a few can be presented here, are particularly representative of the poor population, who were above all harassed and suffered most directly from the conflict. Housewives, politicians, pastors, young people and others have their say.
  For example, the three interviews with Father O’Bradaigh (1973) are impressive. He explains the causes of the Northern Ireland conflict, which are based on discrimination against Catholics, and the hatred of Protestants who are afraid of losing power. Catholics were disadvantaged – both in terms of jobs and university attendance – and therefore unemployment and emigration rates were high. There was a referendum on British membership, which at that time was negative for Catholics, because a majority wanted Northern Ireland to remain in the British Empire. O’Braidaigh insists that Northern Ireland belongs to Ireland. When asked about IRA bombings in London, he expresses his disapproval; they had harmed the Irish cause (pp. 119-135).
  Violence by British soldiers against women and young girls occurred again and again. For example, the mother of a wanted teenager suffers an eye injury; another woman is beaten bloody with a rifle butt in the street (p. 137f.); the soldiers also do not shy away from beating children, which leaves the relatives extremely bitter (p. 149). In Armagh Women’s Prison, horrific scenes take place, resulting in injuries to the victims. Men were repeatedly subjected to torture in “Long Kesh” (p. 172).
  The author also spoke to the Hegerty couple, whose son was shot during “Operation Motorman”. He had not belonged to any organisation and had only wanted to visit his uncle. Mrs. Hegerty and her son had previously rescued a policeman and two British officers from the hands of Catholic rebels, so her son was not a Molotov cocktail thrower, as the British army later claimed. The couple also objects to all Catholics being labelled as members of the IRA. Mrs. Hegerty vividly describes the state of the British soldiers who came to the country: “There’s a young soldier out in our garden one day and the husband and Mr. Z was standing out at the door and the British soldier went berserk and he started shouting: ‘I don’t want to be here! l never wanted to be sent here!’ He says, ‘it was them pigs sent us over!’ He was shouting at us.” (p. 166)
  In order to be able to report authentically, the author visited the camp (she is passed off as a relative of a prisoner), which is called “Her Majesty the Queen’s Concentration Camp Long Kesh” by the Irish because of the violations of human rights. Torture is no exception there. The detailed descriptions of what one has to endure during such a visit – the interrogation, being thoroughly patted down several times, rummaging through all pockets – get under the skin.
  The telephone conversation with Richard Moore, who lost his sight as a boy due to a rubber bullet from the British army, is also moving. He never gave up, learned Braille, attended grammar school and went to university and studied social administration because he wanted to be a social worker. From the reparation payments from the British, he bought two pubs in Derry, which he ran for fourteen years (p. 235). In 1996, he founded the organisation “Children in Crossfire”, which arranged partnerships in sub-Saharan countries, South America and Asia (p. 237). There, defenceless, hungry and disabled children are helped.

The photos – an expression of lived humanity

The photos in the book are impressive. They show children playing war, barricades, British soldiers in action, many ordinary citizens and seasoned personalities who are not ready to give up, who stick together and last but not least do not lose their sense of humour. Thus, one sees two street sweepers taking a break, smiling at the viewer – leaning on their tools – or an elderly woman cleaning outside her bricked-up front door, looking confidently into the camera. Numerous children’s drawings document that the youngest are constant witnesses to unimaginable violence. “Saracens [armoured personnel carriers], planes and helicopters scare me!” is written under one impressive drawing (p. 65).
  For those who want to understand the problem of the Northern Ireland conflict, Titine Kriesi’s book is highly recommended. Pictures, descriptions and transcripts of conversations bear eloquent witness to the situation of the Catholic Northern Irish in the 1970s. It is characterised by the fact that the author knew those affected personally, so that they opened up and told their story. Anyone who has read the texts and let the illustrations sink in will not forget them so quickly. The book makes an important contribution to coming to terms with this part of our history and to peace between the parties to the conflict.  •

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