The following is a narrative provided by Calleigh McRaith, a 2003 graduate of Dassel-Cokato High School. She recently spent two months in Northern Ireland doing an internship with a human rights legal organization.
“During my time there I was able to engage with the Northern Ireland community and learn about the Troubles and the community’s continued efforts for peace and reconciliation,” she commented.
McRaith is a 2006 graduate of Wheaton college. Her internship was in preparation for beginning law school at University of Virginia in August.
“The work I did in Ireland is very related to my coursework as I will be pursuing a law degree with a concentration in human rights and civil liberties. I was in Northern Ireland from May 15, 2009 to July 15, 2009. I stayed with a local family and worked 40 hours per week,” she added.
Her article is as follows.
By Calleigh McRaith
DC 2003 graduate
Murders conducted in broad daylight, victims being shot in their own homes or gardens, car bombs and pub attacks, booby-trapped radios and flasks exploding on innocent workers, street riots, a deep suspicion of the police and government these things were a part of daily life in Northern Ireland for nearly 30 years. From 1969 to 1998, a socio-political conflict known locally as “The Troubles” raged in Northern Ireland.
This summer I had the opportunity to spend two months in Derry, Northern Ireland volunteering with an organization dedicated to bringing about reconciliation and social change in a community scarred from this long violent conflict.
I went to Northern Ireland thinking I understood the Troubles. Media coverage in the United States had simplified the conflict into a religious division Catholics fighting Protestants. However, in reality, the Troubles is a much more complicated situation involving employment discrimination, housing rights, a lack of political representation, and decades of fear and suspicion.
In the 1960s, many Catholics felt they were being denied their basic rights, including the right to vote and the right to fair housing, and they began a series of peaceful protests. This originally peaceful movement evolved into a violent conflict between Republicans and the Loyalists, with the British Army trying to mediate the situation.
A “Loyalist” is a more proper term for the “Protestants” of Northern Ireland. Loyalists do not support the separation of Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom and are, therefore, “Loyal to the Crown.”
Republicans (“Catholics”) are mostly people with native Irish roots who support Northern Ireland leaving the United Kingdom and joining the Republic of Ireland.
My internship for the summer was with an organization called the Pat Finucane Centre in Derry, Northern Ireland. As Northern Ireland’s second largest city, Derry was at the heart of the violence during most of the Troubles. The Pat Finucane Centre (PFC) helps families who lost a loved one in the Troubles find answers about that person’s death.
Between 1968 and 2001, over 3500 people were killed in Northern Ireland by either the British security forces or by local Republican or Loyalist paramilitary groups such as the IRA, the UDA, or the UVF. Many of these people were innocent civilians who were simply killed by the opposing side for being “Catholic” or “Protestant.”
Investigations into these murders were frequently mishandled by the police force due to the overwhelming amount of murders which occurred during this period. Police corruption, including a widespread underlying sympathy towards the Loyalists, also hampered many investigations. As a result, few murders were ever solved and only a small number of convictions resulted.
Generally no answers were ever given to the family about who might have killed their loved one or why that person was targeted.
The PFC helps families look into these old murders and find the answers they are seeking. Working in tandem with a British police unit called the Historical Enquiries Team (HET), the PFC serves as an advocate for families of victims of the Troubles.
The HET has the ability to open up old police records and can research the circumstances of a death, including if any convictions came from it. In addition, if the family believes that the original investigation was mishandled (as many of them were), the HET can open a new investigation to try and determine who was responsible for the death.
In many cases, deaths which were labeled as “accidental shootings” with very mysterious surrounding circumstances have been reinvestigated with new information coming to light and being given to the family. In many cases this new information, such as who was with the person when they died or if the shooting truly was “accidental,” brings closure and peace to the family after decades of questions and confusion.
Corruption within the Army and the police force has also been exposed in several murder cases, and the PFC has been able to bring this evidence to light. These efforts to uncover the truth allow families to begin the processing of accepting and forgiving the people who wronged them.
The process of revealing community ‘secrets’ about who was responsible for old murders and why these things were allowed to occur also allows the people of Northern Ireland to begin taking steps towards understanding each other and hearing the other side’s point of view. Hopefully this process of understanding and acknowledging the fears and hurts of each side of this divided community will lead to greater empathy and prevent these tragedies from happening again.
Living in Northern Ireland and working with the PFC for two months was a life-shaping experience. It was very interesting to become a part of a community which had suffered such severe loss and is now trying to move past it.
In spite of the efforts of the PFC and other organizations to bring closure and healing, Northern Ireland is still an incredibly divided place. Because of tensions between the Loyalist and Republican political views, most Protestants and Catholics live in segregated neighborhoods and send their children to segregated schools.
There is still occasional fighting along neighborhood division lines where groups of kids from the two communities often spend their evenings throwing stones and glass bottles at each other. Petrol bombings still occur occasionally, including at least two incidents this summer where bombs were thrown at the homes of local politicians. This past June, a man was even killed in the Northern Ireland town of Coleraine when a group of Loyalists who were celebrating a soccer match entered a Republican neighborhood and began beating people up.
In spite of all of this tension, the people of Northern Ireland have, for the most part, remained very committed to resolving the issues in their community. Although it would be tempting to give up after nearly 40 years of tension and conflict, people seem to think that perhaps change is just around the corner.
Community action groups and initiatives abound, each with the goal of bringing the community a step closer to a full and lasting peace. Although segregation and community tension remain large problems, most people are tired of fighting and are anxious to bring about healing and forgiveness. With each passing year there is a renewed hope that perhaps this upcoming generation will be the one to solve the Troubles of Northern Ireland and bring about reconciliation within the community.
During my time there, I began to agree with them. There is much which needs to be acknowledged and forgiven in Northern Ireland, including terrible murders which touched nearly every family living there, but with time, continued discussion, community action, and a lasting commitment to a nonviolent resolution, one day Northern Ireland might be able to finally move past the current tension and resolve this long conflict.