MARQUETTE, Mich.--Northern Michigan University criminal justice professors Greg Warchol and Bob Hanson recently traveled to Belfast to research the Northern Ireland conflict, commonly known as the Troubles. They toured the city with a former member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, learned about the opposing Loyalist paramilitary groups and met with a British soldier who was assigned to Belfast during the violent period.
“The IRA served as the model for a lot of modern terrorist groups,” said Warchol, who plans to incorporate what he discovered in his terrorism course. He is pictured right with the former PIRA tour guide. “It invented the car bomb and used plastic explosives. It established a structure of independent operating cells so if one were destroyed, you couldn’t link it to the others. It bought weapons from Libya and trained in Cuba and with the PLO in the Middle East. The IRA was well ahead of everyone and any terrorist study should start with that group. It was formed around 1912 to 1914 and came to the forefront in 1969. But some thought the original was ineffective and claimed the acronym stood for I Ran Away, so they branched off as the more extreme Provisional IRA.”
According to the BBC, the Troubles spanned 30 years and cost more than 3,600 lives. It was a conflict fueled not by religion, but by a territorial dispute over the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. The Loyalist majority, which was overwhelmingly Protestant, wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom. The nationalist and republican minority, almost exclusively Catholic, wanted to become part of the Republic of Ireland. These divergent goals were accompanied by mutually exclusive visions of national identity and national belonging.
“From a criminal justice perspective, it’s interesting to see how the British handled it,” Warchol said. “They pushed back extremely hard and things escalated. The British soldiers relied on warrantless arrest, internment and even shoot-on-sight policies. They locked people up indefinitely without charging them. Prisoners refused to wear uniforms and they staged hunger strikes.”
PIRA volunteer Bobby Sands famously died as a result of a two-month hunger strike in the Maze Prison. His image adorns a large wall mural in a Belfast neighborhood. The professors saw that mural and dozens of others that document the activities of both sides and memorialize the dead, along with prominent supporters of the cause.
“It was interesting to see how the street art expressed the community’s response to the situation,” said Hanson. “There were hundreds at one time, but you have to keep in mind people didn’t have other media at their disposal to advocate for a point of view or call people to action. The IRA murals didn’t last as long because the British would paint-bomb them. The Falls Road area, where most of the fighting took place, is now the site of modern murals dedicated to people like Nelson Mandela, Hugo Chavez, Che Guevera, and Leonard Pelletier.”
Remnants of the conflict linger, from the murals to a British-built metal wall designed to separate the Catholics and Protestants (there is free movement back and forth). Heavy metal screens intended to thwart projectile bricks and Molotov cocktails still adorn the windows of a fish and chips place where they stopped for lunch. But both professors agree Belfast has emerged a modern and vibrant city.
“It seems to be thriving,” Hanson added. “The city’s had more than 1 million visitors this year and cruise ships are stopping there. Our tour guide told us, ‘We’re making bookings now, not bombs.’ I’ve never been any place where I learned so much in such a short time by visiting the site and talking with those who actually experienced what went on. Everybody writes history from their own perspective.”
Warchol and Hanson received a College of Professional Studies grant to support their Belfast research.