Our Belfast-born son turns 20 this summer, the same age as the Good Friday Agreement, signed on April 10th, 1998, that marked the start of the end of what in Northern Ireland was known as ‘the Troubles‘.
Throughout his life, he’s heard me talk about the Troubles. But the Belfast I’ve described, a city of army tanks and and barricades and bombs, is not the Belfast he knows, with its nightclubs and barista coffee shops and Michelin-rated restaurants. The memories of shuttered shops and soldiers walking the streets with rifles are still fresh to many of us however, and in the run-up to the Good Friday Agreement’s 20th anniversary, I’ve been thinking about the rebirth of Northern Ireland, and how those born after cannot fully appreciate how far we have come.
My first 20 years were lived against a background of daily shootings and bombings. More than 3,600 people were killed in 30 years of fighting, and as many as 50,000 physically maimed or injured. Everyone knew someone who had lost friends or relatives, myself included. Fear of the ‘other side’ began early, with schools segregated between Catholic and Protestants; when the first integrated school opened, the bus bearing the school’s name was stoned by children from both Catholic and Protestant schools on the same day. I know this as my brother was in bus when it happened. Each time we thought we’d seen the worst, there was always another horrific bombing, another vicious revenge attack. The Good Friday Agreement, as imperfect as it may have appeared to many at the time, offered us hope for an end to the worsts, and that was why it was subsequently backed in a referendum by 71% of those in Northern Ireland and 94% in the Republic.
But even the Good Friday Agreement couldn’t definitively break the hateful cycle of carnage. Four months later on a summer Saturday afternoon, a bomb exploded in the bustling market town of Omagh, killing 29 people including 2 unborn babies, and injuring more than 200 others. Like so many in Northern Ireland, my heart stopped on August 15 when I heard the news; it was then broken by the stories of the victims and survivors that emerged over the coming week. The following Saturday, at a memorial service held on the steps of Omagh’s courthouse, local singer Juliet Turner sang ‘Broken Things’, and our hearts collectively as a country broke again.
The Omagh bombing was a turning point for me, and I think many others in Northern Ireland. We had all felt and wished ‘Never Again’ so often in the past, but in the late summer of 1998, with the Good Friday Agreement agreed and supported by the majority, never before had the true senselessness of the horror and violence and pain been so apparent.
Slowly, life began first to return to a Northern Ireland post-atrocity normal, then to a Northern Ireland normal, and then slowly, ever so slowly to an anywhere normal. From a place to be avoided, Northern Ireland has become a destination to be visited; instead of turning away when the Northern Irish countryside appeared on their TV screens, people now turn on their screens to watch the same countryside transformed into Winterfell in Game of Thrones; from daily witnessing that endless cycle of horror and violence and pain, we’re now apparently the happiest people in the UK.
Anyone following recent events however could be forgiven for questioning that accolade. The last set of talks to restore the devolved Northern Irish government, the direct result of the Good Friday Agreement, ended earlier this year in acrimony. The lack of progress has overshadowed celebrations marking the agreement’s 20th anniversary, which includes former US President Bill Clinton returning to Belfast to be awarded the freedom of the city on the day itself. The passing of 20 years means that, like President Clinton, those who helped negotiate the agreement are no longer in office or sadly, no longer alive. A new team is in charge now, different negotiators, different parties, but for those of us who remember the old days, it feels very much like the same ‘them and us’, the same seeming intransigence.
There has been no return of widespread violence since 1998, but an undercurrent has always remained, a tension that needs little for a spark to become a flashpoint. Brexit and its impact on Northern Ireland, namely how it affects its future relationship within the United Kingdom and with the Republic, is more than just a spark. It has brought to a head questions on possible unification and cultural identification that inevitably will be addressed at some stage in Northern Ireland’s future, but ideally not quite so soon.
The bitterness that is filling the talks on a post-Brexit Northern Ireland should not be allowed to detract from the great achievement that was the Good Friday Agreement. My concern is that, in the same way as we have a new generation of negotiators, we also have a new electorate, a generation who thankfully have not had to grow up amongst a background of tit-for-tat killings.
In a post-Good Friday Agreement Northern Ireland, our children are not asked to identify themselves as Catholic or Protestant, Unionist or Nationalist, Irish or British. But this is still Northern Ireland, and only 7% of pupils attend integrated schools, so these children have still learned about divides at the same time as learning division. At some time in the future they may be asked to decide on something that may not suit them perfectly, and their initial gut response may be ‘no’. This was the gut response of many faced with the proposed Good Friday Agreement 20 years ago. But what far outweighed any reluctance, any concern about ‘giving ground’ was the weight of pain and sorrow and lost lives that had come before.
I cannot be more thankful our children have not felt that weight on their shoulders or in their hearts. I just want them to be aware of how far we have come from April 1998, of how their world is unrecognizable from the one my generation grew up in, so that if faced with a local election or a referendum, they will make a decision that allows Northern Ireland to build on the last 20 years and not return to the 30 before. And never again experience an Omagh.
If anything of this resonates with you, and you have a young one following the talks – or lack of them – on Brexit and Northern Ireland, perhaps the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement is a good time to give them an insight into your past as they contemplate their future. Show them archive photos from Belfast in the grip of the Troubles, and the scenes of ‘every day’ life as it was then. Listen to the memorial service from Omagh, with Juliet Turner’s heart-breaking tribute, and the prayer in Spanish for the young Spanish exchange students who were amongst the dead. Watch the final scene of the ‘Derry Girls’, the critically-acclaimed Channel 4 comedy, when the all-too-familiar TV announcement of a major bomb incident stops dead the all-too-familiar petty bickering of a Northern Irish family. Because this is not fiction, this is how it was.
I hope on April 10th President Clinton looks with pride at the city he helped rebuild. I hope he, and all the negotiators of the Good Friday Agreement, feel the continued gratitude of many of us who live here. More importantly, I hope current and future negotiators have the humility to appreciate the full scope of what was achieved by their political forebears my son’s lifetime ago. Many of them may be too young to remember what came before. It is up to many of us to remind them how fortunate they are they are unable to do so.