Troubled times

April 5, 1996

An everyday field trip it was not. The trip involved the Four Green Fields of Ireland for a start. And as a fact-finding visit, it differed also - for in Ireland there are very few agreed facts against any amount of opinions.

In the first study tour of its size or type, 73 students from Salford University travelled on both sides of the Irish border last month, attending Sinn Fein's annual conference, going to a hardline nationalist area of Belfast and touring the grisly sites of death and destruction across the city.

Salford University has been swamped by applicants for its new Irish history module. It has become the largest course at graduate level the university provides, and now a postgraduate level is available also.

"It shatters the myth about apathy over the Irish issue on the mainland," said Jonathon Tonge, of the department of politics and history.

The European Union has agreed to fund the three-day trip in the hope that it will encourage other universities and colleges to follow. The module at Salford is the kind of history that includes the present day, for it runs up to the peace process despite a lack of academic work on the current situation.

The course began last month on the Monday after the Canary Wharf bomb which renewed the IRA's campaign on the British mainland. A few key figures went to Salford to talk to students, among them David Ervine, one of those said to have an insight into the thinking of the paramilitaries.

But completing the complex picture meant taking a trip to Ireland. And at the end the students emerged more pessimistic about the province's future. Dr Tonge said: "There does seem to be a deterioration. You could almost hear the sound of the politicians digging their trenches."

Originally the module was planned for just 50 students, but it now has 130 and Dr Tonge is planning a book including the current political situation.

Apart from meetings with the SDLP, Alliance and Ulster Unionist parties, the students were also given a lecture by Paul Bew, professor of politics at Queen's University.

Student Madeleine Holt discovered her relatives in Belfast have taken part in the troubles: an uncle was involved with the civil rights marches in 1968 which led to the outbreak of paramilitary violence.

Ms Holt said: "You just get the English perspective most of the time, most of the media just seem to take a party line. I want to go back as soon as possible and talk to my uncle and aunt. I had never been to Belfast before.

"The most interesting part to me was the Ardoyne, just talking to normal people. There is such a range of diverse opinion and yet the people are so friendly. But I came away feeling fairly pessimistic."

Mature student Stephen Varey described his attitude to the IRA as fairly typically British - "murdering bastards". During the trip, a heated discussion in a pub brought Dr Tonge rushing to intervene.

"It was what they called an honest exchange of views about whether Sinn Fein and the IRA are separate organisations," said Mr Varey. "I was putting a view of how it is seen in Britain, where Gerry Adams is viewed as a mouthpiece for the IRA. But I suppose I am more aware of the serious amount of propaganda from the British side, which I suppose is pretty understandable in the situation. I began to have a deeper understanding of the underlying social injustice of the situation during the course."

"When we went over the border the security checkpoint was quite frightening, with all the soldiers around. And all the police stations boarded up because they had been bombed so much was really quite shocking," said Nickie Farrington. Ms Farrington's only connection with the province is a student friend from Queen's University, Belfast who was in the first year at Salford.

"I think I do have a wider understanding of the complexity of the situation now and I think it is a trip that more students ought to take."

Welshman Michael Pemberton was shocked during a holiday in America last year to discover that he was a Brit. "It didn't matter that I was from Cardiff when I was in Detroit," said the 22-year-old. "The Irish Americans there just perceived me as British and lambasted me about the blatant repression of the Irish, it being a police state and Catholics being three times as likely to be unemployed as Protestants. I suppose I always had fairly neutral views about Ireland but it meant that I wanted to find out more about what was going on.

"I've found that Belfast was a very nice city, although the estates that people were living in were pretty bad. I saw an army barracks in the middle of an estate on the Falls Road which really shocked me. At the end of the day it is the working-class people who are doing the fighting and who will have to stop if there is to be a permanent peace."

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