Growing up with Good Friday
Born in 1999, I was amongst the first of a new generation in Northern Ireland. A generation born after the Good Friday Agreement. A generation that was hoped to be free from the violence that had maimed, traumatised and killed so many. Was that hope fulfilled?
When my mum returned to Northern Ireland in March 1998, after living in England for a few years, she hoped that the Good Friday Agreement would give her the life she had “over there”. It didn’t live up to her expectations. I always remember the answer she gave when I asked her if she thought the Troubles would ever start up again: “They never ended”.
Early in life I suppose you don’t really notice what’s going on, it’s what you grow up around and what becomes the norm. Combine that with literally having a child’s understanding of things means that you usually don’t realise what’s going on. That’s exactly the situation I was in on the 3rd of September, 2005. My first bomb-scare. It was probably the first time I had any experience with this country’s problems. I had no idea what was going on, all I remember is the police announcement. I suppose “suspect device” doesn’t mean anything to a 5 year old. The bombscare is a sort of Northern Irish tradition, they become a nuisance that is just part of life. However, there’s still the fear that maybe it’s more than just a threat. I didn’t even realise it was a bomb-scare until a bit later on in life. Funnily enough, I found a forum archive a while back which had some Republicans discussing whether or not it was a valid target. Whether or not it should have been a real bomb. Strange how small the world is at times.
Yet before this had even happened, I was already acquainted with this country’s tainted history. There are photos of a very young me with Ian Paisley. Indeed, I can vaguely recall my granda getting me up onto bar tables to get me to say “Never, Never, Never!”. Before going back to my orange juice, unaware of what it even meant. I’ll always remember my granda’s lesson on voting: “Vote DUP, if not, UUP, if not, TUV”. Why? I asked, “Keep the Shinners out”. That was 11 years ago, some things never change, do they?
Although the violence has largely decreased, it still remains. Every week we look at BBC News on our phones, flick through the Belfast Telegraph or see our MLAs share the same kind of story on Facebook.
Every week we see something along the lines of “Teenager shot in paramilitary attack”, we see local politicians coming out with the usual “We strongly condemn this attack and violence has no place in our community”. Occasionally we still see bomb alerts, we see “suspect devices” and controlled explosions. Even the PSNI dealt with it in their advertising campaign a few years ago (We are Mothers). At times it feels as if we risk another lapse into the same levels of violence in the past, and I am not alone in that. I fear that we may very easily end up in the same situation as 20 odd years ago. All it can take is one attack and the whole Northern Irish peace could unravel like a loose thread. After all, WW1 was sparked by one man, a gun and 2 bullets.
Whilst the Good Friday Agreement supposedly also returned us to normality and British army operations ended in 2007, Northern Ireland is still very much a world apart from the rest of the UK. Remember the 2011 London riots? Remember the uproar over Boris Johnson’s water cannons? Then look at Belfast, there’s plenty of videos of riots on YouTube when the PSNI used them. It doesn’t stop there though. Almost all PSNI officers carry pistols with them when on patrol, compare that to England, where most police don’t have firearms.“Hot Fuzz” would have been a lot shorter if they did. My English friends were surprised to hear my casual mention of armoured cars, some having mixed reactions of “Has anything happened?” or “Guess that makes sense, yeah”. Sometimes it’s hard to see the peace process as a success when so many people seem ready for conflict. It’s harder still when you realise that the number of Peace walls has increased since the Good Friday Agreement.
As young Northern Irish people leave the country in droves, heading to England, Scotland or Wales for University or perhaps for life, how can you argue that the Good Friday Agreement has been a success? Many have always said, Ireland’s greatest export is it’s youth. Many of my friends have either already left, or plan on leaving. I too considered it, it’s not hard to see why you should. Why stay in some backwards province, ran by a government that (when it exists) cares too much about stirring the pot of sectarianism, or ignoring public opinion, than actually doing something? Yet, all the while, Northern Ireland seems to be content with itself. Our wee… Country/Province/Administrative Hell. We cope by laughing at it, shows like “Give My Head Peace” and “The Blame Game” show that. The more recent, and very popular, “Derry Girls” is another prime example.
However, living with the peace brought by Good Friday, as tenuous as it may be at times, has allowed us to begin to fight for other things. The struggle for marriage-equality and reproductive rights has now taken an important position in the future of this country. Without the Good Friday Agreement, I doubt such feats could be achieved. In 1991, 100 people marched in Belfast Pride. In 2013 that number had hit 50,000 and continues to grow. The Good Friday Agreement meant more than just an end to a sectarian armed struggle. It opened up the opportunity for the new, progressive struggles that we are accustomed to.
The hope that was once had in the Good Friday Agreement is diminished, but the hope that we should have in ourselves is still very much there. After all, a better Northern Ireland won’t come from paper signed by politicians (Chamberlain learnt that the hard way), but rather through us. Through my generation, and all other generations. We shouldn’t forget what happened, but we shouldn’t get caught up in it too much either. After all, anyone around The Garrick will know, “A nation that keeps one eye on the past is wise, a nation that keeps two eyes on the past is blind”