When I first visited Northern Ireland, about summer 1990, there were army checkpoints and patrols everywhere and if you looked at a soldier (which as a curious visitor you were inclined to do) he’d point his big gun directly at you.
Representing the Student Liberal Democrats I was the only politician on a British Youth Council joint fact finding mission with whatever the equivalent body is in the republic. The rest of the party was made up of scouts and various regional bodies. Strangely the Brits were all male, the Irish female.
It was a frustrating mission. We each had to report back on how young people were coping with social issues like unemployment without making any reference to The Troubles, on the grounds that all young people have to come to terms with these things. (Given that this was the fag end of the Thatcher government and the UK was entering a deep economic recession that would claim millions of jobs, this was closer to the truth than someone about to graduate wanted to admit and I ignored the edict.)
Officially we switched off when a youth worker made an impassioned speech on religious discrimination, didn’t think anything of army patrols bursting into the minibus and pointing guns in our faces and didn’t ask about the hard looking tattooed guy with no teeth who appeared to be conducting some kind of negotiation regarding our free passage into some estate or other.
The initiatives we visited were truly pathetic. On the Bogside the best the Catholic Church could come up with was a project where teenagers were being taught how to make tea, on the basis that tea boy is a good in to any company.
In the early 2000s, I found myself conducting a little light lobbying at the Northern Ireland Assembly (time wasting as it was suspended soon after) and Belfast looked so good I took Katharine there a couple of months later for a weekend break. I reckon it’s better than Dublin.
Anyway. It’s good to see that the army’s mission has finally come to an end. Three cheers for Tony Blair!
The image is a detail from Hopewell Crescent a photo by Robert Paul Young used with permission.