Lynette Fay: The hope of the Good Friday Agreement seems a distant memory
What is it going to take for Northern Ireland/the north to move forward, to be a progressive and respectful society? It doesn't have to be like this, and it shouldn't it be
IN SECOND year at NUI Galway I accidentally ended up sharing a house with three complete strangers – three young French women who were in the City of the Tribes on an exchange year from their home university in Rennes. Alex, Sandrine and Cécile were fabulous in every way, and we had a fantastic year together.
Our house, while cold and basic, defied the stereotype of a student residence in many ways. Thanks to the girls, we drank great coffee and ate too well – for students. I have them to thank for introducing me to eating al fresco, an experience which usually included fresh baguettes and croissants from the French bakery in town.
They also frequently put my GCSE French to the test, and would write phrases on the fridge door for me to learn. Fais de beaux rêves is one that has stayed with me. It means ‘sweet dreams’ – at least, I hope it does!
In return, they wanted to know as much as possible about the north. They were fascinated by the situation here and would spend hours asking me about growing up during the Troubles. Ironic, given that part of my decision to go to Galway was to escape from everything that fascinated them.
On May 21 1998 I travelled home to Tyrone with my French friends in tow. We planned to spend a night in Dungannon and then go to Belfast to stay with my school friends who were at university there. They decided on that weekend as they wanted to be with when as I cast my vote in the Good Friday Agreement referendum.
Such was their enthusiasm to understand this place, as soon as they got to Belfast they insisted on booking two taxi tours – one republican and one loyalist, because they wanted to get as full a picture as possible of these Troubles they had read about. How many of us can say that they have the same curiosity to understand both what happened and what is currently happening here, from all points of view?
I reluctantly accompanied the French women on the tours and, despite myself, I learned a lot. I was 20, had been in Belfast a few times before I went to Galway. The Belfast I discovered scared me. I knew that I didn’t fully understand the city, the past, any of it – even though I had lived through this madness for 20 years.
That day, as we travelled through interfaces and gazed in amazement at peace walls, I could never have imagined that 23 years later, I would be living in Belfast.
Over the Easter holidays just past, seeing the streets of some areas hosting riots again scared me as much as it depressed me.
We were out for a walk one evening and saw thick black smoke billowing in the sky ahead, a few miles away. "A bus on fire," we guessed. We were right about that.
On our return home one of the teenagers in the house commented on how there were "two or three helicopters on the scene right now". My partner and I looked at each other and corrected this theory. "If there were helicopters in the air, you’d hear them," was the reply.
Muscle memory kicked in; we were teenagers living it again, remembering. Funny for that moment but, overall, it is depressing to have to try and explain what the children are seeing on social media and why this is happening.
What is it going to take for Northern Ireland/the north to move forward, to be a progressive and respectful society? It doesn’t have to be like this, and it shouldn’t it be.
I often heard the late, great Gerry Anderson remark how news reporters were always eager to get their bite of the ‘Troubles cherry’, to make their mark. The box of cherries has been scoffed in the past few weeks.
Twenty-three years after the Good Friday Agreement, which gave us so much hope for the future, I find myself depressed and asking the following questions: Why aren’t our children educated together? Why is most housing still segregated? Why is the blatant disrespect for anyone who dares to be ‘different’ accepted without question and too often championed? Why is the division of society necessary in order to lead? Will the peace walls ever come down?
Until any of these questions are addressed properly, the ‘them uns’ attitude and suspicion of anything ‘other’ will sadly prevail.
Why can’t we just get on, and get on with it?