The threat of terrorism has kept the country of Northern Ireland in a state of martial law for 30 years. Living under martial law is not much fun.
I accepted an assignment that brought me to Ireland and Northern Ireland from 1983 to 1985. I returned for part of each year from then until 1988 when I traveled there with my wife on our honeymoon.
For a time, I lived in Omagh, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. I had first-hand experience of the realities of terrorism when I was a victim of a terrorist bomb, not once but twice in 1983.
I have family and friends on both sides of the Irish border, and I have spent a significant amount of time with various members of both sides of the political conflict that has altered life so drastically in the emerald isle.
I will leave my comments on the “troubles” in Northern Ireland for another day, but I believe it would be worth while to comment on life under martial law.
The people of Northern Ireland accepted martial law without complaint when terrorist events created fear for the majority of the citizens who were generally uninvolved in the political debate over unification of Ireland.
Thirty years later, the people have embraced martial law as a necessity to their way of life. My purpose is not to debate whether the conditions in Northern Ireland justified the military presence. I do not wish to discuss the debate over Irish unification. My only purpose is to give a brief look at what it is like to live under those conditions.
There are those in the United States who are openly warning that there is a very high danger of terrorist events in major cities. They predict that the danger comes from within and without. The warnings include the likelihood that with only a few terrorist events for justification, President Clinton will declare a national state of emergency and place soldiers on the streets of America.
Terrorism in Northern Ireland from numerous partisan extremist groups accomplished only one thing in terms of changing that nation. It brought martial law. Neither side has convinced any who are not of their number that they are right and everyone else is wrong. Terrorism does not win converts. It simply strengthens the views of all sides among their own members.
Terrorism in the United States may likely have the same results.
My comments are about my personal experiences between 1983 and 1988. Conditions today may be somewhat different. In fact, I will soon return to Ireland to see what effect, if any, the peace efforts have had on the way of life there.
What the people of Northern Ireland accepted as a normal part of life, was a shock to my system when I arrived in Omagh in October 1983. The night before my arrival a bomb had gone off on the courthouse steps which devastated the main business district along High Street.
The entire area was littered with broken glass and looked like it was a scene out of a World War II movie. Needless to say I was properly intimidated by the threat of violence, and perhaps better prepared to accept the challenges of living under martial law.
Only major cities where violence has taken place have a continuous military presence. Omagh has been one of the locations of major terrorist activity from both sides of the conflict, primarily because it is home to the largest military base of the Ulster Defense Regiment — the branch of the English army assigned to maintain the peace in Northern Ireland.
The IRA and similar groups have often targeted Omagh because they consider the soldiers their enemies. The Protestant groups have fought back against the Catholics in Omagh in retaliation.
The Northern Ireland border was a real shock. Lots of barbed wire, military vehicles, and pill boxes containing machine guns aimed at every vehicle that comes through. Cars are forced to stop, and are subjected to very thorough searches. Anyone who fails to stop is shot dead — something that has happened from time to time. Once the victims were tourists who were nervous and did not know what to do.
The sound of troop transport helicopters bothered me more than anything else in Northern Ireland. What was an irritating and unsettling noise to me was unnoticed by those who lived there all their lives. It was not safe for the soldiers to travel by road, so they were shuttled to and from their patrol areas throughout the country by chopper from Omagh.
The threat of bombs in the commercial business district prompted the construction of military checkpoints at the entrance of the city center. Cars were carefully inspected and not permitted to park unattended.
Lines of soldiers, in bullet proof gear, would patrol on foot within sight of each other — machine guns at the ready. Police were also on patrol, but in armored cars. Military vehicles were a common sight, complete with gun turrets and armored plating.
All public buildings had inspectors at the door who would randomly search those who entered. Naturally all private ownership of firearms was restricted to sporting purposes, which meant shotguns for skeet and bird hunting. Private ownership of any other type of firearm, including handguns, was banned.
Many freedoms were lost, without objection. Suspects could be rounded up and held without being charged for extended periods, using national security issues for justification. Homes and businesses were subjected to warrantless searches at any time and without notice.
Expression of opinion was restricted. The right to assemble as a group was limited to those with a permit from the government. You had to be very careful what you said, and to whom you said it. No one wanted to be rounded up for questioning because someone overheard a stray remark. Even taking pictures of the wrong people or military equipment could get you in deep trouble.
Bomb scares were common. Some were real, and many were fake. Each resulted in evacuations and loss of revenue because most of these events took place in business districts. Real or fake, bomb scares resulted in a higher level of security for the area.
Schools were also a place where police and military could be found on guard. Children were taught to turn in parents and neighbors who engaged in suspicious activities.
Airports were a particularly high security area under martial law. Strip search areas were at each metal detector, which were used on a random basis as well as for those who fit certain profiles. Unattended luggage was treated as a bomb.
On one trip in 1986, I brought an Osborne computer — one of the first luggable computers. Airport security detained me for an extended time until they found someone who could confirm what it was.
Despite the fact that most residents of Northern Ireland claimed they had accepted and welcomed the presence of the military, their level of stress was always evident. Mine was uncomfortably high.
In December 1983 the center of Omagh was rocked by a 100 pound car bomb, strategically placed across the street from the flat I lived in above a sporting goods store.
Fortunately I had gone out just fifteen minutes before the blast which would have killed me. I still have chunks of the Renault 15 automobile which came through what was my home. Just the slivers of glass from the window would have killed me.
The pub across the street was leveled. Businesses were destroyed. Fear was reinforced, and the military pledged to work harder. The level of security forces was visibly increased, and martial law became an even more accepted way of life.
Is the United States headed for a future similar to that of Northern Ireland? Will there be dangers from terrorism? Will we have martial law?
I hope and pray that none of those things happen. Terrorism did not change opinions in Northern Ireland. It strengthened those who had already chosen sides, and alienated those who had not.
Martial law did not stop the terrorism. Those who chose that path found ways to perpetrate their crimes anyway.
Other solutions need to be found. Resolution of difficulties will not be found through violent means. People cannot be forced to be good. They will only be good when they want to be good.
Hearts must be changed if people are to be changed. Politics does not change hearts. I know of only one influence which has that ability. Unfortunately, more people seem to be turning from Him instead of to Him.