Twenty-three years ago, I was privileged to be living in a house where there was a TV set in the bedroom. I was chided by my wife because I was taking so long to get dressed that morning. The TV news was reporting the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. This dramatic occasion marked the end of thirty years and more of 'the Troubles'; it heralded a new season of peace in Northern Ireland. Long, long years before, I had attended church with my then fiancée for an all-night vigil of prayer for that province at the start of the unrest. In the age since then, I had married, fathered two children, seen them grow up, and had become divorced from their mother. Other girlfriends had come and gone, and I was now married again. A whole lifetime had passed, and on that morning, yes, I was attentive to the news; I was savouring every precious drop. There was peace once more in our United Kingdom.
Not many years after that remarkable announcement, my own life had taken many more turns in its contorted course. I had become a 'same-day courier' and, as part of that role, I was occasionally asked to make deliveries to Ireland, both in the North and in the Republic. If I had a delivery in Belfast, I always preferred to be booked on a ferry to Dublin, to avoid the long drive to Stranraer before getting a short ferry crossing, and all with the worry of getting there on time. I remember one occasion - it was probably during an election campaign - when I drove along the elevated section of the M1 to enter Belfast from the south, looking down and seeing a poster on every lamp-post, and flags on every street, sometimes the union flag, sometimes the Irish tricolour. I hated every moment of it.
As a country boy from a sheltered past, I'd managed to overcome my fear of big cities on some of the darker streets of outer London, but that morning I felt a new fear as I entered this place, still tainted in my mind by the violence that was, in those early years of the present century, just beginning to be nudged into a closed chapter of history. Perhaps a decade on from the GFA, the streets were still besmirched by the evidence of divisions that didn't simply evaporate at the stroke of a political pen.
And in the last weeks, we have seen again in the media renewed evidence of those divisions and a reminder that, while the GFA may have brought about a ceasefire, it has not resolved underlying differences and problems; it has not brought equality of understanding and opportunity to the vast majority of the population. Many have resigned themselves to the incompleteness as a better alternative to ongoing hostility, danger and murder; a significant minority have not. A new generation of young people seem now to be the successors to those who haven't forgotten why there was violence in the nineteen-seventies, -eighties and -nineties: the fear of those who see the minority in their midst as the ever-present vanguard of encroachment from the South; the fear of those who, being that minority, see prejudice and persecution lurking in the next street.
As I wrote in this blog many years ago, Northern Ireland, although historically and politically an integral part of this Kingdom, is generally overlooked by those who live on this larger island called Great Britain. Because their home is on the other side of the sea, and we can't simply drive there like the Welsh to Manchester, the Scots to Newcastle or Carlisle, or the English to Edinburgh, Aberdeen or Cardiff, it's easy to forget about those who live in Belfast or Derry; Armagh, Coleraine or Enniskillen. "Ignore them and their problems and they'll go away" seems to be the mindset of the people of Great Britain. Even the country's Olympic team was non-inclusively named 'Team GB'!
Only it doesn't happen that way. Another memory of mine is driving around Dublin one morning. I'd just found a filling station and was driving the last mile or so to the port to get the ferry home. I was so intent on the news bulletin that I missed my turning and had to make a long detour to get back on track. This was in the year or so before the Brexit referendum, and RTÉ was reporting on the Leave and Remain campaigns. One thing they focussed on was the impossibility of squaring the circle of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland leaving the EU and all its institutions without returning to the hard land border with the EU across the island of Ireland ... something that had been dissolved by the GFA.
It had been my hope that this obvious impossibility would be the downfall of the Leave campaign and that we would remain in the EU. However, this wasn't to be. What was obvious to me was clearly hidden to those in power. More likely, as stated above, it was simply overlooked as a minor detail that would be sorted later ... along with all the other things that weren't thought through before R-day. Now the true nature of Brexit and its effect on Northern Ireland has become apparent, there are troubles again ... not specifically caused by Brexit, admittedly, but that is certainly a reminder to those affected of the way their interests are consistently ignored by the authorities on this side of the Irish Sea. If trouble is not to turn into 'Troubles' again, someone, somewhere, has to realise the obvious solution to the difficulty.
However distasteful to some in positions of power and authority, the trumpeting of the elephant in the room must be listened to ... Britain must re-join the Single Market, so that the need for 'a border in the Irish Sea' (the supposed solution to not having that hard land border) can be removed and Northern Ireland can return to being a full part of the UK.
The only alternative is the partition of the UK and the re-unification of Ireland, which would risk yet further - greater but different - violence such as was threatened in 1912!