GOOD FRIDAY AGREEMENT - TIME TO PUSH ON.....
It was the 17th January 1992 and I had just finished Gaelic football training at St. Patricks Boys Academy in Dungannon. I was making the short trip from the school by foot to the Coalisland road with a few of my classmates to get the bus home to Cookstown. It was a dark miserable late afternoon, drizzling rain, but we were all in great form and the crack was mighty as usual, all of us bantering about how good a player each of us were, along with typical teenage banter.
Five minutes from the bus stop close to Curley’s shopping centre at the outskirts of the town, we all suddenly heard a very large thud in the distance, which stopped us in our tracks. We all looked at each other and after a few seconds one of the lads shouted, "That was definitely a bomb".
I was 15 years young at the time and all of my life to that date, I had grown accustomed to living in N Ireland in what was pretty much a war zone, with British troops and the security forces marshalling our streets, bombings, shootings and killings a weekly occurrence. Looking back now you know things were bad when young children of my age became accustomed to such a barbaric environment. We didn't know any different.
What we did in fact hear that evening almost 15 miles away as the crow flies was the awful tragedy at Teebane Crossroads between Cooktown and Omagh. Eight men lost their lives that night and a further six were injured in a roadside bomb. The noise of the explosion, the weeks and months ahead, growing up close to the bomb site and living in a mixed community who had suffered horribly as a result of this atrocity, was tremendously difficult for everyone.
A few weeks later on the 5th February 1992, a loyalist gang walked into a bookmakers shop in South Belfast and opened fire indiscriminately killing five people and injuring nine. This was deemed a revenge attack for what happened at Teebane, so totally justified in the minds of the people who carried this out. The same feelings that shook my body to its core in Dungannon that night a few weeks previous, struck again. Shock, fear, horror, worry, sadness, all of these feelings became normal to me as I was growing up in Northern Ireland throughout the eighties and most of the nineties.
Little did I know at that time that six years later on the 10th April 1998 a peace agreement would be signed in N Ireland called the Good Friday Agreement. I was twenty one years old now, and at University and all of those fears I used to experience as a teenager growing up here had turned to feelings of hope, happiness, relief, and excitement that this terrible situation that I grew up in was finally over. No more bombs, peace at last, a new police force, equality, and a real determination to make N Ireland a better place to live, work and play. What was there not to like? It was certainly an incredible time in my own personal life, one where maybe my parents if they were contributing to this piece would maybe suggest they never seen happening.
This website does not normally contribute to the political debate in NI, however on the twentieth anniversary of the GFA, I felt compelled to share some of my own thoughts and ideas on where we are now. I personally think there is a space now with the power of social media for all of us to contribute in some small way to shaping all of our futures. I think politicians have a very difficult job to do, particularly in Irish politics and over the last few years I've seen quite a few more non political people get involved in these kinds of discussions which has went onto create positive change. I think this can only be seen as a good thing.
A few years ago I was talking to a friend of mine who is fairly well up to speed with global political and economic affairs. We were talking about N Ireland and how pissed off both of us were with the constant bickering, fighting, finger pointing and daily "he said she said" shenanigans that goes on here. He shared with me that evening his consensus that it normally takes up to fifty years post conflict for wounds to heal and life for people in areas that have come through any kind of conflict to finally move on. He went onto say that many of those in a fifty-year timeframe will be no longer with us, ideas and philosophies will have softened and a new generation of people will be leading the charge. I’ve often thought about this conversation and given we are twenty years now post ceasefire I do personally believe he makes a very interesting point.
WHERE ARE WE NOW
I think twenty years post the GFA the country we are living in now is a completely different place to the one that young boy was living in walking to the bus stop in 1992 in Dungannon. We have a relative peace; our children don't have to consume the toxic stress of growing up in a conflict situation, knowing very little about what it's like to deal with bombs, deaths and destruction. In general life here is so much better than what it was pre the GFA. Belfast as a City has made tremendous progress in terms of the investment in it's infrastructure and commercial core and the City you will visit today is a completely different offering to the City where one of its main hotels still holds the unwelcome title as being the most bombed hotel in the world. Most of us who live here get along and I believe most of us who continue to live here want to build a bigger brighter future for what is coming behind us. I think that’s the opportunity that presents itself to us.
However at the crux of the political impasse in my view over the last eighteen months is fear. Fear of what the future holds, fear of Brexit, fear of a border poll, fear that someone might steal another's identity. Fear is at the heart of all of the issues that has caused political paralysis here and when that happens the whole economy and system grinds to a halt. The very worrying development from where I am standing being an investor and businessman in N Ireland, that this current phase where we all find ourselves in has to change and quickly.
The only way this will happen in my view is for people to engage with one another, embrace one another identities, cultures, and way of life through respect and conversation and action. My interpretation of the GFA allows for all of this to happen. Brexit off course is a game changer as many people who were happy with the status quo of living in N Ireland are now having second thoughts, and rightly so as they are entitled to have that opinion. Instead of lambasting people for taking a certain view on major issues like Brexit, identity, culture and the economy, I think any new political phase we enter into, has to be entered into with a set of conditions whereby everyone goes in with a clean slate and open mind.
History tells us that conflict; disputes and standoffs are not the answer to progress, prosperity and economic growth. I think twenty years post the GFA we should all maybe take a step back and think about how much progress we have actually made here. I then think we need to take a deep breath and push on with the progress that now needs to happen. A lot of the heavy lifting has been done, and it's now time to deliver on all of the aspects of the GFA, and in doing so approaching all of the issues with a different kind of tone, which has empathy, and respect at the heart of it.
Affirmations and quotes are things I regularly use in my daily life. One of my favourites at the moment surrounds the whole idea of change. Its basically "Be the change you want to see in the world" - the change starts with you, me, our approach, our attitude and our ability to listen, adapt and overcome challenges that face each of us in our daily lives including the politics of living on this small island.
Here's to the next twenty years..... Time to push on!!!