The story in Northern Ireland was a heartening one. Loyalists and Republicans sat down to discuss their differences. Yes, they were in separate rooms and at opposite ends of a hall, but they were sitting and talking. Eventually, the two sides agreed to the Good Friday Agreement and (although there were some significant bumps in the road) the general trend was toward reconciliation. The Provisional IRA surrendered its arms. Then some months later, the various Protestant paramilitary groups did the same. The Troubles appeared over.
On the surface at least, the transformation was profound. At the bottom of the Shankill Road in Belfast, for example, tourist authorities installed an informational sign encouraging visitors to explore an area that I was once instructed by Northern Irish Tourist Board officials not to wander alone. Even the Shankill-area murals, once featuring men with AK-47s in intimidating poses, seemed to reflect an altogether new reality.
You can see what I mean. I took this first photo in September 2002—a UVF mural just off the Shankill.
I shot this second photo in June 2009. While it certainly contains plenty of violence, the end of the narrative suggests a more peaceful future. Where once violence was justified, now it is time to talk.
I do not want to imply that there were not hints of continued distrust, anger, and hostility. For example, in one Loyalist neighborhood, I found some rather less helpful and constructive things scrawled on the walls.
It takes time, I told myself. Sectarianism and nationalist strife does not just go away with a peace agreement. It is not easy to escape from a cycle of hate and retribution. Not easy to suddenly decide that a group you've detested for your whole life is "okay." Not possible to erase lessons learned at home: passed from father to son, mother to daughter. Indeed, men of violence, who gain a sense of power from their actions, are not likely to easily give up the confidence that comes from knowing how easy it is to take a life.
Unfortunately, the news from the North is not good. Even as I was departing the North last spring, a Catholic man was beaten to death in Coleraine, Co. Londonderry. This past September, police defused a 270kg bomb, apparently planted by the Real IRA in the South Armagh/North Louth border region. Today, the news from Northern Ireland includes the grim prognosis that "Republican terrorists 'widening attacks across Northern Ireland.'"
Naturally, Sein Fein denounces the violence, as does the DUP and virtually every other mainstream political organization. Those involved with the new wave of violence—the same group who brought you the Omagh Bombing—are acting outside of any larger political framework. They attack because they can and because it makes them feel powerful.
Mao Tse-Tung reportedly once said: "The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea." If you take away the people, the guerrilla has nowhere to move. The most effective way to fight terrorism is to remove popular support. Not only does a dearth of support make it difficult for terrorists to hide, it makes it impossible for them to replenish themselves by gaining new fighters. The great hope for Northern Ireland is that this new wave of violence will not draw in more supporters—as I am sure the Real IRA and their fans hope it will. The public must respond with disdain and with utter and complete intolerance for a return to the bad old days. The alternative is unthinkable.