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comments iconDay 35: Reflections on Stage 3 — Northern Ireland

 

Total walk:  496.10 miles

Today raised:  £ 125.00 +  ¥ 1,320.00

Total raised: £11,713.09 + ¥ 88,573.45

It has been a short five day visit to Northern Ireland with just 53 miles walked but it has been a great experience. There is something special about both the Republic of Ireland which I walked through in 2013 for Save the Children on my way to LondonDerry and Northern Ireland.

Part of it is the lush green countryside and rolling hills, but mostly it is the people. People will say good morning to you even when you are in a city. Drivers are incredibly considerate of walkers and will always raise their hand slightly from the steering wheel to acknowledge you. You get the impression that a bit like China, people want to go out of their way to help whether its directions or accommodation.

The gardens and buildings are immaculately maintained and it is clear from this that people here love where they live. I don’t think I have seen as many new homes or new cars anywhere in the UK.

Yet as I walked along the Falls Road into Belfast to complete this stage of the walk I was reminded that beneath the surface there are still tensions between Loyalist (Protestant) and Nationalist (Catholic) communities and so called ‘Peace Walls’ are required to keep them apart in places.

It is an truly awful thing when there are political battles but when religion is thrown into the mix it seems to stir up a particular type of hatred as its not just their lands or government at stake but in their struggle but their faith too. The struggles today going on between Sunni and Shi’a branches of Islam in the Middle East are remarkably similar to the ferocity and barbarity unleashed through the battles between Protestant and Catholic branches of Christianity in Europe for over two hundred years between the Reformation (1524) and the French Revolution (1789).

History should have told us that men are never more wrong than when they believe only they are right. They are never more capable of evil than when they believe that only they are good.

These sectarian differences which go back at least to 1690 and the Battle of the Boyne when the Protestant King William of Orange defeated the Catholic King James II. I don’t want to dwell too much on the history–the Island of Ireland has too much history and it depends which part of the community or which side of the border as to how it is re-told.

What is needed is a united vision of the future which is more compelling and powerful than the divided recollection of the past.

It must be stressed that in this regard Northern Ireland has advanced leaps and bounds from the daily shootings and bombings of the seventies, eighties and nineties. In 1998 the Good Friday Agreement was signed and a power-sharing assembly was created at Stormont.

To see individuals who had been fierce adversaries and who had lost loved ones to violence come together and govern in the interest of the all the people of Northern Ireland was one of the most inspiring political initiatives of my lifetime. It declared that peace is possible even in the most entrenched of historical contexts.

Of course it was never going to be easy and the Stormont assembly where our walk ended, has been suspended four times since 1998 and is currently suspended again. This time the dispute is over a proposed Irish language act. There is also the key question of resolving issues between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland as a result of the decision of the UK to leave the EU.

But, I believe that there is an overwhelming desire not to go back to division but to move forward together. Northern Ireland is a beautiful country with warm and generous people and sectarian conflict ill-befits a country with such potential for all, north and south, Loyalist and Nationalist, Catholic and Protestant, we just need less borders and walls and more bridges to get there.