The Good Friday Agreement gave me hope after a childhood marked by violence
OPINION: I remember the optimism I had for peace in 1998 when I was 18. But the pace of progress fails Northern Ireland
I was 18 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed 25 years ago this week, finally bringing imperfect peace to the place I call home.
This makes me part of the last ‘transitional generation’. We didn’t go through what older people in Northern Ireland did, but our childhoods were marked by sectarianism, division and violent conflict between paramilitaries and the state. We yearned for a better future.
Back then, the abnormal was normal. Soldiers with machine guns walked the streets and there were areas you weren’t allowed to go to, security barriers, checkpoints, shootings and bombings. You had to have your bag checked to go into shops, and be careful about what you said and where you said it.
When I was 12, my family was held at gunpoint by paramilitaries in an armed robbery at home. I thought they were going to murder us. People and homes in my middle-class Catholic and mixed-marriages neighbourhood were frequently targeted in deadly attacks.
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One of my first ‘Troubles memories’ was the father of a family living just a few streets away being shot dead in front of his wife and children. The man was solicitor Pat Finucane. Thirty-four years later, his family, including his son John, now the Sinn Féin MP for Belfast North, continue to fight for a public inquiry into his death.
We became so used to the army’s ‘Johnny 5’ bomb disposal robot being in my neighbour’s driveway that we stopped leaving the house when it arrived, just pulling the blinds and moving to the kitchen at the back.
I remember being appalled at the number of reports on the news of people being shot dead, and I wept at the Shankill Road bombing, the Greysteel massacre and the rest. It all seemed so barbaric, cruel and futile. I hate violence and always have.
A family in Northern Ireland is lucky if their lives haven’t been touched by the conflict in one way or another. The impact of my stepfather’s father being shot dead during his childhood is the kind of incident that ripples through from the direct victims to their loved ones and those who enter their lives for generations to come.
As peace was being pulled together in my teens, I knew it heralded a new era of positivity. That life would change if we were brave enough to grasp the opportunity with both hands. There was a mood of optimism, excitement and hope among young people that life could be some kind of actual normal – a modest desire when you think about it.
I didn’t think twice about voting ‘yes’ in the referendum in May 1998. It was worth it if the bloodshed stopped
Despite the challenges presented in the agreement, I didn’t think twice about voting ‘yes’ in the referendum in May 1998. It was worth it if the bloodshed stopped.
I remember it like it was yesterday. I was a young woman from north Belfast. Full of opinions. Enjoying my next big adventure at university in Scotland – busy studying, working hard and partying with friends.
Then came the Omagh bomb that August, a few months after voting in favour of the deal. Anti-peace process paramilitaries devastated a community, taking the lives of 29 people, including a woman pregnant with twins. I remember sitting in halls of residence in the West End of Glasgow with students from Belfast, Bangor, Crossmaglen, Dromara, Downpatrick and beyond, all of us heartbroken by the news.
The bombing was a reminder of the fragility of life – and of the peace – but it strengthened the resolve of those who did not want a return to the dark days that had destroyed so much.
In Northern Ireland, you don’t have to search far to see projects that benefitted from ‘peace money’, badly needed financial investment. But now, as I reflect on the pace of change, I’m impatient for faster progress and a rethink about where finances are directed.
Our dysfunctional form of devolved government has seen the Stormont institutions in a state of collapse for around 40% of their existence. On a school report card, the assessment would undoubtedly be ‘unsatisfactory’.
The most deprived areas in Northern Ireland in 1998 remain the most deprived areas all these years later. Too many areas are segregated and children aren’t educated together enough. Mental health services are nowhere near what they need to be. We have more so-called peace walls in 2023 than in the past.
The absence of violence (which hasn’t disappeared completely) isn’t enough. If we don’t support grassroots communities, learn to accept our differences, and educate and house people together more, how will we ever move forward?
We need to get moving with the ambitious transformation of Northern Ireland’s health service, which has the worst waiting lists in the UK. We need better wages, services and jobs. We need to be kinder and more generous to each other.
We need to properly implement the Good Friday Agreement, honouring its spirit, but also review and reform the parts that are clearly not serving the public.
The most deprived areas in Northern Ireland in 1998 remain the most deprived areas all these years later
Prosperity delivers for all, whether you want to maintain Northern Ireland’s union with Britain or live in a new, reunified Ireland. Constitutional preferences, republican, unionist or other, are all legitimate positions to hold, so if the people in power could get on with making this place a stable environment in which to live, work and raise a family – and to invest in – right-thinking people would be very much obliged.
People are weary and turned off by all the pettiness and poking each other in the eye. It is only a minority of mouthpieces, wreckers, deluded throwbacks and those who didn’t experience the conflict but have a perverse ‘war envy’ that they didn’t get to take up guns back in the day, who want to hold back our young people – and everyone else.
Reflecting on what has been achieved 25 years on is important, but looking seriously at where we have failed is equally so.
I love Belfast and its people and I wanted to be part of telling the reality of lives here, not some sensationalised or sanitised version of it. It is my honour and privilege as a journalist to speak to victims and survivors of our conflict, those most badly hurt by the complicated past. It is so clear they are being failed.
Without exception, they say the UK government’s ‘‘Legacy Bill’ legislation – to end pre-1998 criminal prosecutions, inquests and civil actions – is not human rights compliant, and sends a signal to British, Irish and other citizens in Northern Ireland that the lives of their loved ones didn’t matter.
I’m not offended by much, but that stinks. Surely we can do better than this?
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