Belfast Telegraph

Ceasefire celebrations are muted.. but mind what went before

By Gail Walker

What were you doing 20 years ago when the news of the ceasefire broke? Just like the old joke, I remember vividly what I was doing. I was watching the news. True there was a professional aspect to my viewing but few could forget that day in August when 'the war was over'. (Ok, it wasn't, but you know what I mean).

The end of the Troubles. Before we get too blasé about the benefits of 'the peace process' we should never forget how horrendous those decades of violence actually were.

Not just in terms of the grieving families, the shattered lives, the psychologically maimed and destroyed, but in terms of ordinary life.

Relentlessly tuning into news bulletins to see 'if something had happened', the fear of being caught up in a bomb, a mob or just being at the wrong place at the wrong time, the rituals of living in a society riven by hatred, continuity announcers interrupting this programme to tell keyholders to return to their premises, friends' fathers hunkered down, checking under their cars, before they ran you to school.

The 'conflict' wasn't just 'out there'. It was inside us – gnawing at our imaginations, dreams and souls. It was the ever-present voice of doom, despair and tension– sometimes low level but always there.

Now? Sure, we don't know ourselves. Liberated (largely) from the day-to-day psychological torture (weirdly some of us back then were barely aware of how warped we were by the world around us), we've grown and matured as a people.

We may snigger at Cappuccino Belfast. But that is us largely striking a pose of worldly sophistication, like little girls trying on their mum's high heels.

The Belfast of Laganside, the Waterfront, CastleCourt, Victoria Square, the Cathedral Quarter is a thousand times better, more liberating, more filled with true self-expression than the dour old Belfast of the 1970s and 1980s, where our dozens of little enclaves hugged their hurt under the guise of local pride.

True, our 'peace' is fragile and facile. Much of the change is on the surface. The parties are still engaged in zero sum politics, seeing everything through the prism of whether 'our side' is winning or not.

Dissidents carry on their murderous campaigns, and while we no longer have the day in day out slayings and massacres, in recent years two policemen, two soldiers and a prison officer have been murdered. A relatively low toll, yes, but what an ocean of grief for their loved ones. And there is still the mindset that will allow us to take up the guns at the drop of a Mexican hat. Even after 20 years the political faces are largely still the same. Ian Paisley, John Hume, David Trimble and Seamus Mallon have left the stage but the vast majority – Peter Robinson, Gerry Adams, Sammy Wilson, Jeffrey Donaldson, Martin McGuinness, Alasdair McDonnell and Alban McGuinness, to name but a few – are still there. Maybe they're just so good at it. Or maybe no one else with an ounce of wit would go near a political career here.

Peace comes dropping slow, indeed. Beyond the glittering architecture of BTs 1 and 2, the cafe cultures of BTs 7 and 9, much of our housing is still segregated. As are our schools, social and (broadly) cultural organisations. Two decades on, far too many people still never really meet someone from 'the other side'.

The patient's temperature may be steady but that doesn't mean that he is ready to leave his sickbed.

This is also a peace which has come at a heavy moral price – a price that we are not, each and every one of us, paying equally.

As witnessed over the OTRs, we now live in a society which has validated the most gruesome of murders, the most heinous of acts. Their victims' graves lie forgotten, except by loved ones.

We live with the smell of old blood, no matter how much we hold our noses, no matter how often we try to spray metaphorical air-freshener with a non-controversial commemoration (see Titanic), another arts festival, or by making the city a set for film and television productions.

For good or for ill, we live in a society where some of our leaders have murderous pasts – whether they're in government or are 'leading community activists'. As we've been told, without justice there is no peace – and we haven't even begun to come to terms with that concept. Maybe because we were so busy 'talking up the peace', we parked the issue for two decades, hoping that somehow it would all come right in the end ... just so long as no one mentioned it.

So, let's be clear, life's better now in 2014 than way back in 1994. Peace has been one hell of a wonderful dividend. But this is not a perfect peace. Not yet. It may not even be a real peace. Not yet.

Which is why many of us can only raise two cheers for this particular anniversary.

Follow me on Twitter: @GWalker9

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