In tonight’s blog, Freelance Investigative Journalist Lyra McKee gives us an insight into her life growing up in North Belfast, her thoughts on the recent SDLP row regarding Justin Cartright and the constitutional debate – and her hopes for the future.
Growing up on an interface during a conflict – even one that’s fading – means your childhood was not normal. North Belfast was a difficult place to be during the 90s. Knowing where to go and where not to go was a matter of life and death. At 8 years old, I knew that venturing too far down Manor Street was a risk; one of the surviving Shankill Butchers was rumoured to live there. Three streets up was Rosapenna St, where loyalists would drive down from a nearby road that connected the Oldpark to the Shankill. I was banned from going there after my Mum saw a young father murdered.
I lived with the same fears as the other kids. We knew there were certain adults in the street we were to never talk back to. If our football landed in their garden, we ran.
I remember one individual, in particular, who frightened children and adults alike. We were warned to not upset him because “people who argue with him go missing.”
As I’m typing this, I wonder if my mind has invented it all. I know it hasn’t. I’m 24 next month. In 16 years, Northern Ireland has come so far. The contrast between 2014 and 1998 is so stark that the old days don’t feel real.
Yet not everyone has moved on. There was uproar this week over an Australian SDLP candidate, Justin Cartwright, who described himself as an “economic Unionist.” in an interview. The Irish News was the first to swoop in for the kill followed by he of Landrover surfing fame, Gerry Kelly, whose only comment was that Justin was clearly not an Irish Nationalist.
The argument, as it went on Twitter, was that the SDLP is a party whose main goal is a united Ireland. Sadly, Kelly and the SDLP – who made it clear to the Irish News that Justin had been reprimanded – didn’t seem to realise that they were the ones missing the point.
As I said, I’m nearly 24. I’m from a mixed religion family but was baptised Catholic and grew up in a Republican area. I’m the kind of voter Sinn Fein might target. Yet I won’t vote for them or for the SDLP. While they bicker with Unionists and worry about a United Ireland, I’m worried about paying this month’s bills. Work is hard to come by. The cost of education – at undergrad and Masters level – is so high that the door has practically been closed on working-class young people. If it wasn’t for one regular part-time gig, I wouldn’t be able to put myself through university. I’ve had to adjust to a world in which there is no job security. Meanwhile, the politicians who supposedly represent me are arguing about a constitutional issue I have absolutely no interest in.
The Good Friday Agreement has created a new generation of young people, freed from the cultural constraints and prejudices of the one before. It used to be that being a Unionist or Nationalist was an accident of birth. You didn’t decide whether you were for the Union or not; the decision was made for you. Your friends were drawn from your own kind.
Looking at my own social circle, it’s clear how times have changed. One of my oldest friends is a DUP voting Orangeman who marches every 12th of July. Another friend is a former loyalist paramilitary who has tried to make a new life for himself. Another is a former Provisional IRA member who has done the same. Rounding this motley group off is my friend Declan (not his real name), a policeman from a staunchly Republican family.
Just 15 years ago, it would have been unthinkable for someone like me to have such an eclectic friendship group. It would have been unthinkable for someone like Declan to join the police. Whilst our politicians debate issues connected to the past, we have moved on.
So I welcomed Justin’s comments. For me, that he considered himself an “economic Unionist” wasn’t significant. What was significant was his willingness to campaign on issues that are actually affecting our society. It was an acknowledgement of what most voters are thinking: the constitutional debate is irrelevant. It doesn’t pay the bills. It doesn’t get new laws passed. It doesn’t improve life in Northern Ireland in any tangible way.
Whilst I saw the tail-end of the conflict, I didn’t see enough to make me bitter towards “the other side”. I saw enough that peace and moving forward seemed like the only options. Most children of the GFA generation – those born after 1998 or who were relatively young when the Agreement was signed – saw no conflict at all. Slowly, a common consensus is emerging, the belief that the Union vs a United Ireland argument should be left to die. It’s holding us back. It reminds us of days past.
I don’t want a United Ireland or a stronger Union. I just want a better life.