Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: Trauma related to the Troubles is invisible, but it is very real and we are all affected by it

25 years after the IRA ceasefire, Fionola Meredith says that we're only starting to see the damage

Celebrations following the IRA ceasefire on August 31, 1994
Celebrations following the IRA ceasefire on August 31, 1994
Fionola Meredith

By Fionola Meredith

Everyone remembers the Belfast Telegraph front page, reporting the IRA ceasefire on August 31, 1994. The three stark images of bloody scenes from the Troubles, and then that momentous headline: "After 3,168 deaths and 25 years of terror, the IRA says… it's over."

Those last two words, in big, bold capitals, were the ones that gripped us: it's over. But were the Troubles actually over? Was the horror really ending? To those of us who grew up through the years of violence, it seemed almost too good to be true. And it was, of course.

I remember that late August day, 25 years ago, so clearly. I was 21 years old. My son had been born just three weeks earlier. When I read that headline, tears spontaneously began running down my cheeks.

A lot of tears were wept that day, by countless people across Northern Ireland: tears of relief, of loss, of regret, of pain, of frustration, of hope.

Tears for all the wasted lives, snuffed out so brutally. Tears for our poor huddled, wounded people, forced to live a twilit half-life through the long decades of terror, which were foisted upon us by death-dealing republican ideologues and their murderous counterparts within loyalism.

And now here we are in 2019. It doesn't look the way I imagined it would, back in 1994. It isn't what I wished so deeply for my new-born son. Naively, I thought the Troubles would be a bleak, distant memory by now. The killings may have (largely) stopped, but the peace that the ceasefire generation have inherited is a bad-tempered, bitter, uneasy thing.

We needed confidence, imagination and generosity for it to work. What we got was suspicion, small-mindedness and grim self-interest. The devolutionary arrangements at Stormont were predicated on a sectarian carve-up, so it's not really a surprise that it all fell apart in rage, confusion and rank disorder.

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Now we're spinning in circles in the Brexit maelstrom. Our children have a right to expect so much better than this.

One of the reasons that Northern Ireland is so dysfunctional is that it is a deeply traumatised society.

Not nearly enough attention is paid to this undeniable fact. When the 1994 IRA ceasefire was announced, and even after the Good Friday Agreement, there was woefully little understanding of what years and years of de facto civil war can do to a people, even those not directly affected by the violence.

There's still great ignorance about the invisible damage being carried around inside the generation that lived through the Troubles. But the consequences are visible, once you begin to look for them.

The sense of radical uncertainty caused by trauma quite literally gets under the skin. It enters people's bodies and affects the way they think and move and act, even the way that they breathe: tight, shallow, constricted. It robs people of their ability to take pleasure in life. It plays havoc with their nervous systems because they never feel entirely safe. It even changes their brain patterns.

And it stays there, trapped in the body, until it finds a way out. The tragedy is that for many people, the trauma never finds a way out, but remains lodged inside, causing illness, addiction, and misery.

It's not a coincidence, I believe, that we have such horrendously high levels of domestic violence in Northern Ireland.

I'd even go so far as to argue that the aggression, hostility and mistrust which characterises our abnormal politics is derived in part from Troubles-related trauma.

When you're traumatised, you get stuck in permanent fight or flight mode. It's as if the events that terrified, enraged or overwhelmed you are still happening, right now, in the present. So you're likely to behave like a kicked dog: snarling, irritable, suspicious, fearful, territorial. Sound familiar at all?

Recently I spoke to a mental health practitioner who told me that the Troubles weren't over. They are still continuing, she said, only now the war is inside people's minds and bodies, because of the damage that's been done to them.

It makes sense. As a society, we couldn't expect to go through something as obscene, evil and destructive as the Troubles and expect to walk away unscathed.

Twenty five years after the 1994 IRA ceasefire, all we have to offer our children is a ramshackle, rudderless peace. But the dangers of trans-generational trauma are real. We must find ways to ensure that we don't pass on our pain to the next generation.

In the absence of the healthy, functioning society that we had hoped for, it's the very least that we owe them.

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