The single white rose is coated with plastic. The flower is affixed to a stucco wall next to an automated cash machine on Shankill Road in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
The Frizzell Fish Market was once located here.
Once stood here.
It happened that I visited this place 29 years after two members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army entered Frizzell’s with a bomb. It was just after 1:00 pm on October 23, 1993. The attackers looked customers in the eye, planted a bomb on the counter and blew up the place in the air.
Nine people died in the attack in the Protestant-majority neighborhood.
When I walked up Shankill Road the other day, someone tied a bunch of young pink flowers to a nearby lamppost.
A small white card is attached to the flowers. The writing is in capital letters and blue, ballpoint pen.
“Michael, Evelyn Michelle, murdered on October 23, 1993. Always remembered by your brother, Marcus and family,” reads the note.
Head a few miles away you will find Falls Road. It was one of the most violent places in all of Belfast during “The Troubles”, the sectarian struggle that lasted for decades until the Good Friday Agreement in the late 1990s. Off Falls Road, locals have even renamed Beechmount Avenue “RPG Avenue”.
Milltown Cemetery is located in West Belfast. Some of the more controversial figures in the IRA are buried there. “Terrorists” is how unionists would characterize them.
However, their ornate alabaster tombstones perpetually shine in Belfast’s almost constant fog.
At Milltown Cemetery, you’ll find Bobby Sands’ grave. Sands is one of the most famous figures in the Provisional IRA. Sands was serving his sentence for helping to plan the bombing of a furniture company in Belfast in 1971. Sands was a member of the British Parliament who died in prison after a 66-day hunger strike in 1981.
One of the most disturbing episodes of The Troubles took place in the cemetery right next to Sands’ grave. It embodies the screeching and violence of conflict.
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During the climax of The Troubles, the lesson from Milltown Cemetery is that even those who go mourning the dead could end up dead themselves.
Those linked to the IRA and its political wing Sinn Fein came to Milltown for a funeral on March 16, 1988. The funeral was for three interim IRA members who were killed by the British Special Air Service in Gibraltar on March 3, 1988. Gibraltar is a British territory.
The IRA allegedly planned to bomb British soldiers in Gibraltar. The Republicans claimed their men were unarmed and the British fired at them without provocation.
When their families tried to bury the men killed in Gibraltar by British forces in Milltown, Ulster Defense Association member Michael Stone snuck up a hill. As he approached the funeral party, Stone threw hand grenades at the crowd and began firing a pistol.
Stone’s attack killed three people in Milltown and injured 60.
The violence went back and forth during The Troubles. Tit for tat. It is complicated and difficult to keep up.
There was Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972 when British forces opened fire on a Republican march in the city’s Catholic-populated Bogside neighborhood. U2 documented the massacre in their song “Sunday Bloody Sunday”. Black Sabbath were more than a decade ahead of U2 with “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”, known for one of the angriest and most foreboding riffs in rock history. Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast” has just hit the screens.
Catholics call the city Derry, as does the sitcom “Derry Girls”. However, Unionists may prefer Londonderry. Years of attacks and conflicts add up in places like Omagh, Loughinisland, Greysteel and Enniskillen. There was the bombing in Brighton, England, in 1984 during a visit by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
When I worked for another news organization decades ago, a famous publisher issued a memo that we should never refer to various Israeli-Palestinian murders as “retaliation” in copy. The reason, the publisher said, was that he was everything retaliation. The same could be said in Northern Ireland.
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Fortunately, the Good Friday Agreement put out many of the flames of the conflict. There hasn’t been a major murder or bombing in years. However, a power-sharing agreement to rule Northern Ireland between the parties is blocked. The Good Friday Agreement was not created for Brexit. Northern Ireland now does not have a functioning government in its “decentralized” parliament. A weak British pound, a weak euro, staggering inflation and warming costs, a boost to Scottish independence from the rest of the UK and political instability in Westminster with the UK burning down prime ministers – don’t help matters in Ireland of the North.
Covering the violence of The Troubles formed part of the main pace for journalists from England, Ireland and Northern Ireland in the late 1960s and early 2000s. It came with territory. The bombings. Clashes with the Royal Ulster Constabulary. It was just part of the job.
This sounds familiar to a reporter who has been following the United States Congress for years. Sure, some of the violence wasn’t as gruesome as The Troubles. But the incidents were just as shocking. And, like the hustle and bustle of Northern Ireland, it’s a challenge to keep up.
There was the mass shooting in 2011 that nearly killed former Rep Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., Wife of Senator Mark Kelly, D-Ariz. The assassination attempt forced Giffords to resign from Congress. In fact, Giffords aide who later replaced her, former Rep Ron Barber, D-Ariz., Was also shot in the attack. There was the baseball training shooting in 2017 that nearly killed House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La. There was a riot in the Capitol during the certification of the Electoral College. In recent months, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., Has been the victim of multiple “crushing” attempts. That’s where someone telephones with a false notice about someone’s home. The hope is that the SWAT team will break in and unintentionally disappear at the target. A man attacked Representative Lee Zeldin, RNY, with a knife while campaigning to become governor. Serious threats to injure or kill lawmakers on both sides have increased to frightening levels. The wild and brazen attack on Paul Pelosi, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Northern California, is now in the news.
The accidents add up. Fear increases.
Those of us who have been following Congress for a while have something in common with our fellow journalists who have reported on The Troubles. We can cite the details of how the Republicans on the Congressional team dove for cover on the first base bench during the filming of baseball rehearsals the same way and an Irish reporter could talk about the details of the fish shop massacre. Those of us covering Capitol Hill can tell stories of raiders stalking Speaker Pelosi during the siege of Capitol Hill, just as those of Northern Ireland can rattle off details about the chaos in Milltown.
It is all political violence. And the United States has been putting up with it for a while.
Democracies only work when there is mutual respect on both sides. Trust is key. The violence of The Troubles did not resolve political disputes in Northern Ireland.
The same with the wave of political violence and unrest now gripping the United States.
There is at least a tenuous peace now in Northern Ireland – devoid of violence – despite the restless politics.
However, American politics is more than unnerving right now. And unfortunately, the violence associated with American politics is beyond the ordinary.
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Voters vote for the federal office next week for the first time since the Capitol uprising. The Homeland Security Department warns of a “rise in alert” led by “violent domestic extremism” as the election approaches.
Just like the troubled peace in Northern Ireland, there will be no political detente after the elections. However, the days and weeks after the election will tell us whether political violence is subsiding or escalating.