In a month which has seen terrorist violence stir up unpleasant memories of the recent past, Peter Molloy talks to students from Northern Ireland to see what effect the incidents have had.
ANYONE WHO SAT down to read some of the Sunday papers or flick through a television bulletin 8th March this month would have been well forgiven for checking the date with a start.
The news that two members of the British Army had been shot dead outside an Antrim barracks seemed almost like a disturbing, sudden jolt back to a previous era in Northern Ireland. Almost exactly 48 hours later, before the shock of the first killings had fully abated, and almost as soon as Britain’s Ministry of Defence had had a chance to name the two dead Royal Engineers; PSNI Constable Stephen Carroll was shot through the back of the head in Craigavon, County Armagh, while investigating a report of criminal damage.
Almost instantly, Northern Ireland has become the focus of intense – and depressingly familiar – world media scrutiny as the murders and their aftermath played out. To more than a few young onlookers, however, the month’s events represent something quite different than merely a renewed occurrence of violence in a far-off corner of Europe.
For 2nd year Theology student in Queen’s University Belfast, Gary Keenan, news of the murders came as a jarring surprise. Like many young people in Northern Ireland now at university age, the Troubles as they were until 1998 seemed at worst a distant, faded memory.
“It’s been very, very strange. People of our generation have been one step removed from everything that’s gone on in the past – we’ve heard a lot about it from our parents and from the news growing up, but we haven’t really experienced it as such. It is a reminder of something we didn’t really appreciate. People are quite on edge, because we don’t quite know how things are going to develop.”
The 21-year-old remembered that during the 1990s in Belfast; “We would always have the likes of bomb scares and stuff in the city centre, and you would have to be evacuated from school, but it was always false alarms and people panicking over nothing. But this is the first time – that I can remember in my living memory – that someone’s actually gone out and committed a crime like that, for that specific reason, and that people have actually died.”
That sudden, unfamiliar shock was shared by Rachel Thompson, also from Belfast, and a 2nd year English student in Trinity College Dublin. “It’s quite scary, but it seems quite reassuring that everyone’s so against it – no one supports it.”
To the 20-year-old Thompson, one of the most saddening things about the recent violence in Northern Ireland is the negative stereotypes she feels it will help perpetuate about people from the region.
“It is true, because I always feel that has never really changed. Even when I would go abroad on holiday when I was younger, and you told people that you were from Northern Ireland, or Belfast or whatever, they would be very like ‘Oh, what’s that like for you?’. When I was growing up, nothing was going on – it was absolutely fine – but they would think you lived in some kind of war-zone. So I think people in the wider world probably haven’t gotten over that, and I think this is just going to confirm that [for them]”.
Another student from Northern Ireland who didn’t wish to be named had experienced similar circumstances in the past. “Even before all that happened; when I said I was from Belfast, people’s automatic reaction – even in the South – was ‘Oh, you’re from Belfast, you must be in the IRA’. It is a bit of banter, but you don’t really want that associated with you… especially considering I haven’t had too much experience of the Troubles. I really don’t know too much of what went on in the ‘70s and ‘80s”
Nearly every student spoken to by The University Observer agreed that the recent past in Northern Ireland has been one profoundly different from the gloomy, bombs and balaclavas conception of the Troubles.
East Belfast student Keenan – himself Cathaoirleach of the William Drennan Ógra Fianna Fáil Cumman in Queens’ – described a modern Northern Ireland that has made huge strides forward in the past decade.
“Things have definitely been a lot quieter. I live in an interface area, and my school was right in the city centre, so I would have seen a little more than maybe a lot of people… even still it wasn’t something that was all that serious. If you had cross-community friends that you would meet up with, and people from other traditions, you’d kind of have a laugh, joke about it. That was it and there was nothing more to it.”
To all, most of who were under 10 when the last British soldier to die in Northern Ireland until 2009 was killed in 1997, the united front of abhorrence displayed after the recent murders was the most heartening feature of the affair, and represents a promising sign.
“This has kind of brought all the political parties across all the spectrums in the university together on a united front, because it’s obviously not a thing that any of us would condone, and it’s not a place we want to go again. It’s been really good to rally the student body together in one single opposition to the thing”, said Keenan about the reaction amongst students in Queens’.
For Thompson, watching events unfold from student residence in Dublin, the broad condemnation which met this month’s murders was reassuring. “The response from this has been so overwhelmingly negative, so surely this will motivate people to try and make sure it is an isolated incident. The reaction will hopefully ensure that it doesn’t.”
All students were guardedly optimistic for Northern Ireland’s future after a deeply frightening month. “Definitely this has been a big rallying call for everyone, and a wake up call. We’re the ones who can take that and move forward into a more promising future”, said Keenan, describing the future as he imagines it for today’s students.
A UCD post-graduate student from Northern Ireland was similarly cautious, but positive. “Hopefully Stormont isn’t derailed by all these attacks. I suppose there’s a chance that the peace process can succeed.”
As Northern Ireland settles back to a dented peace, it’s somewhat cheering to see that at the very least, the generation poised to make their mark there have their heads – and hearts – in very much the right place.
Timeline: Northern Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement
Good Friday, April 10, 1998: Round-table talks between major political parties in the North result in the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement, formally committing participating factions to use only peaceful means to pursue their objectives.
May 23, 1998: The Good Friday Agreement is officially ratified by Northern Irish voters. Simultaneously, the public in the Republic of Ireland vote to alter the Irish Constituion in line with the agreement.
August 15, 1998: A Real IRA car-bomb kills 29 civilians in Omagh, County Tyrone.
November 4, 2001: The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) is reformed and renamed as the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).
July 28, 2005: The Provisional IRA announces a formal end to its armed campaign.
March 7, 2007: Elections to Northern Ireland’s Assembly see Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) form a power-sharing government.
July 31, 2007: Operation Banner, the British Army’s military deployment in Northern Ireland, ends after 38 years.
March 7, 2009: A gun attack by the Real IRA sees two British soldiers shot dead outside a military base on County Antrim. Four other people, including two civilians, are injured.
March 9, 2009: A PSNI Constable is shot dead in Craigavon, County Armagh. Responsibility for the murder is claimed by the Continuity IRA (CIRA).