We’ve now had two terror attacks in the U.K. in as many weeks and it’s possible that we may be entering into a period of sustained terrorism, the like of which hasn’t been experienced in the British Isles for over twenty years. For those of us over the age of about thirty-five and from Northern Ireland, this last week or so has brought some familiar feelings to the surface. We remember the dread of the evening news, as yesterday’s killings were replaced with today’s bombingin an ever increasing spiral of tit-for-tat atrocities. We remember the feeling that this was just what Northern Ireland was like, murders and bombings were normal for us. Of course, they weren’t normal for us, any more so than they would have been for people from Finchley, and they aren’t normal there anymore. The attacks in Manchester and London will feel as shocking and alien to teenagers in Belfast as they do to teenagers in Bromley, and that is a reassuring indicator of how far my home has come in the twenty-odd years since the ceasefires finally stuck. These recent attacks, however, have reminded me how different my upbringing was, and having lived through a terror before, I’m worried about how we’re reacting to this new situation, both the U.K. Government and society at large.
Police with machine guns and soldiers on the streets (although thankfully not in Scotland) were a familiar sight in the Northern Ireland of my youth, I passed them on my way home from school daily. My entire childhood seems to have been spent with the threat level at severe. What this meant for us was that we had to drive through army checkpoints on the school run, have our bags searched, and perhaps a wee pat down, at the door to the shopping centre, after a good long queue. At times the army would search every single house on a street, just in case. Roads were closed and never reopened. Fireworks were banned, because they could be used to mask the sound of gunshots, I think. We accepted the significant curtailment of our personal freedoms in the name of security, but the absence of normality in our lives was a high price to pay. At times the security forces got things badly wrong and many people, on both sides of the divide, suffered at the hands of an overzealous peeler, or a terrified nineteen year old army private with an automatic weapon. When you introduce firearms into a community they inevitably get used, often where the situation doesn’t require it. We’ve seen that a lot in the States recently, but it has happened here too.
After the recent terror attacks in London and Manchester we’ve seen the army on the streets in England and armed police in Scotland. More sinisterly we’ve seen demands for Muslim travel bans and even internment. At the moment these calls come from the more hysterical elements of the right wing, but it is at times like this that the hysterical right make hay, and if we are at the beginning of a sustained period of terror,they may start to seem less hysterical to many, and more strong and stable. Having lived through a period of sustained terror it saddens me to see people on social media calling for this kind of curtailment of personal liberty, inviting it into their lives. If we learn one thing from Northern Ireland it should be that putting the army on the streets of your own hometown will not make it peaceful, it does not make people feel safe: on the contrary, it makes them feel threatened and frightened. Screeds have been written about the Troubles and what was wrong with Northern Irish society, but I was in the fortunate position of entering adulthood just as we finally got peace to stick, and I think I know how we did it, because we were preparing the ground for peace the whole time. Terror made a mess of Northern Ireland for a long time, but now it’s brilliant. We have Game of Thrones, and the Titanic Centre and even the football team is good. Sorry about Snow Patrol, but you are fifty percent responsible for them in any case.
When I first came to Scotland I was embarrassed to be from Northern Ireland. It seemed a hoplessly divided place, dominated by pyschopaths and gangsters. Our politicians were so immature and bigotted that they would paralyse Belfast City Council in an argument over whether Catholics or Protestants got wheelie bins first. During my teenage years most summer holidays saw Belfast shut down over an Orange March, a situation actively encouraged by some of our politicians. As a teenager I really felt as if I was surrounded by utter morons, that the adults of my home, frankly, couldn’t be trusted to run the place. I was delighted to get away at eighteen, and I couldn’t understand why everyone else didn’t leave too. I left in 1997 and have only been back for visits, but shortly after I left the ceasefires began to hold, the Good Friday Agreement was signed, Trimble and Hume held hands and shared the Nobel Peace Prize and Belfast became a normal kind of place.
In the end, you see, I was wrong about the people around me back home.
“In the end people in Northern Ireland just wanted to be able to go for a pint in peace, or to the park, and they wanted that more than they cared about anything else. Whilst Northern Ireland is still divided on the national question, it is united in this desire for normality. The Good Friday Agreement made special mention of the term “normalization” in fact. Normal was the goal, normal was good and normal won.”
They weren’t utter morons, most of them were perfectly normal people, trying really hard to be normal. After a gargantuan effort by American, Irish and British politicians for whom Northern Ireland represented a lot of grief and very few votes, the people were able to take normality back and make it stick. In the end people in Northern Ireland just wanted to be able to go for a pint in peace, or to the park, and they wanted that more than they cared about anything else. Whilst Northern Ireland is still divided on the national question, it is united in this desire for normality. The Good Friday Agreement made special mention of the term “normalization” in fact. Normal was the goal, normal was good and normal won. Normal beat terror, and looking back on my childhood I can see the tiny bricks of that victory in the reaction to every atrocity we suffered. A few incidents stick out in my memory, that illustrate what I mean.
When I was in Primary Six I arrived at school one morning to find the way to the gates barred by those giant armoured trucks, we called them Paddy Wagons, that our police used instead of cars. Between the wagons and the school gates the road was cordoned off as a murder scene. Some poor guy, caught up in a paramilitary feud, shot dead at the gates of a school he was passing on his way to work. The teachers marshalled us in through the side gates, we said a prayer and were put to work. School was not cancelled, and it was as far as possible a normal school day. I got into a fight with a kid called Jimbo for which we recieved a well deserved bollocking. I remember the teacher, who must have been about twenty three, asking us how we could behave that way when a man had just been killed. It was a drag, for us and her, as it is when teachers have to break up daft fights between daft wee boys. Wee boys fighting is normal of course, but I think I remember seeing a tear in her eye, probably because she was scared, and sickened, and because it’s not rightly a primary school teacher’s job to marshall thirty nine year olds through a murder scene first thing in the morning. But she did it, and then she made us do long division, or something equally dull but nonetheless important.
At secondary school one of my teachers sat on the council. One week he must’ve upset one side or the other and someone planted a fake bomb under his car, necessitating the arrival of army bomb disposal robots (who we called Johnny 5s, after the robot in the film.) A “controlled explosion” was carried out in my school car park. The only concession made was that those of us sitting next to the windows were allowed to move our desks, in case the explosion wasn’t as controlled as we’d like. I also remember being evacuated from school on a number of occasions due to bomb scares. I remember thinking that maybe we’d just get to go home, if it went on long enough, but we didn’t. Once it was safe our teachers gathered us up and marched us complaining back to Physics and Geography. Secondary school teachers should not have to look after a thousand teenagers during a bomb scare, and then try to calmly explain light refraction or plate tectonics to them. Now, being a parent myself, I’m know that all those teachers were fighting the urge to go a find their own children and hold them, because they were probably thinking what if next time it was a bomb at their school,and not just a scare: but they ploughed on with the plate tectonics, because fifteen year olds need to know about plate tectonics, it’s important and it’s normal. And we thought they were dicks for not letting us go home early, but it’s normal for fifteen year old boys to think their teachers are dicks, so it must have been the right thing to do.
Regularly, after a particularly bad bombing or shooting, we’d interrupt our school work and hold a minute’s silence. One minute. Then our teachers would tell us the same thing, every single time. What terrorists want, they warned us, is for your normal life to be disrupted, to be unliveable. So if you want to defeat them, live your life: be normal. Go to school, go to work, go for a pint, take the kids to the park, whatever it is you were going to do, do it. More of it, not less. These things are precious: do not be frightened out of them.
Ask anyone from Northern Ireland over the age of thirty, I’m sure they’ll have had similar experiences, many of them worse than mine. I look back now and I can understand the huge effort it took for those adults, our teachers and parents, to keep our lives as normal as possible, despite their own fear and despair, and I am utterly humbled by it. As a result I get angry when I see people so willing to let terror stop them doing things, any things, whether it’s going to the pub or a gig, but especially political campaigning, because terror is the opposite of democracy and putting democracy on hold for terror is defeat. My teachers and parents fought their own fear to give me normality in the face of madness and hate, so for me to drop it and run because of a new, but so familiar, terror would be wrong, and also an act of capitulation.
So for everyone reading this for whom, thankfully, these are new feelings, please take the benefit of our experience. The next time this happens, and sadly I’m pretty sure it will happen again, you will be told that some normal things will need to be put aside. Maybe concerts or football matches. Perhaps your freedom of speech will need to be curtailed online, or your freedom of assembly. Perhaps they’ll ask you to consent to being frisked everytime you go to the supermarket, or your car randomly pull ed over and searched. They’ll say that certain kinds of people need to be prevented from doing things that other kinds of people are not. When they do, please remember that this has happened before here. That the people of Northern Ireland spent decades being told where they could and couldn’t go; being frisked at the cinema; being denied their right to assemble; being denied access to places and information “for reasons of security”. That, for a time, it was quite permissable to deny a Catholic a job because they couldn’t quite be trusted, or even to intern them just in case. And please remember, that none of these things actually brought peace to Northern Ireland. What brought peace, and more importantly, what made the peace finally stick, was the determination of people to be relentlessly, boringly normal.
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