Hope: A child of peace who's free of Northern Ireland's bloody past
Kerrie Patterson (middle name Hope) is the same age as the Good Friday Agreement. Paul Gallagher looks at how much has changed in her 15 years
Published 15/04/2013 | 02:48
Kerrie Hope Patterson's parents had only known the violent era of the Troubles, she has only known peace.
The day Kerrie was born was not just a momentous one for the first-time parents Clive and Anne, but historic for all of Northern Ireland as, at around 9pm on 10 April 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was signed.
The deal between the British and Irish governments, and eight political parties of Northern Ireland, was the most promising attempt to bring lasting peace to the country since partition in 1922.
When Tony Blair emerged on the steps of Stormont Castle describing "the hand of history" he felt upon him, Anne was at the nearby Royal Victoria Hospital giving birth to a baby girl weighing 8lb 2oz. The 15th anniversary of the agreement passed almost unnoticed last week, coming as it did just two days after Margaret Thatcher's death.
Today Kerrie – known in the days after her birth in headlines around the world as the "Peace baby" – is a striking teenager with friends from different walks of life and countless options ahead of her. It is a world far removed from her parents, who were 27 and 30 at the time of her birth.
Wallace High School, which Kerrie attends, is a co-ed, mixed Protestant and Catholic grammar in Lisburn, a few miles south of Belfast. Unlike her mother, who studied history at Queen's University, Belfast, the subject is not a favourite of Kerrie's. "I like subjects where you can make a change, like geography," she says. "The past can't be altered."
At Wallace High, pupils are treated the same regardless of background. "That's a big difference now," says Anne. "In Northern Ireland, everyone used to know what your religion was. Your school, your area, your surname. You were judged. I love the fact that that has all changed."
Kerrie, and her younger sister, Alex, 13, are part of the new generation in Northern Ireland, one free from the shadow of the past. Extremists were associated with the past in their minds, at least until a few months ago when a decision by Belfast City Council to fly the Union flag only on certain days of the year caused months of mayhem.
"I didn't see the Troubles but my image of them is what the worst of the flag protests were like," Kerrie says. "My friends and I couldn't go into town – our parents thought it was a risk. For all the fuss and the injuries all the protests caused, it is just a flag. A lot of people my age wondered, 'Is it really worth it?' It perhaps wasn't taken as seriously as adults were taking it. Personally, I had never noticed the flag before."
Talking from their home in Lisburn, it is the first time the family has discussed the flag protests together. "To me, it was negative, negative, negative," says Clive, now 45 and a local GP. "Christmas market traders packed up early and went home and you wonder if they will be back next year. Times are rough enough." Anne, a primary school teacher, said: "But then you want people to have freedom of speech and express their opinions. But Kerrie seems to sum it up: it is just a flag."
Loyalists decried the council's decision as another assault on their identity. At the last census a growing number of the 1.8 million population identified themselves as Northern Irish (29 per cent) compared with British, at 48 per cent, and Irish, at 28 per cent. "Of the three, I'd probably choose Northern Irish," says Kerrie. "Most of my friends would say the same."
Clive and Anne were teenagers in the 1980s: the decade of Bobby Sands and the hunger strikers, the attempt on Margaret Thatcher's life at the Brighton hotel bombing during the Conservative party conference, and the Remembrance Day bombing at Enniskillen. More than 3,500 troops and civilians were killed in the Troubles, almost 50,000 injured and many more traumatised. The difference between the childhoods of Anne and Kerrie is remarkable.
"I grew up in a very troubled area," says Anne describing Strabane, a border town in County Tyrone whose back roads were typically filled back then with army checkpoints, attempts to prevent IRA cross-border runs. "My dad was a builder and there were a lot of bombs in Strabane. He was constantly being called out at night to board up the shops."
In a town made up roughly of 6 per cent Protestant families, 94 per cent Catholic, Anne, like all her fellow pupils, was banned from walking to the local Protestant grammar school as the route took them through a Republican area. "We couldn't wear our school uniforms in the area either as we would have been attacked. So it was a bus or drive in."
Pockets of extremism remain in Northern Ireland and are likely to continue for the foreseeable future. The political pendulum has swung heavily since 1998, with the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein gobbling up the majority of Unionist and Republican votes.
Tellingly, Kerrie does not feel encumbered by the past when it comes to imagining which party will enjoy her vote.
"I would support whoever I think would do the best job at the time and whoever I have the most trust in to pursue what they promise."