With a private chartered plane (Fokker 50) fifty Dutch representatives took off to Belfast. As we were all not afraid to be dropped off like packages in the North Sea (you'll never know!) we headed to our three day conference in Belfast in Northern Ireland. I dont know about the others but I was full of expectations of this country with an enormous political and religious history, the country where one of my most favorite bands, Clannad, comes from and of course the beautiful landscapes and not to forget the Irish whisky.
The organiser of the conference, The British Council, had done a good job. 50 Dutch and 50 English executives from multinationals like Shell, BP, Akzonobel, TNT and Marsh, professors, politicians, headhunters and journalists gathered to talk about Trust, Social Cohesion and the State of the country in an economic downturn.
What I felt already in the plane was the energy of the group. There was a 'positive vibe'. Everybody wanted to share his or her ideas with the one sitting next to him or her. Of course everybody had his own interests to come to the conference but I could also sense that we went to Belfast with an open sight. We were ready to exchange points of view and learn from each other.
It was one of the best conferences I attended. Not because of the outcome (we did come up with exact ideas on how to bring real improvements on our lives, and we tried to come up with ideas how to forecome the risk that our societies become increasingly closed and self-interested) or the new people I met, but because I learned so much about Northern Ireland and it's dramatic history.
As soon as we landed on Irish soil, we were picked up by the bus, not to go to our hotel and check in comfortably, but to go to one of the most famous warzones in the world. We were on a walking excursion of Belfast's conflict and reconciliation landmarks which were guided by members of Epic (UVF/Red Hand Commando ex-prisoners) and Coiste (IRA ex-prisoners).
It was so surprising to hear both sides of the story. Eventhough both of the guides assured us that they would tell their story honestly and objectively, which you could tell of course was not the case. The IRA ex-prisoner had been in jail for fourteen years and he could tell his story so vividly that sometimes I thought that he used this job for therapeutic reasons. The royalist ex-prisoner had been in prison for sixteen years and tried to tell his side of the story more objectively.
I think the whole group will agree with me: there was still so much pain and anger in these men and in these streets. Suddenly all the images I had seen on television, as a child, revived. They made me sick and sad. I saw the bombs and fire and innocent people fleeing from their houses. And last Sunday I saw on every corner of the street plaquets on the doors of the houses in memory of the victims. I tried to relate to people in Northern Ireland who lost loved ones, about the madness, the pain, the sadness and the emptiness.
A lot of Europeans (and the rest of the world) probably don't know that the wall is still there. I am curious when this wall will ever be removed. Reports tell us that trust and social cohesion in Northern Ireland are now stronger than they have been for a long time. But we felt something else. While we were walking there an Irish man made the comment that the wall was not high enough. And that is exactly what we felt too: that it only needs just one argument, one point of discussion to start a whole new war. For us, the Irish conflict is already history, but for the people in Belfast still so fresh.
The troubles in Northern Ireland started fourty years ago and probably it will take double the amount of time to heal the pain.