Like most people of my age I grew up with terrorism on my doorstep. “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland started long before I was born and while I won’t go into the history now it was something I never thought I’d see the end of.
Since my father was in the army at the time (the Territorial Army thankfully), he’d tell me about people he knew murdered at the hands of the IRA and I’d feel anger and fear. I’d hear about bombings, knee-cappings and the terrible things humans can do to other humans in the name of ideology. The hunger strikers in the Maze prison sacrificing their lives for what they believed in. British soldiers under such incredible stress that events like Bloody Sunday happened.
The problem was that both sides firmly believed they were in the right and nobody was ever going to back down. The hard line of the British Government back in the 80’s – who believed they were neutral in the conflict and were simply trying to maintain law and order in Northern Ireland and protect the people’s right to democratic self-determination – just served to bolster the IRA’s views. And likewise the actions of the IRA (and other republican movements) – who saw the British army as the enemy, colluding with the state forces and loyalist paramilitaries (it later turned out they were absolutely correct about the collusion) – such as the Brighton Bombing just polarised the British Government further.
The thing is, I could understand both points of view. If a foreign army was occupying my country, walking the streets of my town arresting people that I knew, beating them and intimidating my family I’m damn sure I’d stand up and fight them. But likewise, as a Briton we had to do something about the sectarian violence on people who considered themselves British – you couldn’t just turn a blind eye.
In short it was a horrible situation and I could never see peace because there was never going to be a solution that satisfied everybody. And it was clear that no amount of military might or firepower could quell a sustained guerrilla campaign of terrorism. The Russians couldn’t do it in Afghanistan and the British couldn’t do it in Northern Ireland.
And yet here we are, Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams (whose voice used to not be allowed on BBC TV so an actor had to do voice-overs if you can believe it) sitting side by side declaring peace. How did that happen?
Well it wasn’t by “bombing them back to the stone-age”, it wasn’t by sending in more troops. It was by bringing the troops home. By letting terrorists go free from prison. By politics and diplomacy. I can’t imagine how hard it must be for the families of the thousands of people who lost their lives over The Troubles seeing murderers walking the streets. But the reality is that if you want to have lasting peace this is a sacrifice that people have to make.
I can’t imagine the peace after the first and second world wars would have been easy to take for those who lost loved ones, but it was a price that had to be paid because the alternative is much worse. And that was the case here. It’s easy to look back in the history books, see when the second world war ended and imagine that someone flicked a switch and life went back to normal. What you don’t see written about is how people got over their bitterness (most didn’t, they just had to bury it and carry on with their lives). The difference for me and people of this time is we’ve lived through it and can see how hard it was and the tremendous loss of life. Generations from now when the Troubles are summarised in history books peace will have seemed inevitable and quick in coming and a picture like the one above will no doubt be in the chapter headed “Lasting Peace Declared” or something similar.
But we should never forget how hard peace is to come by, and how precious it is. It saddens me greatly to see the same mistakes being made by the Americans in Iraq. My definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different outcome. I guess that’s the insanity of war.
I’ve never been on holiday to Ireland and it’s a place I’ve deliberately avoided on principle for many years. I think it’s about time I booked a trip over soon. And I never thought I’d say that.