Saturday, 26 February 2011
Last week, I stumbled across an interesting little programme on BBC iPlayer. Entitled As Others See Us, it followed four reknowned journalists as they recollected their experiences of reporting on The Troubles in Northern Ireland. A lot of it featured events from before I was born or too early in my life for me to recall, so I thought it would make an interesting watch. I did not expect to feel such an emotional reaction to it.
I live in London these days and every passing day in Northern Ireland makes peace that little bit more stable, so I haven't thought much about those past days in a long time. Every time I visit Belfast, there is something new and shiny to distract me from its previous reputation as a war torn town and the place where I grew up. So it was shocking to be reminded just how bleak the bad old days were.
I had a very normal childhood, growing up in a pleasant part of South Belfast, only a few miles as the crow flies from the riots and roadblocks, but a million miles apart. Unlike many Northern Irish kids, I did not grow up with the army just outside my door day in day out. I have never seen a riot in person and I am lucky enough never to lost anyone I know to the conflict. But I felt the presence of the Troubles as I grew up. It hung over everything like a pall and ensured that whether I realised it or not at the time that I was quite scared and confused by the place I grew up.
Life carried on a normal every day fashion most of the time, but so much of that normality was simply not knowing any different. It never occurred to me that you didn't see armoured cars or rifle toting police on the streets of a similarily sized English city. Going shopping of course involved patdowns and razor wire at the end of streets: how else did they stop Oxford Street getting too full? Painting the end of terrace houses with two storey sized representations of men in balaclavas was a nifty way to use up empty brick. Daubing the kerb stones with your chosen trifecta of colours and hanging out bunting and flags just seemed to brighten up the grey skies. Helicopters were the soundtrack of every city. And having your bag searched on the way into shops was just what every branch of Marks and Spencer asked, wasn't it?
With a child's love of routine and repetition, certain things were a constant. The start of the Twelfth Fortnight in July was rioting time for the Protestants. The 9th of August and its memories of Internment was the equivalent for the Catholics. Going to the International Airport to pick daddy up after a trip away for work always meant being stopped at the permanent roadblock outside Templepatrick and having policemen with torches check the car. Coffee jars make better bombs than jam jars. Every single secondary school will stage a version of West Side Story with the Prods and the Taigs standing in for the Sharks and the Jets Talking about 1972, the year that my parents married, rarely referenced the wedding, but always ended with the story of how their flat in Ireton Street was seriously damaged when the bomb at Botanic Station went off on Bloody Friday. One of 22 bombs denoted in just over an hour by the Provisional IRA, it was one of the worst days of the entire conflict, killing nine people, injuring over a hundred and thirty and leaving Belfast in ruins. I knew that neither of my parents were hurt, but their home was badly damaged by flying glass and that had things been very slightly different that day, neither my brother or I would exist, and my parents would never have had a dog with a touch of PTSD...
Other things were shocking, erupting almost out of nowhere and leaving behind a frightening silence and a sense of stillness where the people of Northern Ireland struggled to come to terms with them. One of the first times I remember this feeling of something so terrible it couldn't really be talked about was when I was five and the caretaker of my school, David Galway, was shot dead in his house on the school grounds by the Ulster Volunteer Force during an armed robbery. His wife was left confined to a wheelchair by the same shooting. While I saw nothing of the actual event, my bedroom overlooked the grounds of the school and faced the same direction as the house. Confused by the low voices and whispers of the adults in my life, I didn't feel I could ask much about things and I didn't feel I could tell them that I was frightened for the time we lived there to look out the bedroom window at night in case they came back. (Although walking past the house where it all happened to get to a classroom or to the changing rooms day to day for years never had the same fear because it was daylight.)
That feeling of the world changing and the air feeling different in the aftermath of terror and tragedy was an infrequent but constant one as I grew up. A happy family afternoon playing on the organ at my aunt and uncle's house to celebrate my granny's 79th birthday was brought to an abrupt end in shock and disbelief when we heard the news of the bombing at the Cenotaph in Enniskillen. Being in Royal Avenue with friends, seeing what seemed like every emergency service vehicle in the city scream up the street toward the Shankill Road the afternoon nine people died in a bombing in the fish shop. Only learning where tiny two horse villages like Greysteel were when masked men yelling 'Trick or Treat' gunned six men and two women to death on the evening before Halloween. Being reduced to tears while making cushion covers with my mum one August evening when the news of the Omagh bomb broke.
This climate of normality and uncertainty, meant that I grew up certain in myself that I would never stay in Northern Ireland once I was old enough to leave. While I never judge my parents for staying put, why should they have felt they had to move on? I could not imagine living there myself when I had the choice as an adult. As a child I could not imagine the situation changing and even momentuous events like the 1994 IRA ceasefire seemed more like a cruel joke to show us the tantalizing reality of peace before returning us to intimidation and fear as if nothing had changed. Had you told me that by the time I was 21, Northern Ireland would be at peace, I would have thought you were pulling my leg at professional levels.
My friends and I were so sceptical of the events the Good Friday Agreement that we spent a proportion of the evening drinking cheap gin in the toilets of the Europa bus station before going next door to Glengall Street to gawp at the Ulster Unionists going into their headquarters, calling in at Vico's for some misbehaving and rounding the night off with some lock in drinking at a raucous party in the (rather Republican) Hatfield, where most people were treating the whole political thing as a tenuous reason to have a right old knees up. The attitude was that since attempts to end the Troubles were like buses, it didn't much matter if this one went arse up, we'd just toast the next go and carry on as normal.
Still sceptical two years later when I boarded a ferry for a new life in England, I still felt peace was so precarious in Northern Ireland, that I had no choice but to leave if I wanted to get on. I could always come back to Belfast, but best to have a back up plan for when the peace process ground to a halt again. Next thing I knew I was living in London in a fleapit house and working a minimum wage job and Belfast was thriving. Politically stable, economically exciting and still cheap to live in, it looked like I'd picked the wrong horse. Then personal events happened that soured many of my relationships with people from Belfast and I was reminded of the Northern Irish ability to hold a grudge come hell or high water. The chances of a bunch of people brought up on hate and being judgemental forgetting things was slim to none and the fact that I no longer recognised anything in the city of my birth beyond the City Hall, made me feel that London might actually be a better option.
I do miss Belfast. I miss sounding like everyone else. I miss the decent opening hours. I miss the comfortable familiarity of growing up somewhere and knowing the backstories of buildings, businesses and families. But I don't miss the fact that when I go home and hear the local news, it's still a litany of punishment beatings, pipe bombs, peace walls and general sectarian intimidation. I don't miss the fact that old habits die so hard that taxi drivers still make assumptions about your background when you give your address and telling people what school you went to has the power to end a conversation in its tracks.
But I'd forgotten until I watched this documentary, what other emotions I feel about growing up where I did. I'm angry that the situation was allowed to become so volatile. I'm ashamed that I lived amongst people who thought blind hatred was natural and that voting for those who had not surrendered arms was logical. I'm disappointed my parents' and family's opportunities were restricted by years of turmoil and I'm resentful that I grew up feeling so trepidatious and with the knowledge that leaving my home town was a neccesity rather than a choice. I'm sorry we were such slow learners. I'm also glad to be given the chance to look back and see how far Northern Ireland has really come and finally believe that peace is going to stick. Pity the property prices are even more ridiculous than London or maybe I'd think about going back...