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In Belfast, Mayor Walsh hears both sides of Troubles

Hub’s Irish-Catholic mayor offers advice on closing Belfast’s divide

BELFAST — In a British stronghold on this fractured city’s east side, Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston ventured into a neighborhood known in some quarters as the “Heart of the Empire,” with Union Jacks flapping and an enormous mural portraying masked paramilitary soldiers toting machine guns.

A Catholic son of Irish immigrants, Walsh held a meeting — once unthinkable — with a Protestant named Jackie McDonald who served five years in prison for his role in the conflict called the Troubles.

“Some of my best friends are killers who killed people during the conflict,” McDonald said, suggesting that the same was true for his former adversaries in the Irish Republican Army. “We’re equally guilty.”

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Walsh spent two days in Belfast last week toward the end of an 11-day visit to Ireland and found a city transformed from a war-torn shell into a thriving European capital attracting tourists, developers, and foreign investment in the two decades since the Good Friday peace accord. The mayor spent much of his time in the dynamic “New Belfast,” stopping at a conference center and hockey arena in the Titanic Quarter, named for the ill-fated ocean liner built here more than a century ago.

But Belfast’s bright future is inextricably linked to its unresolved struggles of the past. As mayor of Boston, Walsh, who is scheduled to return home Monday, possesses significant stature in Irish-American politics and has said it was important that he heard voices from both sides of the conflict.

“If we truly want to see Belfast move forward peacefully, the pain of the past must be addressed,” Walsh said, comparing the lingering issues here to the fallout from desegregating Boston’s schools. “Sometimes to move ahead, you have to deal with the past and you have to deal with pain.”

On the other side of Belfast’s sectarian divide, in the heart of Catholic West Belfast, Walsh walked on Falls Road, where Irish tricolor flags flew and a mural showed a gun in the hands of an Irish rebel during the 1916 Easter Rising. The mayor listened to Jim Clinton describe the night in 1994 when pro-British militants threw a brick through his window and killed his wife.

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“Loyalists opened fire and shot her 23 times,” Clinton told the mayor. “My daughter heard.”

Walsh had been to largely Protestant East Belfast in 2010, meeting with a group whose relatives were killed. He and other elected officials from America have been welcomed in the Protestant redoubt, leaders in those neighborhoods said, in the hope of expanding their knowledge of the conflict — an understanding largely steeped in a Catholic, Nationalist perspective.

There is a misconception that Belfast had no indigenous Protestant population and that the British were an occupying force, said Garnet Busby, a former paramilitary turned activist who runs a community center in the working class loyalist neighborhood Sandy Row.

“We’re happy to be able to try to dispel that myth,” said Busby, who served 16 years in prison. “There’s two sides to what was happening here. There’s no black and white. There’s a lot of gray.”

The largely Protestant neighborhood Walsh visited had roughly 70 people killed during the Troubles, which included Protestants, Catholics, police, and civilians, said Sammy Douglas, a member of Northern Ireland’s national assembly. The conflict claimed more than 3,000 lives and injured tens of thousands of others. The mayor toured a new Methodist community center called Skainos, which has sought to create a shared space for all sides.

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To understand the complexities of the issues, organizers told Walsh about a vertical garden they built running up a wall. Designers could not include flowers that would bloom green, white, and orange (Irish colors), or red, white, and blue (British colors).

“There have been times we’ve organized events here and people have been angry about it,” said Douglas, whose sister was nearly killed by an IRA bomb. “We’re not saying we’re there yet, Mr. Mayor; far from it. This is Northern Ireland and we’re still suffering from the legacy of the past.”

When McDonald, the former member of the pro-British paramilitary, mentioned that “some of my best friends are killers,” the mayor probed deeper.

“What’s their mind-set now?” the mayor wanted to know.

“They want peace for their children and their grandchildren,” McDonald said.

In Catholic West Belfast, Walsh examined eight large patchwork quilts, each with 49 squares. One square included a swatch from a woman’s white wedding dress, meant to memorialize her father, killed before he could walk her down the aisle. Another square represented Brian Stewart, a 13-year-old boy killed by a plastic bullet fired by a British soldier.

Modeled after the AIDS Memorial Quilt, the patchwork is a tribute to victims of Northern Ireland’s war.

“This quilt is open to everyone,” said Clara Reilly, chairwoman of Relatives for Justice, who lost two brothers to the conflict, one shot in his bed, the other killed by a bomb. “You have people on this who were killed by Republicans and people killed by the British Army, the police. All aspects of the Troubles.”

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Sitting in a circle of folding chairs surrounded by the quilts, the relatives of almost a dozen victims of the Troubles told the mayor their stories. The brother of a human rights lawyer named Pat Finucane who was killed in front of his wife and children. A woman who lost her father and uncle after a bomb blew up a pub.

“It’s not really revenge we’re looking for, but we want answers,” said Patricia McVeigh, whose father was killed. “We want justice.”

They said British authorities allowed government informants to act with impunity and carry out killings, a circumstance they compared to that of James “Whitey” Bulger, the FBI informant from South Boston convicted of participating in 11 murders.

“We need you,” said Andrea Murphy of Relatives for Justice. “We need international persuaders who are going to work on the families’ behalf, be their voice.”

Before leaving the room, Walsh promised to do what he could.

“In the circles that I get to go in,” Walsh said. “I’ll ask questions.”

A previous version of this story misstated what Jim Clinton said to Mayor Walsh.


Andrew Ryan can be reached at andrew.ryan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeAndrewRyan.