A Different Policing Perspective

Our trip to Ireland was the best vacation our family has taken, at least in terms of being exposed to a slightly different way of life and the history of such a beautiful country.

On our travels we took in spectacular views, visited impressive castles and met some of the nicest and most helpful people you could ever hope to bump in to.  We got lost twice and both times locals offered to let us follow in our car as they drove us to our destination.  We had more than our fair share of Guinness and made a point to visit the highest pub in Ireland, Johnnie Fox’s, and then the oldest, The Crown Bar.  All four of us kissed the Blarney Stone, looked down over the Cliffs of Moher and wondered at the art that is Belleek.  If you have ever been to Ireland you will understand why I say it is a must-go destination.

But for all its wonders Ireland still clings to the dark remnants of earlier, more violent times.

We learned about the history of my father’s side of the family and the struggles his community faced as he was growing up.  I discovered that my grandfather, who died when my own father was still young, had first been a Quartermaster and then the Commandant of the British Red Cross (Belfast) during World War 2, where he was instrumental in the civil defence of the city and surrounding areas.  When we handled the charred remains of the front door address bar from my father’s home after it had been bombed during the war, it was with the realization that we are very fortunate my father’s family survived those years.

We also learned that my aunt, who we were there to visit, was presented with an Award for Bravery in the early 1980’s after she was taken hostage during an armed robbery of the post office she worked for.  I’m still not sure exactly what happened as she wouldn’t talk about it.  Can’t say I blame her.

From a professional perspective, policing in Northern Ireland is very different.  The week before we left for Ireland I had a conversation with a fellow officer who came to the VPD from the UK.  When he discovered we were staying in Belfast he warned me to keep my profession to myself.

“If anyone asks, you are a housewife, a writer, a plumber – anything but a police officer.”

He explained further about the small groups in Belfast/North Ireland intent on making police officer’s lives miserable and how I would be better off if people didn’t know what I did for a living.  The south was a different story, he said, where policing is a good job and where officers are treated pretty much the same as they are here in Canada.

Following his advice, I kept my mouth shut and my eyes and ears open.

The first day took us by one of the bigger police stations.  The building was surrounded by a thirty foot cement wall, topped by another twenty feet of chain-link rimmed with electric fencing and security cameras.  There was a ‘no stopping’ zone out front, barricaded gates and nary an officer in sight.  The building itself was the only sign that there were even police in the area as we did not see officers anywhere around Belfast.  No officers driving around in patrol cars and most definitely none walking around on foot.

Then there were the Peace Walls, also known as Peace Lines.  Forty foot + walls dividing the Catholics and the Protestants.  We took a bus tour around Belfast and found ourselves driving through the wall (conflict tourism?).  No, there was no difference – people were just as amicable on both sides, as was expected.  The guide said that even though Belfast is one of the safest cities in the world for tourists, the walls had been erected with the thought that if the Catholics and the Protestants could not see one another then they wouldn’t kill each other.

We got mixed messages about the Peace Walls – the tour guide said it was okay to cross them while friends living on one side told my husband to stay on their side because as a single, white man he would be ‘targeted’ if he were to cross through the wall by himself.  They said police would not enter a ‘no-go’ zone to investigate a crime unless they did so in an armored car.  In the same breath, though, they said it would be fine for me, as a single woman, to walk through the wall and wander around on the other side.  Go figure. It still boggles my mind.

The following two photos are of opposite sides of the same Peace Wall.  Near the center of the first photo you can see the red brick – the pedestrian gate, built in a zig zag fashion so pedestrians cannot get a running start.  The second photo is of the same portion of the wall, just from the other side.  This wall was of average height but we saw several where the solid portion of the wall was three times as high.

            Catholic side of Peace Wall

Protestant side of Peace Wall


Near the end of our first week there were four bomb threats – one in Belfast and three in Londonderry, a city N/W of Belfast. All this the day before a big rugby match in Dublin, so you can guess as to the resulting chaos when the trains running between Belfast and Dublin were cancelled. This time, police lined the streets in front of the stations, checking all cars attempting to drive down the narrow lanes adjacent to the buildings. Police were everywhere.  The four bombs were detonated (turns out they were empty boxes), roads were closed and traffic was re-routed.  The next day, all the police were gone and there was no mention of the bomb threats on the news or in the paper.  Huh.

Our travel to the south was just as eye-opening.  After going through the heavily armed checkpoint two days after the bomb threats, we saw life in the south is very much as it is here in Canada.  Patrol cars roamed the streets, officers walked their beats, and there were intermittent sirens in the cities as police, ambulance and fire departments responded to a variety of calls.

The strife in Belfast bothers me, and I have a new found respect for the men and women who choose to pursue a law enforcement career in the North.  Not only do they do they have to do the same job as officers in Canada they have the added stress of dealing with extremely volatile cultural, political and religious divides.   I know this is a fact of policing in many other countries, but it was a real wake up call to see it first hand.  The emotions about the unrest are difficult to put into words, and I’m not sure I even want to go there at this point.  This mural, though, pretty much sums up.  It is painted on the side of a housing area and is visible from one of the main highways.  It shows that even though people are striving for peace there is still a long way to go.

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