As the name indicates: the northern bit of the Emerald Isle that is Ireland, the bit that is (still) part of the UK. The full official name of that state already illustrates Northern Ireland's special political status: "the United Kingdom of Great Britain and
Northern Ireland" (my italics!). So it's not part of Britain but part of the UK. Partly because of its contested status it's treated here as an entity of its own, in its own chapter that is separate from both Great Britain and (the Republic of) Ireland
Most of the sites covered here which are of interest to the dark tourist are related to Northern Ireland's politically charged status, namely to the "Troubles" of the decades between the 1960s and the end of last century (and partly still palpable to this present day). But there is also the legacy of the Titanic
, which was built in Belfast. This legacy has in recent years become a major development in the city's tourism portfolio.
The divide of (and over) Northern Ireland has its roots in the history of the island and its domination by England for centuries until the larger southern part became independent in 1922-1924 – see under Republic of Ireland
for some details of this. The price for that independence, however, was partition, namely that six counties of the province of Ulster were not included in the new Republic but remained with the UK. The reason for this was mainly that Ulster
was predominantly Protestant, while the rest of Ireland was mostly Catholic. The demographic set-up has however shifted in recent years and before long Protestants will no longer form the majority in Northern Ireland either (because Catholics, unsurprisingly, reproduce more – see also Vatican
Opinions on whether or not Northern Ireland should or shouldn't really be part of the UK vary – mostly depending on who you ask. Republicans/Nationalists would typically say "no, it should not be part of the UK but is really an occupied territory that the British should give back to finally form a united nation of Ireland". Unionists/Loyalists on the other hand would typically say "yes, it is part of the Union that is the Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland and so it should remain, God Save the Queen!"
Note the terminology
here, which can be a bit confusing at first: "Unionists" in this context does NOT mean those who are in favour of a united Ireland, but those who want Ireland to remain divided
, with Northern Ireland a "loyal" part of the UK (hence also called Loyalists) … while "Nationalist" in this context denotes those who do not
want to be loyal to the UK but to the notion of a united Irish nation, with the north instead becoming part of the Republic of Ireland
(hence also called Republicans).
Of course, the divide also correlates with the religious one of Catholics vs. Protestants … and when you get such an alignment of political conflict with religious opposition you know you're in for trouble.
And indeed, Northern Ireland is a bit like Northern Europe's equivalent of the Middle East – for decades the conflict looked just as irreconcilable as that in Palestine (see Israel
). But credit where credit is due: it was a great achievement of Tony Blair's (despite all the disappointments in other, esp. foreign policy, areas) to have brokered (with a little help from his big ally the USA
) a peace deal between the fiercely opposed sides that actually seems to have worked OK-ish since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The formation of a joint Northern Ireland government with Republicans and Unionists working together was something that still seemed unthinkable well into the 1990s.
The road to this reconciliation process was indeed not an easy one. There had been so much resentment and mistrust – and a lot of it for good reason too. The Catholic minority was seriously disadvantaged economically and discriminated against. Even in places like Derry/Londonderry
, where Catholics actually formed the majority, the Protestants were clinging on to political power, thanks to some gerrymandering concerning electoral district boundaries redrawn to more or less guaranteed votes in favour of the Protestant side.
Protests by Catholics against this inequality developed especially from the 1960s, partly in the wake of the civil rights movement in the USA
. The heavy-handed British reactions against this protest movement only deepened the divide, especially after Bloody Sunday (see Museum of Free Derry
). And so the societal divide turned into the cycle of violence and counter-violence that euphemistically became known as "the Troubles".
Not everybody was content with just protesting. Paramilitary organizations, in particular the Irish Republican Army (IRA
) – a vestige of the early 20th century struggle for independence in Ireland
– took up arms again and fought what they saw as a just "war" against the British oppressors. The fact that they also took this conflict abroad, namely to Britain, in the form of terrorist bombing attacks, made that notion of the IRA being freedom fighters for a just cause rather difficult to accept. It certainly wasn't the right sort of PR to win them support beyond their own radical ranks.
Similarly, the other side pursued its goals through such terrorist tactics as well, in particular the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF
) also took to indiscriminate bombings, especially in what was to become the single deadliest attack by Unionists in 1974: a series of car bombs planted in three different locations in Dublin
, which were set off within minutes of each other, plus another one in Monaghan which detonated just an hour and a half later. In total 33 innocent civilians were killed, and many more seriously injured.
The whole conflict became even more perplexing as the various paramilitary/terrorist organizations were themselves increasingly fragmenting into a confusing array of splinter groups. The IRA alone became split between the "Official IRA", the "Provisional IRA" (PIRA), the "Continuity IRA" and the "Real IRA". The Unionist side became similarly divided.
Yet another aspect of the protests against British rule in Northern Ireland were the hunger strikes by Republican prisoners held in special compounds such as the infamous HM Prison Maze, also known as "H-block" (in reference to the cell blocks' layout; see under Crumlin Road Gaol
). The most significant was the hunger strike of 1981
in which ten prisoners even starved themselves to death. Most prominently this included Bobby Sands, an elected member of parliament. He became one of the best-known "martyrs" of the Troubles and his image is a recurrent theme in the many Republican murals in Northern Ireland to this day.
The Troubles dragged on, but there was an increasing realization of the futility of continued violence, thinning ranks amongst the protagonists and the generally diminishing support amongst ordinary people. They were simply growing tired of the prolonged conflict and political gridlock. And thus work towards overcoming the divide slowly became a possibility.
The 1990s finally brought real change, culminating in the signing of the historic Good Friday Agreement
of April 1998. I remember well watching the coverage on the TV at the time (when I was living in Britain
). The sense of witnessing a historic moment was immense. Still, the road to peace was not simply a matter of an agreement, it had to be worked for on a daily basis, and that proved difficult and took many years before a devolved Northern Ireland Assembly actually got to work. But it is working now (see Belfast
). The main opposing parties, Sinn Féin (the political arm of the IRA) and the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) are these days merely political rivals.
Most of the paramilitary organizations officially declared a "ceasefire
", and eventually even agreed to the decommissioning of weapons, as required by the Good Friday Agreement. But there are still underground pockets of armed resistance (especially the faction under the somewhat preposterous name "Real IRA"). By and large, however, the country seems to be solidly on a road to peace and reconciliation now, hopefully with lasting success. The violent Unionist protests that recently flared up again in Belfast
at the end of 2012 demonstrate, however, that it is not all over yet …
To the outside world, the Northern Ireland conflict had manifested itself in the news especially in the form of terrorist bombings or in footage of rituals that to the outsider seemed just bizarre, e.g. the "marches" of the Orange Order. What it was all really about was hardly explained in such news coverage. In general it's therefore always been hard for outsiders to get their heads round this bitter conflict and its roots. I realized myself how much homework I still had to do (despite me having followed the British media for so long) when it came to covering Northern Ireland for this website. Few historical contexts have been as hard for me to try and untangle as this one. And I still feel like I've only scratched the surface.
Accordingly, my recent study trip to Northern Ireland in December 2012 was incredibly intense (especially in Derry/Londonderry
). If there's one thing I was able to take home with me from that trip it is this: it really is impossible to fully understand the whole thing – but the very realization of this made me try even harder all the same!
This paradox is very much in line with the whole paradoxical nature of the Northern Ireland situation at large. It even adds to the strange fascination with the associated sites. Because this is not just past history. It's still so connected with the present that it's not just dead history, as it were, but history very much alive, still in the making. And while there is no doubt plenty of darkness in it, it has also brought so many brighter aspects through the largely successful reconciliation process. The whole story can make your head spin if you're a visiting outsider like me. But that's just part of the experience and has to be part of it! It is certainly not easy tourism, not "entertaining", but actually can be very hard going – but to great educational gain.
Still, the details of this long conflict are so incredibly complicated that it cannot be covered here in any way approaching something like "comprehensive". Suffice it to say that in Northern Ireland the divide between the opposing factions meant a split right through the entire society – often with Shakespearean consequences, such as relationships between Protestants/Unionists and Catholics/Republicans being “forbidden” by the respective families. And that was only the mild side. Sectarian murders and terrorist bombings were the nastier side. That side, at least, has come to an end (at least for the time being). But the underlying resentments have not gone away entirely. Reconciliation efforts will have to continue for quite some time to come.
The last large-scale terrorist act was the car bomb attack on a busy shopping street in Omagh in August 1998 (a few months after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement – see above). It was in fact the worst such Republican attack in the entire history of the conflict. In a way, however, it only helped achieve its resolution. The killing was indiscriminate – victims included both Protestants and Catholics, women and children, and: a couple of tourists too! That, and the sheer scale of the carnage (29 dead, hundreds injured, many of them severely) only served to underscore the absolute necessity of bringing this conflict to an end. It was certainly not the intention of the terrorists (of the "Real IRA"), but Omagh actually boosted the Peace Process.
In Omagh today there are two memorials commemorating the bombing. At the actual bombing site, where space is naturally limited, there is only a small stele marking the spot. But a bit to the north, on the other side of the river, a Remembrance Garden on a somewhat larger scale has been constructed. It contains a reflecting pool and a set of 31 steel poles with little mirrors at the top. [54.6015,-7.2991
Other than that, sites associated with the Northern Ireland conflict are to be found in particular in the capital Belfast
, where you can go on "Troubles"-related city tours. Especially the (in)famous Black Taxi Tours
have become a prime dark tourism offering that has also attracted a lot of debate both in the general press as well as in the academic literature
about dark tourism. Derry/Londonderry
, site of the infamous Bloody Sunday, also offers a nascent dark tourism infrastructure. More so than even in Belfast, the divide between the two factions is still very visible here too. In fact the history of the conflict clearly reaches into the present day in this city, despite all the efforts made with regard to reconciliation. In some parts of Derry it can even make the casual visitor somewhat uneasy – like you can almost hear the conflict still simmering under its lid. At least that was very much my impression when I was there.
Of course, not all tourism in Northern Ireland is "Troubles"-related and dark. The country also offers the typical Celtic legacy and scenery that the whole of the Emerald Isle is so well known for (in addition to folk music and black beer). The Giant's Causeway, a World Heritage Site, is probably the country's No. 1 natural attraction and sees the largest number of visitors.
Travelling to Northern Ireland is naturally easiest from the Republic of Ireland
with easy road and rail access (the latter between Belfast
only). From Great Britain
there are ferries to Belfast and Larne, and of course numerous flight connections. Within Northern Ireland, buses form the backbone of public transport with plenty of routes, fairly frequent connections and fares that are relatively affordable.