Thursday 19 September 2019

Martina Devlin: 'The Good Friday Agreement was the miracle which emerged from the wasteland - but a disorderly Brexit threatens the fragile peace we all cherish'

The spirit of the agreement hinges on consent and co-operation. Erecting new barriers is contrary to that spirit, it gambles with our peace. Stock image
The spirit of the agreement hinges on consent and co-operation. Erecting new barriers is contrary to that spirit, it gambles with our peace. Stock image
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

It's a Saturday morning, the early years of the Troubles, and I'm in Lurgan with an uncle. The family we're visiting have a little girl around my age and we two are sent to the playground. Except as soon as we are outdoors, she says she has a better idea - there's a place where money is lying on the ground waiting to be picked up.

She leads me towards the town centre a few streets away, where we begin to pick our way through shattered glass. Around us, the windows of shops and offices are demolished.

I've seen devastation such as this on news reports but never in person.

Blasé, she explains there was a riot the previous night. "Don't you have riots in Omagh?" Ashamed on behalf of my hometown, I admit we don't.

My new friend finds a stick and sifts through glass and debris. "There's one!" She bends to seize a 50 pence piece and I see that the seven-sided coins are strewn through the wreckage. Rioters hurled them, pointed side out, to break windows.

Together, we scavenge through the wreckage and turn up a fistful of coins. By and by, other children gather to forage and she advises that we go back to her house because we've had the best of the pickings. There'll be other opportunities - other riots. Maybe that night. Her worldliness overwhelms me; we'll be friends forever.

At home that evening, an hour or so's drive away from the Co Armagh town with its money harvest, I display my share of the loot to my parents. In tandem, I express the hope that Omagh might raise its game in relation to rioting.

My parents exchange glances. Tension quivers in the air. They frogmarch me into the living room to deposit the 50 pence pieces in the Trócaire box - "no, you can't keep even one" - and follow it up with a lecture in which rioting, benefiting from rioting and Lurgan are all out of bounds. I never see the other girl again.

Years later, I discovered that the twig held by Britannia on the reverse of the coin was an olive branch. An irrelevant factoid, unless you've experienced its use for acts of civil disobedience.

That was my first interaction with a riot, or at least its aftermath, back in the days when I attended primary school. In time, more dangerous engagement followed, when I became a journalist and was sent to rioting areas, yet none was more chilling than that innocent caper involving two young girls.

It's a relatively anodyne escapade compared with other people's experiences of the out-of-kilter environment in which children grew to adulthood during the Troubles. It was our norm, but normal wasn't normal. We lived in what was a war zone at times.

Civil rights leader Martin Luther King called riots the language of the unheard. Certainly, the North's nationalist population felt unheard 50 years ago this week when the Battle of the Bogside erupted, leading to violent confrontations between police and populace, which spilled over to Belfast, and precipitated the arrival of British troops to take heavy-handed control of law and order. By heavy-handed, I mean that civilians died and others were radicalised.

Those three days of rioting in Derry between August 12 and August 15 were the turning point. They were that moment of nuclear fusion when civil unrest over entrenched discrimination met state unwillingness to concede the level of change that was needed. Something synthesised. The Troubles were born.

You know the story as well as I do. Three decades of violence, 3,500 deaths, an economy ravaged, a security state put in place: the constant, highly visible presence of armed security forces, watch towers, listening posts, razor wire, barricades and a militarised Border. Northerners are a stoical people. They needed every iota of that quality to make it through those lost decades.

But the Good Friday Agreement was the miracle which emerged from wasteland. Something decent finally happened for the tossed and crossed North. Logic said the peace wouldn't hold but logic is fallible - sometimes it's defeated by human nature, in this case, the overwhelming desire for an end to the killing.

Consent - that's what the Good Friday Agreement enshrined. People of both traditions in the North of Ireland and people in the Republic all consented to the present arrangements. What a landmark that proved to be. That consent-based peace is precious. It is worth protecting. It is the ground we have tilled and planted and must not be left vulnerable by a hard Border.

A hard Border sets aside consent. Nobody consents to it. A frictionless Border is highly symbolic and removing it is also symbolic.

The Good Friday Agreement meant Ireland was no longer defined by the Border. It existed only as an irrelevance for many people.

Must Brexit now roll back progress and allow us to be defined once again by this line which separates people who are two sides of the one coin? We are not without a past, and a bitter one it is, but we can't let the past keep shaping us.

In 'Midnight's Children', Salman Rushdie tells us "all stories are haunted by the ghosts of the stories they might have been", but the might-have-beens in the Irish story were laid to rest by the Good Friday Agreement. It changed outcomes. We know this peace deal works: it has proved successful despite dissidents' attempts to undermine it, particularly in August 1998 in my hometown of Omagh - 21 years ago this week, in fact - when a car bomb killed 29 men, women and children and robbed one husband and wife's unborn twins of the chance of life.

Our leaders have an obligation to focus on the progress that's been made and try to consolidate it, rather than risk any actions which would threaten the peace.

This peace is priceless. It is life and death to us - lives have been spared because of it. It has led to normal times where once there was warfare. It has given rise, as well, to a historic improvement in relations between ourselves and our British neighbours.

The nexus of our relationship is proximity. We must continue to engage, whatever happens with Brexit, but it will be easier to achieve neighbourliness with an orderly withdrawal from the European Union.

The spirit of the agreement hinges on consent and co-operation. Erecting new barriers is contrary to that spirit, not least because it gambles with our peace.

Nobody claims it's a perfect version of peace. Not with peace walls, resistance to integrated education and housing, working-class loyalists feeling left behind and dissident republicans waiting in the shadows.

Peace doesn't mean justice for those who lost loved ones and saw their killers go free.

But compared with children rooting for coins in the aftermath of a riot? Believe me, it's paradise.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss