Troubles restarting

As ‘the troubles’ seem to be restarting (which anyone could have foreseen), I am thinking about my visit to Northern Ireland in 2015. I didn’t write (much) about it, but it did leave a deep impression on me.
In 2015, the company I worked for was acquired by an American software company, and I was asked to become the product manager for our product. The first order of business was to design (and build) an integration with another product from the portfolio, which was built by another acquired company, located in Derry, Northern Ireland. We went there with a few people to discuss how it would work — I think this was in my second week as product manager, and I didn’t know at all what I was supposed to be doing…

The week was fine and the people were nice. But several things impressed on me how close to the surface, and how deep, the dividing lines were. In normal conversation, it was glossed over, but here and there were hints of some severe collective trauma.
One afternoon I was in the pantry of the office to get a glass of water. It was already quite late, and most people had gone home, but we were still discussing things with the local architectural team. Two ladies, who took care of the cleaning of the office, were at work at the pantry. They didn’t know my face (obviously) so I introduced myself to them (and shook their hand, that was a thing we still did back then) and we chatted a bit about what I was here for. It took maybe half a minute for them to bring up the subject of the Troubles themselves, and that they felt much better and safer these days — nobody wanted to go back to that. Why, there were even trash bins installed along the river, because there was no more fear of bombs being put in them!
Imagine the trauma being so deep that you bring it up in casual conversation, seventeen years after it ended.

One evening we were taken along a walk in Derry. There is a city wall running around the inner part of it, and it was explained to us that one side was protestant, the other side was catholic — still was. We ended up in a pub and, while it wasn’t that prominent, it was decorated with plaques mirroring those political murals on blind walls that were so prevalent during the Troubles. It was no secret that this was a Catholic pub, and that the proprietors certainly remembered what had happened before the Good Friday agreement.

One afternoon, we were loaded in a few cars for a drive around the countryside, and we were taken to an old fort on the Irish side of the border as a touristy thing to do. I was in the car with an older colleague, who pointed out that we had crossed over into Ireland, but that the only trace of the border was that the speed limits were now in km/h instead of m/h. He told us that, as a schoolboy, he lived in Ireland but went to school in Derry, and that this was the border crossing he used to get to school and back. He had to walk along barbed wire, and every morning and every afternoon, heavily armed soldiers looked through his book bag to make sure he wasn’t transporting any bombs in there. He told about it in a light-hearted manner, but imagine for a moment that happening to you as a fifteen year old boy.

A month later was the return visit from a team from Derry to Nijmegen, to finish up the details. Their visit would be one week before the ‘Vierdaagse’, the International Four Days Marches — the biggest party of the year. So I joked that they should arrange to stay for another week to enjoy the festivities. Immediately the mood changed and it seemed that the temperature dropped several degrees. I can still see the very concerned face of one of my colleagues when she asked in a low, serious voice: “But what are they marching for?”
It honestly took me half a minute to parse what she meant and where that question came from. I had to spend some time explaining the background. I don’t think they were convinced, especially when I mentioned that a lot of military from all over the world participated too.

When Brexit was announced, I had to think about these things a lot, but I never brought it up with them. I just hope it doesn’t escalate into full-scale civil war again — which it very well could do. The lines are still there, people still remember who is on ‘their’ side and who not.

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