Leona O'Neill: It's still too soon for a 'united' Ireland if our kids are to have a peaceful future

Recent polls have shown that many people on both sides of the border fear that the prospect of a united Ireland could jeopardise peace. That's a price we can't afford to pay for the sake of our children's future, as Leona explains....

What lies on the road ahead for our kids if Ireland is re-united prematurely?

MY SON turned 18 over the weekend. And I suppose it got me thinking more than ever about his future and what will await him. I'm hoping that it won't be anything like my late teenage years.

When I was his age, it was 1993. By that stage I had seen a lot of things a young person shouldn't have and had become completely immune to the violence and death that we were all brought up alongside. Bomb scares were just an inconvenience. Just months before my 18th birthday, I was in a cafe with my friends when a policeman was murdered in the street directly outside the window.

The news was a daily conveyor belt of grim and brutal stories of hatred and death. Everyone knew someone who had been murdered. Everyone had a story to tell. In the summer, our communities vibrated with the sounds of drums, the streets burned. People our age wanted to get out of this place and never, ever come back.

My son has had little experience of the Troubles. His generation were not raised on a diet of daily murders and mayhem. They were given a chance at living in a normal, healthy, progressive – well, most of the time – society. And I would hate to think that would be snatched from them like it was denied to us.

Last weekend, a number of polls appeared with regards a united Ireland. One showed that 35 per cent of people in the north were in favour of a united Ireland, with 44 per cent saying they are not. By contrast, 67 per cent of people in the south were in favour of united Ireland and 16 per cent were not. Interestingly, 68 per cent of people in the north believed that the prospect of a united Ireland could jeopardise peace here. And 62 per cent of people in the south thought likewise.

Northern Ireland is in a particularly precarious position at this time. Brexit and the issues it has brought to us have ignited old tensions. We have seen how quickly and easily a spark can turn into a ferocious flame. Divisions are growing between our communities.

Twenty three years after the Good Friday Agreement, our peace walls are higher and more fortified than before, there is renewed distrust between sections of the community, and the hate-filled rhetoric that we thought had been consigned to our dark past has been picked up by a new generation.

My family have their roots in Donegal, I was brought up in Derry. I would love to see Ireland united, but not at the cost of my unionist friends' peace of mind, not at the cost of peace here. Those pushing for a unification of this place now, without resolving our issues, will merely shackle our young people with the same future we had to endure ourselves – violence, division, uncertainty, murder, mayhem, hopelessness.

Loyalists and loyalist paramilitaries will simply not stand for unification in the current climate, with the current navigators. People from the unionist community see those driving the bus towards a united Ireland commemorating and raising up as heroes those who murdered members of their community out of one side of their mouths, while out of the other side they are telling them to get aboard the bus, that they will be so welcome in a new Ireland as equals. It doesn't make sense to anyone except themselves, I suppose.

I remember talking to veteran politician Eamonn McCann about the events of 1969. I asked him did it feel like Northern Ireland was at the edge of an abyss back then. He said it didn't – we just quietly slipped over that edge into darkness and then it was too late to get out.

Northern Ireland is always on the edge of an abyss. Sometimes we are hovering over the edge like a bus in a Hollywood movie, other times we are simply driving around the periphery, the sun is shining and the abyss is far from our minds.

It is everyone's responsibility to get us back on the road to progress. There's an old adage that tells us to 'love yourself first'. It may be twee, but it's true. We need to sort out our problems here before we do anything, if we are to move forward confidently, together in peace.

That is my wish as my son turns18: that his future does not mirror my past.

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