You can’t help acquiring a mordant sense of humour growing up in Northern Ireland. For the first 18 years of my life, I went to school on the Falls Road, in Belfast, an Irish Republican stronghold frequently on the news during the Troubles.
My friends and I enjoyed greater freedoms in the Nineties than our parents’ generation. We worried less about our safety, our heads filled with boys and Boyzone.
Sure, you encountered the odd charred remains of a bus en route to school; our teacher once held us back after class while the police chased masked gunmen across the hockey pitch; and a wannabe IRA recruit once chucked an incendiary device in a coffee jar into our back garden (it was intended for the British Army. I doubt he got the job). But the truth was, we saw bomb scares as an inconvenience.
Still, occasionally, horrors such as the Omagh bombing, which killed 29 people, reminded us that we weren’t like everyone else after all.
Identity was everything. Moving to Dublin for university, I was surprised to discover that many of my peers didn’t see me as Irish in the same way they were Irish. I was other. This sense of alienation was reinforced when I arrived in London in my mid-twenties and was confronted by how little my English friends and colleagues knew or cared about our corner of the world.
I know now my youth was anything but normal, that soldiers outside your gate with semi-automatic rifles should not be part of the childhood experience. Still, my friends and I feel lucky. We didn’t lose anyone we loved to the conflict. Many did. And it took a lot for both communities to get past that, to reach beyond their pain and agree to a better, more peaceful future. That’s what the Good Friday Agreement gave us. So to see the renewed violence on streets of Belfast, ignited in part, by politics, and the UK government’s shameful indifference to the situation, sparks a pain that burns.
There is genuine anger back home that Westminster didn’t see fit to acknowledge the riots sooner, that we were lied to about the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland, that legitimate fears the loyalist community has about its British identity being eroded are being manipulated by a toxic combination of paramilitary and political forces. A lot of Brexiteers admit they didn’t fully consider Northern Ireland.
Just before the first lockdown, I enjoyed a night out in Belfast. The city has changed. It has a thriving music and restaurant scene. Despite the negative headlines and current unrest, the majority of Northern Ireland’s young people are looking forward, a generation for whom identity cannot be reduced to a flag or religion. When the Good Friday Agreement was signed, it was the envy of the world. That’s a peace worth fighting for.
The Troubles With Us by Alix O’Neill is out on June 24 and can be pre-ordered now (4th Estate, £14.99)