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Just how tribal is the ceasefire generation?


Winning smile: Sinn Fein’s northern leader Michelle O’Neill after topping the
poll in Mid Ulster

Winning smile: Sinn Fein’s northern leader Michelle O’Neill after topping the poll in Mid Ulster

Leading lady: former First Minister Arlene Foster after being re-elected last week

Leading lady: former First Minister Arlene Foster after being re-elected last week






Lyra Mckee

Lyra Mckee


Winning smile: Sinn Fein’s northern leader Michelle O’Neill after topping the poll in Mid Ulster

For the last seven days, my social media feeds have been full of anxious unionists and loyalists, distraught by the election. Sinn Fein's success has genuinely frightened them - a disturbing sight nearly 20 years into the peace process. Privately, one asked me: "Why did nationalists vote for terrorists?"

My reply to that is: why do unionists do it? The DUP has no problem with fraternising with loyalists and their respective groups, as the Charter NI scandal showed. Their opposition to terrorists seems to wane when there's something in it for them.

The answer to the original question posed, however, for both communities, is fear. When people feel threatened, they will vote for whoever they think will keep them safe. That need for self-preservation will override all other concerns. Among their respective voting bases, the DUP and Sinn Fein are perceived as strong competitors who can stand up to the other.

As one loyalist commented during Facebook exchange: "The other side will vote for Sinn Fein because they can't trust us not to vote DUP and we'll vote for the DUP because we can't trust them not to vote Sinn Fein."

There's nothing wrong with being a unionist or a republican and voting accordingly - yet if that's what you want, there are other options on offer.

The electorate chose the same two parties under whose watch £490m in public funds was set to burn - literally.

The term project fear seems to have only crept into mainland politics recently, bandied about as it was during the Scottish and EU referendums, and yet it's the only kind of politics my generation has ever known.

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It's the whip politicians use to beat us out of our apathy and to the polling station.

Yet, so much of the fighting we see on TV between the two main parties is political theatre, designed to rile us up and keep them in power - and it works.

Behind the scenes, I've personally witnessed Sinn Fein and DUP politicians work together quite amicably because that's how politics operates - "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours".

Arlene Foster appears to have some kind of bizarre drinking game with Gerry Adams - "Every time I work your name into a debate, Gerry, you have to take a shot."

It was intended to shore up her own party's vote.

However, it managed to shore up his instead.

Adams must be astounded; all those years in an organisation he was never a member of and the best recruitment sergeant he's ever had is working for the unionists.

In this country, tribalism is an election tactic and it works. The working-classes will be blamed for that, as they are after every election, as if they alone are responsible for the outcome.

They're criticised for not being "educated" enough, smart enough, or progressive enough, even though they're just following the lead of those who are supposed to know better.

Such is the history of Northern Ireland.

It's worth remembering that the working-classes were disproportionately affected by the Troubles, not just in terms of casualties, but by how their communities were turned upside down. Consequently, their fears are the largest and they vote accordingly. It doesn't matter that a fresh conflict is unlikely; the possibility is enough to frighten them.

Are things changing? The answer is: not as fast as we'd like them to or as fast as they could.

The generation known as the 'ceasefire babies' - those of us who were children around the time of the Good Friday Agreement or were born after it - were seen as the great hope of the peace process.

We were free of the terrors our parents had witnessed and would therefore grow up not hating each other - or so it was assumed. The reality was that, for many of us, our childhoods were defined not by what we'd seen but the fear of what we might see. That's how trauma works - it's handed down, from parent to child to grandchild.

Research by academics at the University of Ulster has shown that the impact of the Troubles is still being felt by this generation, indirectly fuelling suicides among young people who never witnessed them.

It will be felt by generations to come, made worse by a pitiful lack of mental health facilities and resources. The conflict is still claiming victims, but you'll never read their names in Lost Lives.

Compounding all this is a lack of employment opportunities, segregated housing and segregated education.

If we split up children from birth, they're eventually going to ask why and then we have to explain the conflict to them, planting seeds of fear in yet another generation that was meant to be free of them.

There are greenshoots of hope, however. In Ardoyne and the Shankill, there are angels in disguise called youth workers. They are the ultimate unsung heroes. Operating through the likes of the Hammer and Ardoyne Youth Clubs, they've been bringing teens from both areas together for years, fostering friendships that would have been unthinkable just a decade ago.

According to SDLP councillor Paul McCusker, youths from the Shankill now visit their friends in Ardoyne of their own accord - and their Ardoyne pals return the favour.

I consider myself lucky to have heard people's stories and to have formed friendships with them, whatever side of the divide they came from. It has not only given me a more nuanced understanding of my country's history, it's made my life better.

Last year, after getting some bad news, it was a loyalist ex-prisoner friend who rang me every single day to make sure I was coping well. When I received some homophobic abuse online, it was a republican ex-prisoner friend - someone whose politics I had criticised numerous times - who came out swinging on my behalf. She still rushes to my defence whenever I need it, without being asked.

My first days at the technical college where I'd signed up to do A-levels were made easier after saying hello to another teenager, the skinny ginger boy sitting next to me in class. He was using his pens as drumsticks with such precision, I made some remark about it.

It turned out he was in the Orange Order and had probably been taught to bang a drum before he learned to read.

He became one of my closest friends and to this day, we still talk and meet during lunch-breaks, updating each other on the latest happenings in our lives.

Some of the best friendships and experiences I've had have been with people who, on paper, I wouldn't have liked - and who wouldn't have liked me. The best way to challenge prejudice is to test it; it's hard to hate someone after you've had a cup of tea with them and realised they're not snarling dragons.

I was lucky; my job brought me into contact with people I would never have met otherwise. Yet I worry that most of my generation and the generations to come - working-class people who have few opportunities as it is - won't get that same chance thanks to the system of segregation.

We've achieved equal rights for Catholics, power-sharing governments, even witnessed friendships bloom between former enemies (namely McGuinness and Paisley) - yet we still can't devise a system where our children sit side-by-side and learn together.

Then we lament at how divided our society is, complaining about the illness while ignoring the cure.

...how a border poll would work

The idea of a border poll has frequently been mentioned in recent weeks.

The Good Friday Agreement says that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland can call a referendum on Irish unity, if it appears likely “that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland”.

The idea has been floated more regularly recently as a result of the Brexit vote and the loss in Assembly elections of a unionist majority.

A majority of Northern Ireland’s population would have to vote to secede from the United Kingdom and join a united Ireland for Ireland to move towards unification.

Voters in the Republic would also have to vote in favour of unification, in a separate poll. If both parts of Ireland voted for unity, negotiations would begin between governments and the main parties over the formation of a 32-county state.

The Secretary of State, James Brokenshire, said last year, after the UK’s vote to leave the EU, that he did not believe that the conditions required to call a border poll had been met. Government sources indicated this week that this view has not changed.

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