Northern Ireland: Belfast: The Troubles

Hugh Smyth quote, Belfast

“The Troubles” is the name given to the violence that involved republican and loyalist paramilitaries, Northern Ireland police, the British military, and others in Northern Ireland from the 196os through 1998…

History of The Troubles

The conflict was between two camps:

  • Irish Republicans, who supported the unification of Northern Ireland (County Ulster) with Ireland as an Irish Republic with total independence from Great Britain and
  • British Loyalists, who supported allegiance of Northern Ireland to Great Britain as part of the United Kingdom.  It is important to note that Northern Ireland remains part of the UK.

While the Troubles have been transformed into half a generation of relative peace, such peace can never be taken for granted. Here are a few thoughts on the subject:

  • While Sinn Fein has representation in British Parliament, the clearly stated goal of Sinn Fein–a United Irish Republic–remains unrealized.
  • My sense is that most citizens of Northern Island simply want to move on with their lives in peace, but as you can see from the murals, strong and highly visible Republican and Loyalist sentiments remain.
  • Peace is fragile in the sense that a minority of extremists have the power to derail the entire peace process in opposition to the wishes of the majority. A single isolated incident could reignite endless cycles of tit-for-tat violence.
  • Belfast still remains largely segregated. The peace walls still stand and the peace gates still close at night.

In summary, there are reasons for cautious optimism but there is still lots of courageous work to be done in the direction of reconciliation.

This photo essay could never do justice to the complex history of and current political state of Irish-British relations. I will leave that task to you. My goal is simply to raise some awareness, to pose some questions with sincerity and concern, and to highlight the importance of peace-making in our daily lives.

Europa Hotel

The Europa, “the most bombed hotel in the world”, suffered thirty-three bombings by the Provisional Irish Republican Army during The Troubles. The bombings were announced in advance as the IRA’s goal was not to murder, but to create enough disruption to British political and economic interests to bring them to the negotiating table.

Falls Road

Sinn Féin’s office on Falls Road (Sinn Féin is the political arm of the IRA).

No matter one’s opinion of the IRA and their tactics, the conviction of the hunger strikers and their impact on public opinion is unquestionable. But my visit invited me to go deeper… to consider the moral dilemmas and horrific anguish of their friends and families. Did their families dare save their loved ones against their will? Did they consider this to be martyrdom or suicide? If their act was indeed suicide, how could their families allow this to occur in the face of their religious beliefs? And would they dare save the strikers at the risk of being ridiculed as traitors to the Republican cause?

A tribute to Bobby Sands, IRA leader and the first of the ten hunger strikers who died in 1981.

Falls Road Solidarity Murals

The highly visible solidarity murals along [Republican] Falls Road encompass a variety of emotionally charged images and messages…

What is the depth and intensity of the sentiments behind these messages and how are they received by the residents of Belfast from both sides of the peace walls?
Do these murals promote peace or do they fan the flames of continued political and sectarian division?
Which messages are legitimate calls for justice and which are mere propaganda?
As I stood before these murals, I was struck by many questions…
How actively engaged are IRA elements with like-minded groups elsewhere to this day?
What are the distinctions between freedom fighter and terrorist?
Most important, what impact do these murals have on the young people who walk past them each and every day?

Peace Walls and Peace Gates

Although many consider The Troubles to have ended in 1998, the “Peace” Walls still stand and the “Peace” Gates, while open during the day, are still closed at night.

Crossing through a peace gate, one of many that separate Loyalist and Republican neighborhoods from each other…
The Loyalist side.

The continued existence of these walls begs the questions: Are these barriers still necessary in order to keep the peace? If yes, what developments would make it prudent to take them down? Is their existence actually an obstacle to reconciliation?

Shankill Road

There is never any doubt on which side of the wall you are standing….
A vivid reminder that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and that loyalist sentiments are quite strong.
The Loyalists spawned several paramilitary groups of their own, one of them called the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).

Graphic Memories of notable IRA bombings

What do young people born in the loyalist neighborhoods feel when they see this mural? Is it a necessary reminder and history lesson or an obstacle to reconciliation?

Reasons for Hope?

An insightful lesson in divisive politics… and an invitation to see that we are all brothers and sisters.

Hugh Smyth Quote, 1974
A glimmer of hope… and a lesson for us all.


  1. This is so intensely thought provoking, Frank. You taught enough of the history & background to really help me better understand it. Your peaceful intention & move toward reconciliation is gently stated, but powerful. I appreciate your spirit. Thanks again for sharing!

    1. Thanks so much for checking in, Stacy… and for sharing your thoughtful and sensitive comments… and positive energy with the world. Peace.

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