A Bridge Too Far?

The conflict in Northern Ireland has been a highly managed one, contained in certain areas and occupational groups. It was the war that was not allowed to be called a war—merely an unaccountable epidemic of criminal violence, which filled our jails and our graveyards. How can one mark the end of a war that was never acknowledged to be a war?

The communities that have suffered worst are not on any tourist route; the worst effects—with certain explosive exceptions—are often hidden. The culture of silence means that many of the stories are untold, and there is often a taboo about telling them. The casualties are tidied away out of view, usually after a sound bite of media coverage, and their long-term suffering and loss is a surprise to many, who somehow imagine that people "get over" bereavement, loss, injury, betrayal of trust.

This culture of silence helped to maintain the myth that nothing untoward was happening. Yet there are communities that have been multiply impacted, young people who have grown up in militarized situations, who have grown accustomed to army patrols passing every 15 minutes, for whom peace, in the absence of youth activities, career prospects, or entertainment, is "a bit boring." Young people are used to a culture of militarization, alongside the low expectations fostered by poverty, poor education, and political marginalization.

Leaving the war behind is anxiety provoking when it is not clear what will replace it. Imagine life in a community in which joining the Irish Republican Army (IRA) or the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was seen as serving your country and a mark of bravery, where women scraped together money to send parcels of food into jails, where children learned to throw stones and make petrol bombs, where everyone knew what areas to avoid.

NOW, DESPITE THE murder of the three boys this July, the IRA and the UVF claim to have ceased military operations, and people, for the most part, are hoping it will last. Yet war creates great certainty. You can be certain whose side you are on, who is right and who is wrong. Ambiguity and complexity are swept away in the polarizing effects of violence. Now in local communities, former active paramilitaries are facing de facto redundancy, if the hopes of the majority are to be realized. But what will happen to the energy that went in to paramilitary operations, policing, imprisoning, fighting, killing for the cause?

Young people trying to find their place in an adult world normally face a bewildering set of complexities, even in societies where there has not been armed conflict. In Northern Ireland, today's young people face an adult world where even the adults are uncertain. Will the peace last? Will our own politicians turn out to be as out of touch with local issues as those they have replaced? Will prisoner releases be enough to sustain the cease-fires? Will the new Assembly function effectively as a system of government? Will the peace be able to overcome crises, like this summer's season of parades meant to inflame and provoke? And if it doesn't will it be worse than before? These are the adults' questions. No one knows the answers.

All we can do is put our best effort into making it work. Systems resist change, and the devil you know is a comfortable sort of chap, even if he has blood on his hands. We are afraid to hope for too much; we have been let down so many times before. Many of us have worked long and hard to achieve what has been achieved so far, and we will continue to work in spite of fear, uncertainty, and exhaustion. We know that if we keep going, one day—a day that is growing closer and closer—peace will come.

But that is the adult in me speaking. The child in me still wakes in the night scared of war, still fearful for the future.

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"A Bridge Too Far?"
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