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A Political Experience I Will Never Forget - What's Yours?

When I was 20, I did something very ill-advised. Well, obviously I was 20, so most things I did were ill-advised. But this one turned out to be a political experience I'll never forget, so I thought I'd take a little break from election madness to tell you about it.

When I was 20, I did something very ill-advised. Well, obviously I was 20, so most things I did were ill-advised.

But this one turned out to be a political experience I'll never forget, so I thought I'd take a little break from election madness to tell you about it.

As I explained on my blog a few weeks ago, the Northern Irish situation loomed fairly large for me as a child growing up in London. I've personal connections with Ireland, too - bits of my family comes from both the north (Lisburn) and the south (Cork). And when I was 18 I fell head over heels in love with a boy from County Kerry.

All this meant that, when I got the chance to choose my special subject at university, it was easy. I went for 'nationalism, politics and culture in Ireland' - and I was hooked straight away.

To me, it blew the equivalent period in English history straight out of the water. There was a huge dynamism about it, with heroes and villains and dramatic struggles against great odds. You had people saying things like 'no man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation', and an Irish cultural revival that generated some of the most extraordinary poetry ever written. Revolutionary leader Michael Collins fought the War of Independence, and became chief of the Free State army, only to be assassinated in the civil war that followed, aged just 31. To a naive young History student, more used to the slow-grinding wheels of British constitutional development, this was heady stuff.

I remember years later, at drama school, we were each asked to give a talk on something we were passionate about. Everyone else chose things like 'hockey', or 'impressionist painting', or (rather brilliantly) 'popcorn'. I rolled in with a huge poster of Collins, resplendent in his Free State uniform, and spent the whole time explaining to a bemused London audience why this man was one of my greatest heroes, despite the fact that he specialised in causing sheer bloody mayhem for the British. 'Controversial' doesn't begin to cover it.

Anyway, there I was, aged 20 and full of pep. My dissertation, I decided, would be about Northern Ireland - specifically, looking at how both nationalist and unionist rituals have been appropriated by paramilitary groups for their own ends. And that's when I decided to move to Belfast for three months.

It was 2000 - which turned out to be quite a bad year for riots in Northern Ireland. And of course, it was marching season, when (typically) Protestant or unionist groups hold parades, and (usually) Catholic and republican sensibilities are inflamed. This was exactly what my dissertation was about, I thought. I need to see this situation 'on the ground', I thought. So, I packed up my car and off I went.

Now, if there's one thing more annoying than an Oxford student in an ivory tower, it's an Oxford student who suddenly decides they want to get to know a situation 'on the ground'. My intentions were genuine, but my presence was no doubt both suspected and, on occasion, unwelcome. It is due entirely to the tolerance and forbearance of the good people of Northern Ireland that they didn't ship me straight back to the mainland.

Here's how it worked. I took a little room in Belfast student accommodation that was free over the summer. By day, I would trek off to the various different sectarian trouble spots, speaking to people, taking photos of the murals and graffiti, trying to work out what was going on and generally making a nuisance of myself. By night (and in a slightly surreal turn) I worked in a cocktail bar. I should add that I am possibly the worst cocktail maker in the world, but was always very popular because I had no idea about measures and so gave everyone enormous drinks.

I have so many memories of that summer, but a few stand out - some funny, some deeply sad and some plain odd.

For a start, I'd been there a good couple of weeks before I realised my car wasn't insured. It just hadn't occurred to me that my insurance, bought on the British mainland, wouldn't cover me in Northern Ireland. I'd become friendly with a lovely Belfast local, staying in the same place as me, and I told her of my surprise.

She proceeded to point out, quite correctly, that if I wandered around West Belfast telling people I was doing an Oxford University dissertation on their lives, my car not being insured might be the least of my problems. She recommended I have a quick look under it every now and then, and I duly did so, though I suspect I wouldn't have known an explosive device if I'd seen one, given that I was a new driver and could barely work out how to get my petrol cap off.

On one occasion I managed to get phenomenally lost on the Falls Road. This is actually quite difficult to do, because it is fundamentally one long straight road heading all the way to central Belfast. But I managed it, and as I wandered around the back of housing estates in the fading light, occasionally stumbling across the remnants of smoking barricades, panic dawned. When a gang of 'youths' approached me, most wearing scarves round their faces, I feared the worst. But in fact they were very helpful, and cheerfully showed me the way back while telling me all about how they were off to join the army. It was only that night, lying in my narrow single bed with the helicopters chugging away above me, that I realised they didn't mean the British army.

On the Shankhill Road, a similar set of lads invited me to a foam party at the loyalist Rangers football club. I wasn't entirely sure what a foam party was, but I had a very good idea of what the Rangers club was meant to be like, so I thought it best to decline. On several occasions I watched tiny kids proudly wielding wooden guns, striding along at the front of Orange marches. And then there was Johnny Adair. He was a deeply unpleasant, violent thug who was a leading figure in the loyalist UFF, and it felt like he was everywhere that summer. His nickname was 'mad dog Adair', and I clearly remember him giving this horrendous, riot-inciting speech to his followers, flanked by two paramilitaries and two alsatians, all wearing 'mad dog Adair' T-shirts. It was both ridiculous and deeply disturbing.

I also made a point of visiting Drumcree in Portadown, on the day that the Orange Order's controversial march was due to proceed up the (mostly Catholic) Garvaghy Road. The British army was out in force, and tanks rumbled through the streets. In an attempt to stop people getting to Drumcree Church to cause trouble, the army had ploughed the fields around it into seas of boggy dirt. After what seemed like hours of wading through grime, and half-covered in mud, I finally arrived at the focal point of the whole thing. The second I did, a soldier popped out of a tank and asked, with some concern, whether I needed help getting out of the area. I explained that actually, I'd spent hours trying to get into the area - but that I very much appreciated the thought.

And there was the burger van. With entrepreneurial gusto, this van had set up right at the heart of the situation. At the beginning of the day, it was flying a little Irish Republican flag. Near the end, when it presumably judged its customer base had changed, I saw the lady lean out and swap the flag for a Union Jack. And why not.

In telling these little stories, I am in no way trying to trivialise or downplay the hugely serious nature of the conflict. The Troubles led many people in Northern Ireland through hell for decades, and some are still going through it.

But to me, an English student whose main experience of the situation had been through watching it on the television, it was these relatively small, individual experiences that made the big picture real to me. I turned up, confident and naive and keen to witness politics in motion. But by the time I left, even I had managed to grasp that this wasn't just about big themes and grand historical narrative. What it was really about was lots of human beings, some on both sides and plenty in the middle, just trying to get by and get on, despite everything.

Have you had a political experience you'll never forget? I'd love to hear about it.

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