Noe Valley Voice November 1999

To Belfast and Back with Global Exchange Diary of a 'Reality Tour' to Northern Ireland

By Alex Nicole Leviton

I was born to have an interest in Northern Ireland. My birthday falls on July 12, the day the infamous Orange Order marches throughout Northern Ireland each year. And I'd always wondered about the place -- was it Irish, British, or both? Still, I didn't want to visit Northern Ireland just as a tourist. I'd rather see it as a student of its culture, politics, and people.

So when I had three weeks off in July, I called Global Exchange. Global Exchange describes itself as a research, education, and action center advocating political, economic, and social justice. Most of us know the organization through its "fair trade" arts and crafts store on 24th Street. But have you heard about its Reality Tours, study seminars designed to build people-to-people ties in such diverse places as Northern Ireland, Cuba, and South Africa?

After I checked out Global's summer schedule, I decided to go on the "Beyond Conflict" tour to Northern Ireland from July 5 to 19. The land cost of the trip was $1,800 and included transportation within Ireland, accommodations, two meals a day, all program activities, a knowledgeable trip leader, and a whole slew of reading materials.

Admittedly not for everyone, the political part of the trip was custom-made for me, a writer interested in politics. I opted to spend some time on my own in the far north of Ireland, and then meet with the rest of the group in Belfast after those tumultuous marches. Thankfully, this year's marches saw little violence, and I joined the group without incident on July 13 in Belfast.

A History of 'The Troubles'

Before starting my journey, I had read the reams of facts and statistics on Northern Ireland provided by Nadya Connolly Williams, my ever-helpful tour coordinator back in San Francisco. I had always kept up with "The Troubles," as the political situation in Northern Ireland is often euphemistically referred to, but still didn't have a clear grasp of the situation.

The larger context for the Troubles goes back 900 years. The British colonized Ireland starting in the 12th century. Much later, in the 16th and 17th centuries, Presbyterians from Scotland were sent over to confiscate Irish lands and run the government.

As I found out while in Belfast, July 12 -- my birth date -- is an important milestone. It's the anniversary of the 1690 Battle of the Boyne. In that notorious battle, the Protestant William of Orange defeated the Catholic King James, thus cementing British dominion over the local Irish majority for the next 300 years. Despite several Irish uprisings throughout the centuries, it was not until after the 1916 Easter Uprising that Ireland began its successful War of Independence.

To put an end to six years of war, Ireland declared a truce in 1922 after regaining only 26 of its original 32 counties. Of Ulster's nine counties in the north, the six predominantly Protestant counties remained under British rule. It was a quick fix in a desperate time. No one had any idea how much bloodshed this division would generate.

The Republic of Ireland became a free state after breaking all ties to Great Britain in 1949. Northern Ireland, however, has stayed divided. Its 60 percent Protestant and 40 percent Catholic population has suffered the loss of 3,600 lives -- in a nation of only 1.6 million people. (In the U.S. that figure would translate to 500,000.)

The more recent "Troubles" began brewing in 1968 with the Catholic civil rights movement. In 1972, during a peaceful march, the British Army killed 14 unarmed civilians. The Irish Republican Army (IRA), instigators of many an uprising from the early 1900s, sprang back into existence. Organized (military) and sectarian (civilian) killings again became rampant. More than 2,000 died in the decade from 1969 to 1979 alone.

Although the killings have lessened since an IRA ceasefire in 1994 and last year's Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland is still a country facing a long journey toward peace.

Signs and Graffiti Everywhere

Our small group of five Americans and an intelligent, charming Irish tour leader started the Belfast journey at Culturlann, an Irish cultural center in West Belfast, the mainly nationalist (read: Catholic) section of town. My companions were Pat and Bernie, a progressive Californian couple who had met in a retirement community; Susan, a lawyer from Los Angeles; Nancy, a librarian from Miami; and Karen, the trip leader, a politically active journalist from West Belfast who knew the answers to practically every question we asked.

Within minutes of entering her neighborhood, we were confronted by signs of the conflict. Everywhere we looked we saw political banners and graffiti, curb paintings, and huge murals sprawling across the sides of buildings. We quickly learned the code: If we saw the orange, green, and white of the Irish flag, we were in a nationalist part of town. The red, white, and blue of the Union Jack denoted the Unionists, or Protestants. Although peaceful murals popped up on both sides, most of the murals we saw were filled with violent images of men wearing masks and carrying machine guns.

During the day, we talked with the local residents and looked for other opportunities to learn. At night, we went back to our host families, where we continued to ask questions and, if only for a few days, feel a part of the West Belfast community.

Along the way, our group had eye-opening meetings with Sinn Fein, the working-class republican party often called the political wing of the IRA; the SDLP, the political party of John Hume, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize; and the Falls Women's Center, a Catholic organization with crosscultural ties to Protestant women's groups. Most revealing, however, was the chance to see up-close and personal the two main adversaries in the Northern Ireland conflict: the politicians and the prisoners.

Racism Rears Its Ugly Head

On July 14, the day before a section of the historic Good Friday Agreement was to be decided upon by Northern Ireland's parliament, we found ourselves at Stormont Castle -- a misnomer for the British parliamentary building in Northern Ireland. The parliamentary debate included Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein and Nobel Peace Prize­winner David Trimble of the UUP, the almost exclusively Protestant Ulster Unionist Party. During much of the hullabaloo, however, our group got stuck in an "informational" meeting with two politicians from the UUP.

Bernie, a retired engineer in our group, had already likened the feel of Northern Ireland to that of the American South during the civil rights struggle of the '60s. And we certainly got proof on this day.

Chatting away about work habits of Roman Catholics (not Catholics, mind you, Roman Catholics), one of the UUP councilmen said, and I quote, "They were beavering away like nig - - - s." As our little group of left-leaning liberals traded huge double-takes, the other councilman shot the first a look, and the speaker chuckled sheepishly, "Oh, yes, I probably shouldn't say that naughty word. Badgers. They were beavering away like badgers."

Even more astonishing than our journey into political racism was our foray into Long Kesh prison, the place where 10 prisoners died during 1981 hunger strikes over prison conditions. For this visit, we broke into two groups of three.

IRA Prisoner Serves Cokes

My group spoke with Eric, a former IRA member who'd spent 20 of his last 24 years as a prisoner in Long Kesh. He'd spent 15 years the first time for "getting" an officer of the RUC (the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the 93 percent Protestant police force accused of torture by the United Nations). After four years of freedom, Eric returned to Long Kesh after a failed attempt at another "job."

The way Eric talked was the same way an American soldier would talk about his stint in the military. He said the IRA had a strict code of discipline and an age limit for joining, and that it treated men and women equally. Eric even admitted that a few women officers had "busted his chops."

Eric also got a pretty good beating from the RUC when he was caught the second time around. (In fact, he was nearly beaten to death, one of our homestay hosts told us.) Eric shrugged this off, saying, "I've got a job to do, and they've got a job to do." He said he wouldn't have held it against his captors if they'd killed him.

But nowadays, he and the other political prisoners at Long Kesh are treated with kid gloves. All of them read voraciously, and they've published several poetry books together. One man is writing a book about the last IRA member who was sentenced to hang in 1942. They wear their own clothes -- one of the perks brought about by the hunger strikes -- and are up-to-date on the political situation.

We talked with Eric for almost two hours -- over the Cokes, tea, and cookies he offered us. Save for the guards and elaborate check-in procedures, this place could have been Lovejoy's Tea Room.

One of the things Eric, who is now in his early 40s, is starting to miss from his 20 years behind bars is not having a family. He met a woman when he was on the outside, but she wasn't willing to wait the 10 years or so before he got out. Through Sinn Fein's work in re-patriating prisoners, he would like to somehow work in the community, and he wants to raise a family. One of the goals of the Good Friday Agreement is to release political prisoners whose paramilitary affiliates have declared a ceasefire. If all goes well for him, Eric will have a chance to try out this new life by the year 2001.

Next Stop, Havana

As I neared the end of the trip, I thanked our guide for the interviews, noting that Americans sure couldn't get that kind of reality check by watching two minutes a week of TV coverage. Physically being in Northern Ireland gave me the chance to experience the culture in a way no reading or studying could.

In Belfast, I'd heard the helicopters buzzing around each night and seen the surveillance equipment atop Divis Flats, the fortified British Army installation. I'd met some of the warmest, friendliest people I'd ever known -- those who picked me up hitchhiking (which I wouldn't do anywhere else in the world), new friends who invited me into their homes, and children who offered to show me around town. But I'd also met lovely old ladies who turned to ice and hissed through clenched smiles, "Not one inch," when asked about giving back rights to Catholics.

After my education by fire in Northern Ireland, I returned to San Francisco already looking forward to my next Global Exchange trip. Once home, I was excited to hear that Karen, our tour leader, would be in Cuba next year. Who knows, I just might visit for my birthday in the year 2000.

For information about Global Exchange tours, call 415-255-7296. Or check the group's web site:


Global Exchange offers tours throughout the year in all areas of travel and interest. There's even a bicycle tour to Cuba. Along with the usual activities -- sightseeing, sampling local food -- you will get a close-up look at a country's culture and politics. Upcoming trips include:


Mexico: The Millennium in Chiapas

Dec. 28, 1999, to Jan. 5, 2000

$850 from Mexico City

Palestine and Israel: Peace in the New Millennium

Jan. 10­24, 2000

$1,800 from Jerusalem; $1,500 for students

Ireland: St. Patrick's Day in the North of Ireland

March 6­20, 2000

$1,800 from Dublin; $1,500 for students


International Latin American Film Festival

Dec. 1­10, 1999

$1,500 from Cancun, Mexico

The Millennium in Havana

Dec. 27, 1999, to Jan. 4, 2000

$2,000 from Mexico City; $1,400 land only

Following Che's Footsteps

March 18­28, 2000

$1,500 from Cancun, Mexico

Global Exchange also offers monthly trips to Cuba that feature dancing and percussion workshops or Spanish-language classes at the University of Havana. You can read about these trips at Or call 415-255-7296. Or drop by the store at 4018 24th St. and ask for a brochure.