My time in Northern Ireland: ‘don’t mention the war’

Detail from Hopewell Crescent, a photo by Robert Paul Young used with permissionWhen 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.

5 thoughts on “My time in Northern Ireland: ‘don’t mention the war’

  1. Not quite sure what your point was on this one old boy. I don’t know why you had such a bad experience seeing the youth activism side of things; believe me, they took you to the wrong areas.

    I don’t know about Derry but my family are from Andersonstown and half of my best friends live on the Cregagh estate (the West and East of Belfast respectively). In those areas, community facilities do fantastic work with crappy resources. Scouting, Boys/Girls Brigade, Youth clubs, dancing classes, football training, summer schemes – the list is endless.

    If the ‘mission’ of the army is over, it’s thanks to campaigners on the ground and the people who run those facilities and sod all to do with TB surely?

  2. I don’t pretend to have been any more than a tourist and I’m sure plenty of people on the ground continue to do good work. The crude attempt to protect my party from the reality of Northern Ireland and to encourage us to pretend that the problems faced by its youth were no different to those faced by those resident elsewhere in the British Isles, reveals just how far a solution was at that time.

    In the case of Northern Ireland peace did not come from grassroots movements, but by the efforts of the British and Irish governments who forced the two sides together.

  3. You think the reason young lads don’t join the IRA anymore is anything to do with the British and Irish governments? That’s something I’d love to hear an argument for.

  4. Well if only they had thought to organise dance classes and the boy scouts/guides in 1966 they could have saved everyone a lot of trouble. Of course… you would still have segregated housing schemes, discrimination in employment, gerrymandering of electoral borders and a ‘unionist state for a unionist people’ but at least the IRA could have been kept at bay as their recruits all took up formation dancing!

  5. To be fair to Dave, who appears to have some experience of life as a young person in Northern Ireland, I’m sure the dance classes to which he refers were open to both communities.

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