When I was a child, my parents wouldn’t let me play outside with toy guns for the fear that I might be shot. I didn’t understand their concerns back then. Neither did I understand why British soldiers stopped our car at checkpoints on the way into Newry, searched our home in the middle of the night or ran repetitive drills in the fields that surround our house. The ubiquitous sound of helicopter blades slicing the air was the music of my childhood. I know that these experiences are not unique to me. I’m certain that many people my age who grew up in the North have similar stories to tell. In many ways, I am very lucky. I was born in 1995 so I missed the worst of the Troubles. Many people older than me have endured much more harrowing experiences. Many lost their lives.
My earliest memories emerge from around the time that the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. It would be another ten years before I came to understand the reality of what had happened and why, without the innocent lens of childhood. It would be another five years after that before I shrugged off the apathy of adolescence and began to take a serious interest in politics. All of this came about in the context of the peace process initiated by the Good Friday Agreement. It is important to emphasise that this is a process and we still have a long way to go. It should also be remembered that we’ve come so far and life in the North is immeasurably better because of it.
The area of south Armagh where I grew up was one of the last locations to demilitarise after the Good Friday Agreement. In 2007, the British Army withdrew the last of its soldiers stationed in Bessbrook. This harkened the end of Operation Banner which was formally terminated in August of that year. The campaign ran for 38 years, making it the longest continuous deployment of the Army in British military history. At the height of the Troubles, around 27,000 British soldiers were stationed in the North. According to official figures, the British Army killed over 300 people during the campaign, most of whom were unarmed civilians. In turn, 763 military personnel were killed.
My life went from one that featured barracks, checkpoints, and helicopters to a degree of normalcy that grew over time. I have a particularly vivid memory of walking from my primary school to the nearby church with my teacher and classmates as we prepared for our First Holy Communion. An army patrol was marching up the street while we crossed over to the church. The sight of men with guns in camouflage gear is intimidating for any child. In stark contrast, the Giro d’Italia visited the North in 2014. The bicycle race began its third stage in Armagh. I travelled that morning to the nearby village of Forkhill to watch the peloton go by. The street was awash with pink and the atmosphere was buoyant. People whooped and cheered as the cyclists swooped through the village accompanied by a cordon of police officers. I had never thought that I would see the PSNI welcomed in Forkhill. It can be easy to forget, over the long years that have passed, that so much has changed. Moments like those serve as a reminder of how important and precious the peace process is.
Today there are young people growing up without any recollection of the Troubles. This is a huge feat considering the level of violence that plagued the North over the last 50 years. I hope that these young people can live in and contribute to our shared society conscious of, but not coloured by, the past. For my part, I am acutely aware of the peace process and how fragile it is. It has already been chipped by Brexit and could potentially crack depending on the outcome of the negotiations between the British government and the EU. Furthermore, the Good Friday Agreement, which made the peace process possible, has been fundamentally undermined by the DUP’s confidence-and-supply agreement with governing Conservative Party. At a time of unprecedented uncertainty and in the absence of a functioning Executive, it is crucial that we do all that we can to ensure that the peace process does not grind to a halt or worse, recede.
The road that I grew up on stretches across the border into Louth, just two miles from my front door. Before the Good Friday Agreement, the road was blocked by ugly concrete slabs called dragon’s teeth. During the Troubles, only 20 of the 275 odd roads that cross the border were open whereas the rest were shut down, spiked or cratered by the British Army. The Good Friday Agreement led to the removal of not only these physical barriers, but of the social and economic barriers that once precluded the peace process. The peace that we have isn’t perfect and it is imperative that we continue to build upon the progress that has been made. However, it is also important that we appreciate what has already been achieved.
Cormac Begley is the Administrative Officer for Sinn Féin Ireland and a final year student in Trinity College Dublin.