Escape to the land of foie gras

IN Ardoyne there were gun battles between troops and the provisional IRA almost every night. Soldiers would take cover behind garden walls to return fire. In the morning children would collect spent cartridges as trophies. A friend, now a senior solicitor in Belfast, found a live shell. When his mother discovered what he was carrying in his pocket she demanded that he hand it over. “Mum thought she could get rid of it by throwing it into the fire. She very nearly shot my aunt.”

I remember the bombing of Whiteabbey telephone exchange because it shook our house in Rathcoole so violently that our dog, a Cairn terrier called Dougal, was knocked off his favourite perch on the back of the sofa and landed with a stunned look upon the floor. If you failed to display a Union flag over the Twelfth you ran the risk of a visit from the sinister brigade who hung around the loyalist drinking club and collected money for ‘Orange widows’. I recall a teacher carrying one of my fellow schoolchildren into the playground at Belfast High School after he had been used as target practice by a sniper in Greenisland estate. A little boy who lived round the corner from us, on the Old Irish Highway, was among the first to die in riots that followed the death of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. Eric Guiney was only 14 and was helping his dad with his milk round.

Two of my boyhood friends went for a walk up Cave Hill where they discovered a hide which contained guns and explosives. They reported it to their parents who wisely went to the police. They waited to hear the story on the news but it never made the headlines. In Dunloy, county Antrim, another two boys stumbled upon an arms dump and were not so lucky. When the story failed to make the news they returned – only to be shot dead by undercover soldiers who were lying in wait for members of the IRA.

An older friend was a manager and refused to shut down his factory during the so-called Ulster Workers Council strike in 1974. He was forced to abandon his home in Carrickfergus after threats from loyalists and fled with his young family to a new life in Donegal. Police warned him to take some sensible precautions and to be on the look-out for strangers. The security cameras he installed around his home began to trigger floodlights at night and one evening he could hear the sound of footsteps creeping up the gravel outside his bedroom. He burst outside with a loaded shotgun only to terrorise his children who had opened their bungalow’s bedroom window and were enticing a donkey up the path with carrots.

There must be thousands more stories from the Troubles that will be lost when my generation is gone. In our ascent from savagery we have catalogued all the important events and key facts. But the experiences of those who were young are just as important and should be collected for posterity. Growing up in the north of Ireland during the Troubles was a very dangerous business. Dozens of children were killed in the conflict some died in their mothers’ womb, but many thousands more bear the scars, mental and physical, from traumatic events which shaped their lives.

The Great War was the conflict which shaped my grandfather’s generation and World War Two left its mark upon my father but the Troubles in Northern Ireland is the defining conflict which dictated my choices, shaped my thinking and haunts my memories. It is my greatest wish that my grandchildren can grow and learn in a more settled environment and enjoy long and fulfilled lives. But in many places they still live in the shadow of violence and paramilitarism.

All those who attended Queen’s University’s conference and gala dinner last month, to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, should forgo the foie gras for a film show and fish supper. Channel Four’s Lyra is a portrait of a young journalist murdered during street violence in 2019. The documentary is a moving testament to the dreadful loss suffered by her family and friends but also reveals some inconvenient truths about post-Troubles Northern Ireland.

For many of the ceasefire babies tomorrow never comes. Too many take their own lives or leave their homeland never to return. The problem is at its most acute in working class areas like the one where I grew up. It is the same story whether the kerb stones are painted red, white and blue or green, white and orange. Paramilitary drug dealers have a malignant grip on these communities and the police do not have the resources to make an impact.

For me the escape route was education but where I received a grant to improve my knowledge and learn valuable skills today’s youngsters receive a bill of several thousand pounds which they will still be paying when they are in their 30s and have families to feed. The vast majority of employers expect much and invest little in the workforce and will move on when a cheaper option presents itself. The Housing Executive was one of the unsung heroes of the Troubles. It built good homes and allocated them fairly. Putting a roof over your head was not difficult when I decided to leave the classroom and seek my way in the world. Today’s school leavers are forced to give up independence and stay with their parents or take a chance with greedy private landlords who expect somebody else to pay for their property gambles.

Lyra McKee’s insightful writing and passion for social justice are worth so much more than the warm words of prime ministers, presidents and priests. Promises, prayers and platitudes do nothing for a generation trapped in poorly paid and tedious jobs with little hope of escape to the land of foie gras.

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