Kaitlin Dryburgh- 9th June 2023
“CATCH YOURSELF ON!” Is what the Derry girls would have said to me if they knew how little I know about the Northern Ireland conflict. Even though I can hop on a 55-minute flight to Belfast, last year I realised I knew an embarrassingly small amount about the Troubles. But I’m not the only one, I went to school at the start of the millennium and along with my peers I was taught nothing about the conflict, apart from the extremely basic knowledge of who the two sides were and a brief summary of what they stood for (and that might have even been from my parents). Speaking to a few friends, and family members who are of the same generation as me, some of us established that we’ve got most of our knowledge from Derry Girls, (TV show on Channel 4, If you haven’t watched it you’re missing out) other TV shows and films. There was basically a civil war in the UK and I was never taught about it, and as far as I can tell you’d be stretched to find anyone of my generation who was.
When discussing the subject with the rest of the Common Weal team, there’s a split. Those who lived through it and can speak of where they were when major incidents took place, when Gerry Adams was dubbed over on the BBC, or the enormous relief they felt when the peace deal was reached. There was silence from the younger team members. A bizarre existence before we were aware of current affairs. I assume that’s how I’ll feel when I tell the younger folk about visiting four supermarkets to finally get toilet paper at the start of the pandemic.
Obviously I’m an adult now and I can take responsibility for my own learning, so since last year I’ve been making an effort to understand more. There are plenty of resources out there, so it’s not hard to get your hands on the knowledge. However, there’s a long history there and to get a good grasp of the foundations is tricky when you’re starting from scratch and don’t have the pre-existing knowledge to find good quality sources. As a person just starting to delve into the Northern Ireland Troubles I think one of the most startling elements was the nonchalant way residents were able to make bomb scares and murders part of every-day life. Probably summed up by a man recollecting how his mum used to take him out of school for the day, sit him in passenger seat with a bag of crisps, a comic and a bottle of coke while his mum went shopping in the centre of Belfast. Meaning she could park in the centre, and they wouldn’t treat her car as a potential bomb threat with him in the front. A funny anecdote of how people adapt to crazy situations.
But my question is always why we weren’t taught about it in school, or why was it not referenced more often? Of course living in Scotland, the majority of people didn’t directly live through the Troubles so it was much easier to move forward and perhaps forget. However, there are links with religious discord in Scotland, albeit to a much smaller extent, yet most history lessons don’t cover this subject.
Nonetheless it seems that in Northern Ireland schools, the same is true. It’s now apparent that the majority of schools in Northern Ireland do not teach children about the Good Friday Agreement and the Troubles. For those who are taught this will be part of GCSE History, if the school voluntarily teaches it as it’s not mandatory. Although the difference in Northern Ireland being this is very much recent history and the stories and accounts very much stay alive in relatives and in the surroundings. The low uptake of schools teaching pupils about the Troubles also seems to be at odds with what the pupils themselves want, as the Northern Ireland Youth Parliament ratified a policy to make Northern Ireland history mandatory in all schools. For many the lack of acknowledgement from schools concerning the troubles is a failure that could have lasting effects. If the next generation is to continue maintaining peace this might be a hard task if they haven’t grown up with a solid understanding of the importance of the Good Friday Agreement.
However, looking at the bigger picture the willingness for countries within the UK to teach children about the role of the British Empire and its downfalls is almost non-existent.
This year marked the 25th year of the Good Friday Agreement. So a great deal of reflection has taken place. Those involved in the negotiations at the time descended upon Belfast for a conference and gala including, ex-prime ministers, former paramilitary members, and the US contingency who were key in the peace process, including Bill and Hillary Clinton. A great event to mark how far things have come and the work needed to continue to implement the Agreement. The DUP however, wasn’t too quick to jump on the celebration bandwagon and still remains to have some overwhelming issues with agreement that have only been exasperated in recent times. Nevertheless the celebration was perhaps slightly overshadowed by President Biden’s somewhat controversial visit the week before as he seemed to put some noses out of joint.
When talking of progress it was hard for some commentators not to mention the perceived step backwards after Brexit. The referendum in 2016 has helped to destabilise peace somewhat, as controversial debates around boarders started to rear their head. An issue that is still affecting matters of government as Northern Ireland approaches 500 days without a functioning government. This also throws up issues surrounding democracy, can the NI political system ever be truly democratic if they must adhere to the Good Friday’s stipulations concerning the workings of the mandatory coalition?
For many the utter disrespect and carelessness shown towards Northern Ireland as those down in Westminster waded their way through the mess of Brexit. We now know the lies that Johnson spouted concerning the Northern Ireland Protocol. Yet it seemed apparent that those MPs also didn’t quite value the importance of nurturing the Good Friday Agreement, there was little commitment to respect it. Peace is never over and like any marriage or agreement you can’t just sign the certificate and give-up you have to work to maintain it. Johnson did as much as he could to tear down the progress already made, relations with both Brussels and Dublin were at an all-time low. However, it seems with a little bit of seriousness and professionalism Sunak has manged to deliver the minimum to find a solution for the previous mess created.
And we’re perhaps already seeing the side-effects of these political pressures, as tensions are rising. This being very apparent when the terror level was raised to severe ahead of Biden’s visit and it hasn’t been lowered since. Marches that for a while had been peaceful are now met with an undercurrent of hostility. Police vehicles have been attacked, car bombs uncovered and a senior police detective was shot and left with life-changing injuries. There’s no mistaking it but things are changing and although police believe paramilitary ceasefires won’t be broken, the fact that it needs to be discussed is perhaps rather worrying.
Irish unification still seems to be the natural trajectory and with the pushback from Brexit, which Northern Ireland voted against, that could be realised a lot sooner than originally expected. Not to mention the younger generations who on the bright side perhaps don’t share the same tribal feelings and their ability to choose differently to their relatives has given the impression that things could change. However, whatever Northern Ireland chooses the country has the foundations to choose its path in a peaceful way, and if everyone learns from the mistakes of the past we can only hope history never repeats itself.