Growing up in Northern Ireland free of the Troubles – a photo essay

luc Baxter plays with his friends Taylor Walker and Corey Neilly in Casual Riots, Shankill’s only hard-rock band. Contrary to what the name suggests, they have no sympathy whatsoever for the rioters from their own neighbourhood. “It’s an ironic name,” says Taylor, the drummer. “We are opposed to all the violence we grew up with.”

The three musicians, all 20, were born after the 1998 peace agreement but learned in their youth that political peace had not put an end to mutual violence and hatred in Belfast. “Violence has decreased dramatically compared to the past,” Taylor says. “But it never went away.” They never took part in the riots themselves, but went to see. “Fathers of friends were arrested,” says Luc. “The worst thing I ever saw was an exploding head of someone who had been hit by a bullet. ero 11 years old then.”

At the beginning of April, the world held its breath. Suddenly they were there again: the images of youths throwing firebombs in Belfast, where a bus went up in flames and 32 officers were injured. The escalating violence evoked memories of the 30-year Troubles. Where did this anger come from?

“It was about 30 teenagers,” says Luc. “They are still in their school uniforms and are being prodded and indoctrinated by their parents. They tell them about what they used to do themselves and what others have done to their family. They trap the youngest. It becomes a lifestyle that is not considered further. On the videos you only saw young people attacking each other. But behind it, out of sight, were the parents clapping. That’s scary, isn’t it? Act like a responsible parent! If it hadn’t been for that wall, people would have been killed.”

Young people have all been touched by history

What does it do to you growing up in a neighbourhood like Shankill Road, which is still separated from the mainly Catholic Falls Road by Belfast’s most famous peace wall? Luc: “You are always told that it is dangerous to cross to the other side. Then you lock yourself up in your own community. I’ve never been to an Irish Catholic neighbourhood. The problem is, you don’t know who to trust until you can talk to people in the community and get to know them.” Guitarist Corey joined a mixed youth support group at age 13. He says: “I thought, now I’m meeting a bad person, now something bad is going to happen. But it wasn’t. Those meetings were very helpful, to integrate and to discover that the mutual prejudices are wrong. They should really do something like that with the parents.”

Brexit as a gamechanger in Northern Ireland

“Everyone in the pro-British camp was mad at Johnson,” Corey says. “We realised we’re not as special as we thought we were. The border in the sea brings a united Ireland closer. The UK now feels further away. We feel isolated and betrayed by the British government.”

The three band members think that especially the older generations fear they are losing the battle and that the dream of their opponents is closer than ever. “We don’t care about a united Ireland,” Taylor says. “We continue to perform and have a beer in the pub. All young people who haven’t been brainwashed too much think so. But when there are protests, it leads to fights. And then we are stuck in the middle.”

Children of the peace

Every young person in Belfast and Derry has been touched in one way or another by the intergenerational trauma of the Troubles. Per esempio, Aisling Doherty, 22, from Derry, grew up with the story that her grandfather Patrick Doherty was murdered in 1972 during Bloody Sunday. “Other family members were also killed in the civil war,” Aisling says. “It’s a legacy I didn’t think much about. I feel like I had a normal childhood. Every year I went to the marches and commemorations without understanding what it was really about. It was only when I discovered that there are separate secondary schools for Protestants and Catholics that I became aware of the political issues in Derry. When I was 18 I went to study political science in order to understand the background of the conflict.”

“A lot of people cling to the Troubles. That undermines how life has improved in Derry. We can go out at night without being checked by the police. It is still a divided society. But for more and more young people it doesn’t matter whether you’re green or blue.’

Aisling thinks a united Ireland is no longer a utopian vision. “We feel like it could really happen right now. Not in the short-term, but within five or 10 anni. Elections will be held in 2022, with Sinn Féin standing a good chance of becoming the largest political party for the first time. And with a nationalist prime minister in the Northern Ireland parliament, a referendum on a united Ireland is one step closer. That prospect will make many unionists feel out of place here.”

More and more young people from both camps seem to have had enough of the mutual hatred and violence of previous generations. They shrug their shoulders at a united Ireland. They find it much more important that an approach is taken to urgent social issues. It is characteristic of this new attitude that a striking number of unionist young people with a British passport now also apply for an Irish passport, so that they can travel and work freely in the European Union again.

Kellen McGill, 18, from Derry, is also most concerned about the social problems in Northern Ireland. “Many people cannot survive on the low salaries they get for a hard day’s work. There should be more jobs with higher salaries. And we need more affordable houses. Homeless people are dying on the streets, while thousands of houses are empty. Being able to live in a house has become a luxury. Isn’t that insane?"

According to Kellen, Brexit was experienced as a violent break with the peace agreements of 1998. “That caused a lot of outrage on both sides. The Irish did not want to be expelled from the EU. Just like the Scots. I am angry that I have to follow the choice of a country that I do not see as my legal representative. Because that’s Ireland. I live in Ireland. I would never say Northern Ireland either. We must obey rules that are not ours.”

Kellen doesn’t rule out new sectarian violence if there is a referendum on a united Ireland, but thinks there is no breeding ground for another war. “People from both sides are doing more to prevent the civil war from returning. I have unionist friends who were raised differently and are more interested in the opinion of the other party. We discuss with respect for each other’s point of view, even if it doesn’t bring us closer together. We must recognise that there are different feelings and interests. You can’t just skip over that. Because then you increase the pain in groups of people. It’s best to be as neutral as possible. But yes, that is almost impossible.”

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