Life

Leona O'Neill: I refuse to hand my children a childhood like mine

Last month's bombing in Derry was a shocking indication of how fraught the situation is in Northern Ireland once more. Politicians in Westminster should be mindful of where Brexit might bring us, writes Leona O'Neill

Screengrab from CCTV of a car bomb exploding outside Derry's courthouse on January 20

WE HAVE a certain trait, us northern Irish folk, of saying and thinking that everything will ‘be grand'. It has carried most of us through life relatively unscathed thus far. Regardless of if the walls are coming in around our ears and things look as bad as they possible could be, we adopt an ‘it'll be grand' type of approach to most things.

In the last couple of weeks, though, I have genuinely felt that ethos waning in a lot of people as we have faced the perfect storm of Brexit chaos, an escalation of violence, shootings, bombings and threats of a hard border promising more of the same.

Two weeks ago we had a car bomb in our city centre. It rocked more than the surrounding shops and shattered more than the Masonic Hall's windows.

We, all of us here living in this corner of the world, had become complacent. Bomb scares in 2019 were normal, nothing to worry about, just an inconvenience meaning you had to walk at different way and be late. The explosion which went off minutes after seven teenagers – who have no memory of the horrors of Omagh, bar what they might have seen on the television – sauntered by, consumed by their own lives and happenings.

Those children came so close to death, as did the dad driving past with his baby son in the car, as did the woman walking back to her flat beside the courthouse who was held up by one minute at work and wasn't, as she should have been, right beside the car when it went up.

Something changed that night. There was a definite shift – in Derry, certainly, if not across Northern Ireland. I spoke to many people of my generation who felt that horrible, familiar sense of dread and anxiety that we had lived with for so long, that many of us as children born into the Troubles didn't actually know we had until it lifted from us with peace.

And what was even more upsetting was talking to young people on the subject, who relayed their fears about the Troubles coming back, of hearing about this, about not wanting to go out incase something happened, about living in fear in their own city.

Parents of children who have no experience of the horrors of our past found themselves having familiar conversations with their youngsters about keeping safe. I told my own teenage son, as he shouted from the hall that he was going out, to be careful, to watch out for suspicious cars.

"What does a suspicious car look like?" he shouted back. And I had no answer for him.

One that's parked in a city centre street like thousands of others, except its boot is packed with explosives?

One that looks like it has broken down in the middle of the road with its hazard lights on, like dozens of others?

"Just be careful!" I called after him.

I worry now, as my parents worried before me, for my children when they are out of my sight. I worry beyond what normal parents – in the likes of Donegal or Dublin or England – might worry about, with an added dimension of lunatics exploding bombs randomly and sporadically in my city.

During last week I was working intensely on several Brexit stories. I spoke to those with the dissident republican view that as long as the British are in Ireland they will be attacked. I spoke to a woman whose husband was used as a human bomb to attack a British army checkpoint on the border with Donegal and I spoke to soldiers who manned the borders as well as experts and commentators on the issue.

Most of them agreed that a hard border would be very, very dangerous for us and devastating for peace. Most of them agreed that as soon as any form of border structure went up, there would most certainly be those who would shoot at it and bomb it.

I spoke to Eamonn McCann, who was there when the Troubles first erupted in 1969. I asked him did it feel, back then in 1969, when thousands were yet to die in our bloody conflict, that we were on the edge of an abyss. He said it didn't.

And it doesn't now. Which is frightening.

I don't want to, and I won't, hand my children a childhood like mine, where shootings, bombings, murder, mayhem, uncertainty, instability, dread, anxiety and total lack of normality is their everyday lives. We've come too far for that.

I just hope those in far-away Westminster, who do not have to live with the consequences of their actions here in Derry and beyond, understand that.

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