One of the consequences of the years of the troubles has perhaps been a reluctance of some to travel and explore the natural treasures of the island of Ireland. On a recent visit I was delighted to see that old images are changing fast.
The last time I was in the North of Ireland was in 1994 I was accompanying Rt Hon Sir John Wheeler MP who was then Minister of State in the Northern Ireland Office and I was his junior bag carrier a.k.a Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS). It was impossible at that time for us to travel around Northern Ireland without the assistance of military helicopters or armoured convoys.
Then came the transformational initiatives of the Downing Street and Good Friday agreements and the wider peace process. As a result the ‘peace dividend’ is that British and international visitors are being drawn back to rediscover the extraordinary natural beauty of the Emerald Isle.
I arrived in Dublin on the final leg of a 500 mile solo charity walk on 20th August www.walkforsyriaschildren.org :
I made my way up through County Meath staying in Ashbourne, Kells, Navan and then into County Cavan staying in Cavan and Virginia (containing some of the best fishing in Europe), then to Enniskillen in Country Fermanagh, Castlederg, County Tyrone, Lifford County Donegal and ended up in Derry walking across the Peace Bridge across the River Foyle uniting the previously divided communities and even squeezing in a visit to Giants Causeway (pic above).
Perhaps the most surprising places were:
Enniskillen seeing how it has been transformed from a scene of one of the worst atrocities of the troubles in 1987 when a bomb was detonated at a Cenotaph during a Remembrance Sunday service in 1987 and which is now better known as the spectacular location for the recent G8 Summit at Lough Erne (pic) in June of this year.
Derry/Londonderry which is now the vibrant centre for the arts as the current UK City of Culture. What impressed me about the City was how it hadn’t brushed over the past but it was using it to illustrate the progress that was being made across divided communities towards a better future.
It wasn’t a case of ‘don’t mention the war’ political correctness, it was more a case of ‘ don’t forget to mention the peace also’. There was a love of political debate, especially in the Republic of Ireland which is having a referendum on the abolition of its Upper House of parliament, the Seanad at which I objectively expressed the concern that it might set a worrying international precedent!
On both sides of the border two names were treated with particular respect: H M Queen Elizabeth II for her visit to Dublin and in particular her remarks following the visit to Croke Park and Prime Minster, Rt Hon David Cameron MP for his apology following the ‘Bloody Sunday’ Inquiry and his decision to bring the G8 to Lough Erne.
Without being at all disrespectful to my fellow English countrymen and women I managed to walk from London to Heysham in Lancs without being stopped or engaged in conversation unless I was asking for directions, food or accommodation. On the island of Ireland I couldn’t stop people talking to me. They were immensely proud of their countryside, cuisine and culture and delighted to share it with others, even English Tories. But don’t take my word for it rediscover it for yourself www.cityofculture2013.com