Travels through Northern Ireland

US Consulate in Belfast

Today we visited the US Consulate in Belfast. 

It was an interesting visit, and we got a really interesting perspective from the Consular-General herself, Kamala S. Lakhdhir, who was gracious enough to sit with us for over ninety minutes as we asked questions, both historical and current, regarding Northern Ireland.

The consulate is located in building that used to be the family mansion of Samuel Barber. Before the site was home to a mansion  (a long time before) there was a Viking fort, due mainly to the site being located a top a relatively high hill. The Consulate moved to the building around 2005 for reasons I will mention further on.

The History between Northern Ireland and the United States

The Consulate in Belfast reports to London (as it is under the United Kingdom branch of operations) but must also maintain a relationship with ‘the South’. The United States has had consular presence in Northern Ireland since 1796. There is some debate over whether it was the first US consulate, the other contender being Casablanca (US presence there was surrounding the negotiations for the release of US sailors from Barbary pirates). In Northern Ireland, the first Consular was General was James Holmes, and this began what would be the start of a long history between Northern Ireland and the US.

During the US Civil War there were two significant things that happened, in the context of Belfast. The first was that Belfast ship makers were approached by the Confederates who were looking to build faster ships to overcome the Northern blockade. The second was that as a result of the Civil War, cotton was not entering the international market which allowed linen trade to flourish. Both of these benefited Belfast, bringing a boom in industry to the city.

According to Lakhdhir, generals on both side of the Civil War were from Northern Ireland and our first constitutional amendment (separation of church and state) was most heavily supported by those who had come from Northern Ireland, and who had experienced first hand the danger of having a state religion (largely, concerns with the associated discrimination).

The relationship continued through WWII, when Northern Ireland was used as a final place of training for US military personnel before they were set further West. The city of Derry was a US Navy port, and the relationship was ‘immeasurable strengthened through wartime cooperation.’

Continuing further the US was a facilitator of the peace process that lead up to the Good Friday Agreement, the key players there being President Clinton and Sen. Mitchell. In the sprite of honesty, it was also mentioned that some within the Irish-American community were actively engaged in fundraising for the IRA during this time.

After the Good Friday Agreements

The Good Friday Agreements came to be through the efforts of many people, but special mention was given to Tony Blair, Berty Ahearn and Bill Clinton. The agreement was only the start of a vision, which continues to be shaped today.

It was followed by the 2006 St. Andrew’s Agreement, shortly after which a government was formed that contained two former rivals (Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness – nicknamed in the press as the ‘Chuckle Brothers’). This in itself was an extraordinary feat. You had a self-proclaimed former member of the IRA (McGuinness) working with a very influential Protestant leader (Paisley). It was not an outcome that anyone could have predicted in the decade prior and so there can be no doubt that progress is being made.

However, there are still pressures at play that can not be ignored. 77% of the GDP of Northern Ireland is sourced back the the UK government, meaning that employment is being driven by British government spending. This is a huge imbalance between the public and private sectors, and an area of concern for long term sustainability. Without employment for youth, then you are not guaranteeing peace.

Thus come the Three Pillars of US activity in Northern Ireland:

  1. support a stable and independent government,
  2. promote a shared and pluralist society, and
  3. help to develop a strong and entrepreneurial economy.
Sectarianism 

One  interesting aspect of the discussion was ways that deep-rooted sectarian thinking can be overcome, which lead to a thought that perhaps politicians in this area may not be keen to give this up. Currently, politicians get elected based on community lines – so how much political will is there to change this? (I personally elect not to take such a pessimistic approach.) One community leader in Northern Ireland went so far as to call the extent of the separation a kind of ‘sectarian apartheid’.

Research done out of Queen’s University provided evidence that children as young as three have picked up on this sectarian separation.

So what does this separation mean? In the context of a some future referendum determining Northern Ireland’s place between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, it is not clear. Assuming people are voting along sectarian lines, there are changes happening that make predicting the outcome of such a vote difficult. Catholic birth rates are dropping, although the still remain higher than Protestant birth rates. And 50% of young people are attending some form of higher education, of those the majority of Protestant students go ‘abroad’ to Scotland and England but then don’t come back. It is unclear what this changing demographic will mean.

But assume it is not a sectarian decision, which it very well could be if the religiosity of Northern Ireland continues to decline (not that this was ever about religion), and the communities continue to come together through a variety of successful projects. It can be seen as an economic decision (are the benefits I get from the UK better than those I would get from Ireland? Do I want my business to be operating in GBP or in Euros?) or it can be seen as a highly personal decision (Am I Irish? Am I British? Am I both?). Again, the outcome is uncertain at best.

One of the sustained struggles in the context of sectarianism is stopping the recruitment of young people into groups who promote that mode of thinking. Essentially, stopping the twelve year old from thinking that the actions of the IRA in the 1970s were heroic. Lakhdhir said that what scares her the most is not the 45 year old getting arrested for sectarian violence, but the 17 year old getting arrested. If you 17 now, then you were only 4 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed – meaning that since then someone convinced you that this was something worth fighting for. What did they tell you? And how can we convince you that they were wrong? How do we tell you that violence is not the answer to your concerns?

But the situation is not without hope. Constable Ronan Kerr (a young Catholic police officer killed by ‘dissident republicans’ for ‘betraying’ his religion and joining up with ‘British forces’, aka the police) was killed through an act of sectarian violence, and during the aftermath of that tragic event a very clear message was sent. His mother gave speeches encouraging other young Catholics to join the police and promote peace. Martin McGuinness attended Kerr’s funeral, making if the first funeral of a police officer the former IRA leader had ever attended. Tom Elliot, a Protestant, attended – making it the first Catholic Mass the former paramilitary man had ever attended.  Representatives from main branches of Christianity were in attendance, praying side by side. Mickey Hart (highly respected coach within the GAA) attended, carrying the coffin and passing it on to the police. [The symbology of that is complex, but essentially the GAA is a Gaelic, Catholic sports league that can be associated with Nationalist tendencies, so to be seen ‘cooperating’ with the policy is huge. It is similar reasoning that made The Queen visiting their arena so meaningful this past week – in addition to the deaths that once occurred there.]

Some interesting notes about the impact of 9/11

There were two things that we spoke about that touched on the impact of 9/11 to the region. The first is why the US Consulate is located in its current building. After 2001, US Consulates/Embassies were not allowed to share building space with others in an effort to protect the other people in the building from any attacks directed at the US. This had never occurred to me before, and I thought it was interesting.

The second thing regarded a conversation between Richard Hass (then consular-general in Belfast) and Gerry Adams (president of Sinn Fein, a political party with close historical ties to the IRA) on 9/11/2001. The paramilitary groups were still going back and forth about the process of decommissioning their weapons stock. Hass was in Dublin when he heard the news and was unable to fly back to Belfast. During his conversation with Adams he said that never again will terrorism have support from the United States or its people. He pressed Adams to think about the decisions he made, because the world had changed and Adam’s decisions now need to be defined in the context of 9/11.

Funding

Our group has been doing internships at various organizations throughout the city of Belfast, and many of us had heard concerns that funding was slowly being cut as the ‘problem in Northern Ireland was solved’. This was the last thing we asked the Consular-General about, and we got an answer that we did not expect.

She conveyed to us the possibility that this may be a good thing. As it stands there are many, many community groups. While many try and work across sectarian lines, they tend to do so only in their immediate community. Cuts in funding would force those that wish to survive to walk across the street and see how they can work together to keep the spirit of their programs alive. There is no longer enough funding to support every small program, and so only those programs that coordinate and become more effective will survive. This applies to schools as well, there are many, many schools. Some have facilities that they do not have teachers for, while others have teachers they do not have the facilities for. Schools who previously considered themselves separate may have to come together, in a truely cross-community way to maintain the standard of education they wish to provide.

While, I am not sure I agree with all of what was said, it certainly gave the group quite a bit to think about.

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