I remember lying in bed one night, probably at the age of eleven or twelve, working out in my head an escape plan for how our whole family could exit the house if a bomb went off. The plan though would need to be altered if the exit was necessary due to direct entry by un-welcomed guests and the use of guns. In that case, my plan had big holes in it. We had these nice yet completely non-functional windows in terms of escape (unless you’re the size of a mouse, or maybe a really small kitten…).
Even though we lived just under an hour away from Northern Ireland’s capital city of Belfast and the widely accepted ‘epicentre’ of the Troubles, I can vividly remember going to bed as a young child many nights terrified that the ‘bad men’ would come to our house and shoot my dad. I often reflect on why I felt that and why I didn’t talk about it then. I don’t have an answer but I think perhaps that I wasn’t alone in feeling such fear as a child during the Troubles; a period from the late 1960’s until the Good Friday agreement in 1998 officially ended the conflict (to what extent this has been achieved is highly debatable however). Some 3500 people were killed and 3000 murders remain unsolved.
When you are in an environment however loving and supportive as my own and many were, yet where violence, intimidation and killing are commonplace and where media coverage was saturated daily with such images, it would be naive to suggest that it wouldn’t impact on young people.
I can personally recall two significant events as a child that affected me deeply; a bomb exploding in the bustling market town of Magherafelt that instantly killed one of my mum’s dear friends Noel. I was five years old and one of my brother’s is now named in his honour. The second, eleven years later, was a mass shooting in the Rising Sun pub on Halloween night in the sleepy little village of Greysteel, a few miles down the road from home. That night eight innocent people; ironically a mix of both Catholics and Protestants were murdered in cold blood; one of the killers shouting ‘trick or treat’ as they opened fire. I remember a few days later, on a freezing and wet November night, my whole family driving to the pub and laying a bunch of flowers in respect for those eight lives lost so senselessly. Not a word was spoken on the way home. I was sixteen.
2014 represents a milestone year for me, one that many of my fellow country people have also reached; that of being away from Northern Ireland for as long as we were there. I’ve now been away half my life. Since shedding the obligatory airport tears of a very nervous yet excited eighteen year old, I’ve been lucky enough to have lived in the mountains of upstate New York, the agricultural rich valleys of mid Wales, the outskirts of Toronto, and I currently call the leafy south eastern suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, home.
Northern Ireland is in me though. I can’t shake her. She’s like a dirty sore and a soothing balm, all in one tube. My life’s choices in relation to the work I do; educating young people in the outdoors, stems from the opportunities I was given as a teenager during the Troubles. Whether it was paddling our canoes down some of Ireland’s stunning canal systems or camping in some farmer’s field and telling stories around a fire, we learned that our differences were not nearly as significant as our similarities; that we were in fact, the same. We were just kids being kids. Sound simple? It was. And it was life changing.
One such trip I was lucky enough to be selected for involved a stay at ‘Corrymeela’, a residential centre that brought young Protestants and Catholics together. This centre was perched high above the exposed limestone cliffs that separated the water from the land. Stories of the mighty mythical giants of yesteryear who braved these waters and risked life and limb to defeat the evil foreign invaders, are still fresh in my mind to this day. What I now realise though, is that there are no evil invaders threatening the country of my birth or its beautiful, storytelling, kind and witty people. The fight and the threat has always, and will continue, to come from within. It’s in us and for anything to change, that’s where we need to look first. Ourselves.
Two further experiences stand out during my youth where I realised that I needed to leave, to travel and gain a wider perspective on life, otherwise I feared I would become a hater, a bigot and a victim. I would develop a lasting sore that no ointment could heal. The first was when, as an almost eighteen year old, my friends and I made the long train journey south to Tipperary, and the famous ‘Trip to Tipp’ music festival; three days of music, rain, muck, cheap beer and a tent for shelter that you wouldn’t give to your worst enemy. It was magic. One interaction with a Gardai (Irish Police) remains vivid. Upon accusing us of smoking marijuana which we actually weren’t and when we assured him in probably not the most respectful tone that we weren’t, he raised his voice and told us to, “Get back up to the fu*%ing North where you belong”. His eyes and his body language displayed nothing short of hatred for the young people in front of him; kids who just happened to speak English with a strong Northern accent.
A year later, as a first year University student, I was making my way home for the holidays and flew out of the English city of Birmingham. About to board the plane to Belfast, I was stopped and questioned by a Metropolitan police officer. I honestly couldn’t understand why he was asking me where I was going when the only place I could have been going, was to Belfast (the plane door was literally two feet in front of us at the time). I may have provided a somewhat cheeky, yet in my mind, witty response; something I’m quite proud my Northern Irish heritage provided me with. He didn’t quite see the humour however and pulled me aside where the questioning continued. Where was I was from, going and why I was in England. For some reason he was also interested in what was I studying at University, to which I incorrectly answered, ‘conflict resolution studies’. I couldn’t help myself. I had found my voice, however smartarse it sounded. About to finally let me board the plane, he left me with, “You people from Northern Ireland have caused nothing but trouble. You’re scum”.
I find it somewhat ironic that here we were, a small country of less than a million people, tearing ourselves apart and causing so much self-inflicted suffering to belong to either Ireland, or remain part of the United Kingdom. Yet many of the very people we wanted to either join or stay joined with, were not entirely the most welcoming.
Even as I type these words, I can feel some strong and critical rebuffs. What would I know? I haven’t lived there in eighteen years and things have changed. All that stuff is now in the past. It’s true. I haven’t lived there but I have been back twelve times in the past ten years. I’ve also got the benefit of a now global perspective and it’s through this that I offer these views. I speak also as a child who now has now gladly found her voice, whatever the consequences of using it may be; a language or courage not able to be found by me and many of my peers during those dark days.
Through this lens, it feels to me that both a lot and yet, not much has changed. The Army barracks’ are long gone. The British Army no longer patrol with loaded weapons pointing at you, in order to protect themselves. The Northern Ireland departure gates of England’s airports are no longer situated at the very ends of the airport, for fear of terrorist attack. Some truly courageous and visionary people are transforming their communities. At a local level in many towns and counties, children from both sides of the divide are being provided with opportunities to connect with each other, initiatives that will absolutely have a lasting impact.
However, there remains an insatiable hunger for power in the echelons of leadership at Stormont; the location of the Northern Irish government. It almost seems that one of the only things that has changed in the main chamber is the greying of the hair of its legislative assembly members. Many of the same people are still there. Although the leaders of the opposing sides are now photographed together and can be even seen shaking hands; something that would have been inconceivable twenty years ago, there remains, at least, in the public persona, an atmosphere of attack, of fighting and of ‘I win, you lose’. The tone of the news is much the same as it was fifteen years ago. There is, it seems, a constant referral to the past. An inability to move on. Like a toxic relationship one can’t let go of.
How do we actually move on? I feel strongly that we need to both listen to our young people, as well as truly hearing what they have to say. We need to help them find their voices and use them to connect with, rather than disconnect from the same young people who just happen, by virtue of birth, to be from the other religion. We must also understand that just because they may not speak, does not mean they have nothing to say.
We need to acknowledge that just because there are not as many bombs going off or as many people being killed today, that the youth of Northern Ireland is ‘healed’. They are still children of conflict, however buried that conflict is. The air is still stained with mistrust and suspicion. Our job as responsible adults must be to really address the cause and not the symptoms.
Connection, compassion and honest negotiation need to be normalised. We need to find a way to lead with vulnerability and with courage. Where the starting point is not, ‘what can my side get’ but rather, ‘what would a successful outcome be for all involved’, and work back from there. This might sound somewhat naive and simplistic but then again, let’s reflect at where the other options have got us. For forty odd years, we have separated ourselves because of the fear we had something to lose.
Ten years from today, what would we like the now ten year olds to be saying and more importantly, doing to lead a new Northern Ireland? I don’t think we would be answering with the status quo. For those thousands of people, home-based or exiled, who were and continue to be impacted by her Troubles, as well as for those too young to remember them, they and we all deserve a new start, an opportunity to inhale a deep and lasting breath of North Atlantic peaceful and prosperous air, free from self-imposed bigotry and hate.