On Friday 10th April 1998, the face of Northern Ireland was about to change with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. At 5.30pm that evening, American Senator George Mitchell stated…“I am pleased to announce that the two governments and the political parties in Northern Ireland have reached agreement”. The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) contained proposals for a Northern Ireland Assembly with a power-sharing executive, new cross-border institutions with the Republic of Ireland and a body linking devolved assemblies across the UK with Westminster and Dublin. The Republic of Ireland had also agreed to drop its constitutional claim to the six counties, paramilitary groups would also decommission their weapons, and the future of policing in Northern Ireland was to be overhauled, along with the early release of paramilitary prisoners.
I was only a child back then; however, I remember the buzz it had generated amongst my elders, knowing they would be going out to vote on something that would impact my future. On the 22nd May 1998, referendums were held in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. In the north, voters were asked to ratify the deal, whilst in the south, they were asked to approve the changes to constitution of Ireland. Although the Nationalist/Republican community were clearly in favour of the agreement, the Unionist/Loyalist section of society were far from certain.
In both referendums, the result was overwhelmingly in favour of the proposed changes. In Northern Ireland, 676,966 (71%) people had voted in favour of the deal, whilst 274,879 people voted against. The turnout for the vote was a record high of 81%. In the Republic of Ireland, 1,442,583 (94%) people had voted ‘yes’, whereas, 85,748 had voted against the proposed changes.
By voting in favour of the Good Friday Agreement, I very much believe that the parents and grandparents of my generation, had voted overwhelmingly for peace so that my we may grow-up and experience a different way of life and relative normality. Northern Ireland has indeed changed over the past number of years, it of course from time-to-time experiences political instability, there has been numerous other agreements implemented since the GFA, sectarianism and segregation is still very evident, but yet peace prevails, despite its frailty.
Northern Ireland itself though has had a dramatic transformation as a society in transition as funding and investment in development and infrastructure projects has done wonders for the province, putting Northern Ireland on the map for tourism and other industries. I feel very proud to say that I’m from Belfast when I meet people in my EU bubble in Brussels, and it always delights me when someone tells me that they’ve visited the province and how much they loved it. I see myself sometimes longing to come home for good or even wishing I’ve prolonged my visits because I enjoyed my time at home so much. I know that this general feeling is often felt by many other Irish expats from the North who find themselves in Australia, Europe, USA, and so forth.
The opportunities that my generation have experienced since the Good Friday Agreement have been unparalleled to say at the very least. More working-class kids are in further and higher education than ever before, equality and civil rights are ensured, EU funding and programmes have given us the chance to travel, as well as contributed significantly to informal education and cross-community initiatives. We were a generation that were given so many promises, there was a sense of hope for us, our elders look at us with pride – we were the next generation that would make things even better.
Some commentators call us the ‘ceasefire babies’, which is not technically correct as the term was dubbed by the media for babies born in the years of the IRA ceasefires (1994 & 1998). I personally prefer the term ‘ceasefire generation’ and believe that this spans those that were born between 1988-2002 as we would be the first generation of children and youth to grow-up in a post-conflict society. However, despite all the positive aspects of Northern Ireland in recent times and the progress our generation has made, under the facade there are cracks that run so deep, a social culture that thrives on trauma, and some seriously dark and depressing statistics that would shock many outsiders to Northern Ireland society.
Having majored in Criminology in my university days, the period of the 1990s in Northern Ireland was often the subject of my lessons. It was an interesting period from a criminological point of view, as Northern Ireland was transitioning from a place that was prevalent in ‘Terrorism’ crimes to that of ordinary criminality. One of my old tutors, Prof. McElrath (2004), had researched the area of ‘Drug use and drug-markets in the context of political conflict: The case of Northern Ireland‘. Her study finds that during the era of the Troubles, drug use and the market for narcotics was relatively low during the 1970s-80s which was partially due to the limited freedom of movement around the province as well as the nature of communities and policing back then (e.g. close-knit communities where paramilitaries were prevalent, whilst the police tended to focus on terrorism activities). However, from 1994 and the paramilitary ceasefires, social change was sweeping across the province, the 1990s nightlife and the EDM (Electronic Dance Music) scene had finally hit Belfast, followed by the opportunity for drug traffickers to exploit a newly energised fresh market.
Little did we all know then, that the bog-standard ‘E’ and line of cocaine would evolve into a drug scene that would become more experimental and dangerous. The one-time paramilitary groups (mainly Loyalists) would then became nothing more than organised criminal gangs pushing their poison on to our youth. On my way home last Monday, on the bus from Dublin airport to Belfast, my newsfeeds was covered with story of how 5 local young people had died that same night – all incidents were drug related. Between 2008-2012, St. George’s University in London had suggested that during that period, there was an average of one drugs related death in every four days in Northern Ireland. Escapism in relation to drugs is becoming more extreme – is life really that bad where our youth would rather stay in a haze of opiates rather than face reality?
The next issue which is something at pandemic levels in Northern Ireland, is one that I personally find hard to talk about – suicide. I was at first reluctant to even write this article as I was afraid of coming across insensitive or opportunistic, but I can assure my readers, that this couldn’t father from the truth. Four years ago to this very day, my own family had lost someone very dear to us through suicide, it was one of the most devastating experiences of my life and the consequences can still be felt within my family today. Furthermore, I am one individual but yet I can count more than on my two hands the amount of people I’ve known who have taken their own lives. I need only look outside my granny’s living room window and point to the houses in our street that have lost loved ones through suicide.
Something that was once taboo has become a stark reality in our society. Let me put it this way, during the period of the Troubles from 1969 to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, more than 3,600 people were killed during the conflict. From 1998-2014, 3,709 people had died through suicide, whilst in 2015, 318 people had committed suicide, of which 33 of these deaths came from West-Belfast. Just over 25% of the total number are aged under-25 and the vast majority are male. These numbers do not even include the deaths through suicide for the year of 2016 – I dread to see the current figure of 4,027 rise even further.
Academics and healthcare professionals have often sought to try to explain this phenomenon in Northern Ireland. Some commentators believe that the legacy of the conflict has had serious consequences on mental health, as the World Health Organisation’s ‘World Mental Health Survey Initiative‘, found that despite Northern Ireland being in times of peace, it has the highest rate of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the world, out-ranking countries in the Middle East who have an ongoing conflict. Studies suggest that behaviours associated with trauma are often passed down through generations even indirectly. Action Mental Health chief executive David Babington, maintains that there exists a strong link between social deprivation, unemployment, legacy issues and a general feeling of hopelessness which is a toxic mix when added to personal problems.
Even though money has been invested into the mental health services in Northern Ireland, the stigma attached to the issue is what inherently prevents people from seeking the help they need. I personally believe that we need to target young people at a school level and integrate mental well-being classes into the curriculum and give it the same status as physical education. It is only then that the culture of ‘just getting on with it‘ diminishes and we learn to be able to speak openly and freely without judgement of appearing weak. In fact, speaking up and reaching out for help is one of the bravest acts someone could do – this is the mentality we should be promoting.
So the ceasefire generation has had it better than their predecessors, or so they tell us. The Good Friday Agreement with all its benefits and peace was supposed to trickle down to our generation but yet it failed miserably to really make a wider impact on the most socially deprived areas in Belfast and Northern Ireland in general. No society is perfect, but you know that there is something fundamentally wrong when in the space of one week 6 young people die from drugs and suicide in a small community. We’ve inherited a society that is stuck in the past and is keen to inflict old wounds on to our generation and the next. The irony that more people have died as a consequence of drugs and suicide in Northern Ireland in the last 19 years of ‘peace’ than during the entire 30+ year period of the Troubles is telling enough.
So what can we do about this now in order to prevent it being a problem for the next generation? The first steps in achieving anything usually start with a conversation.
Here are some useful numbers:
Lifeline: 0808 808 8000
Suicide Awareness and Support Group: 02890239967
Samaritans: 116 123
If anyone ever needs to talk, please don’t hesitate to contact me! 🙂