Leona O'Neill: the Good Friday Agreement gave us and our children a brighter future

Twenty-four years on from the Good Friday Agreement, we need to remember why we voted 'Yes' and keep building on its foundations. We must not allow our children's futures to be jeopardised by those who want to rip the Agreement up, writes Leona O'Neill...

TWENTY-four years ago on Sunday most of us here in Northern Ireland voted in the Good Friday Agreement.

Those of us old enough to vote then were also old enough to remember why we were voting. We had real lived experience of what we were voting against – war and hatred and violence and needless death. We knew what we were doing was important.

My parents were voting for a different life for me, I was voting for a different life for me and my future children, one not lived in the shadow of ceaseless violence.

I remember when I was 18-years-old, sitting in front of the television with my father watching the news. It was the week of the Shankill Bomb and the Greysteel shootings and my father was just broken by what was happening, as were all in this place. He had previously been hopeful, always thought that one day things would change. But that day he said to me that he didn't think he would ever see peace in his lifetime, and maybe not even in mine. He said things had gone so far that there was no way there would ever be agreement between the two sides. It was hopeless.

And it frightened me at 18-years-old. That this was our lot, forever. That hatred and bombs and the shooting dead of people on their doorsteps, or outside church or on a night out was all we could ever expect from this life in this place. That human life was cheap here and those you loved could be snatched away from you just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Just five years later in 1998, I was glued to my television set in my rented house on the Falls Road in Belfast. I was a young reporter. Beside me on the sofa was my then boyfriend, now husband and father of our four children.

Before we even dared to dream that the Good Friday Agreement would afford us peace we were arranging to go to America and build a new life away from this Godforsaken place. We had both seen far too much at that stage. We ourselves had had enough and we weren't going to subject our future children to the same. Before the Good Friday Agreement we felt hope was completely out of our reach.

But things did change. The peace that my father thought he would never see came to pass. After all we had been through, all the murder, the mayhem and madness, we dared to hope. We were almost scared to hope.

We knew nothing of peace, it felt alien to us, we almost wanted things to stay the same because it was all we knew. We were stepping into the unknown. But we did it – some more reluctantly than others – because what we were leaving behind were horrors we did not want to live through again. Our jails and our graveyards were full of people who needn't be there.

Some people voted yes even though it meant those who took their loved ones lives would walk free. It was a heavy price to pay for peace. Everyone was battle weary. Things had to change.

When I hear people talk about ripping up the Good Friday Agreement now it saddens and infuriates me. How many of us are alive today because of the work that went into building solid foundations for peace here 24 years ago? How many of us were not caught up in city centre explosions, didn't die in gun attacks on bars, weren't shot on our doorsteps, abducted walking home and murdered, blown up by an undercar device? We will never know, because our peace, imperfect as it is, was hard fought for and won.

Twenty-four years on we need to embrace the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement and keep building on those foundations of peace, work together for all of our futures. We do not need to subject our children to the horrors and hatred of the past.

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