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The Northern Ireland Conflicts took place between 1969 and 1994, but their effects are still felt today for many of the people in Northern Ireland. The armed conflicts started over whether Northern Ireland was constitutionally part of the United Kingdom or should be part of the Republic of Ireland with the southern half. Members of the majority Protestant community favored being a part of Britain, while minority Catholics wanted to become one Ireland with the south. The Civil Rights movement tried to end the discrimination against the minority Catholics, but ultimately failed, leading to the armed conflicts, which left 3,500 people dead, an estimated 50,000 injured, and thousands of people imprisoned. The conflict was supposed to end when a ceasefire was declared in 1994, but this did not actually do anything to resolve the issues that had started the violence. Even though Northern Ireland was now supposedly at peace, the people had spent so much time using violence to get their way, that the use of force was still locally used to solve problems. (Jarman 2011) These ideas of violence and conflict are what change the childhoods of children in Northern Ireland. In the 1980s, people, including children, had to undergo body checks when entering large stores in order to prevent bombs from being smuggled in. Also, to prevent car bombings, city centers were often closed off to traffic or else cars could be parked but never left unattended. Thus, children were left in the cars while parents shopped as, “a living symbol that their car at least does not contain a bomb.” (Cairns 1987) Growing up in a world where you are used as a pawn to show there isn’t a bomb in your car or being searched when all you needed was some new clothes, would be enough to change anyone’s views of childhood.
More than just psychologically damaging to the children of Northern Ireland is what most people seem to wish to block from their minds; the physical harm placed on children. People seem to want to forget that children were also present during many of the violent conflicts between the Irish and the British troops because, “It has been said that the greatest taboo subject of our modern technological age is death, particularly the death of a child.” (Cairns 1987) However, this lack of understanding may also come from the fact that it is extremely difficult to find information on the child victims of the conflicts because, “despite the fact that the Northern Irish conflict is perhaps one of the most intensely reported, most closely studied conflicts ever, no one knows exactly how many children have died, how many have been maimed, and how many injured.” (Cairns 1987) It is unknown even who the first child victim of the conflict was. Was it the five-year-old girl killed in February 1971 when she was killed by a passing army vehicle or was she just in an accidental traffic accident? Such accidents were extremely common at the time because there were so many British troops and their vehicles roaming the streets of Northern Ireland. So if not her, then perhaps the 17-month-old girl in September 1971 who was shot during an attack on an army patrol in Belfast. Either way, who is to blame for these young deaths who had no idea what was even going on around them? The British army for opening fire when children were nearby or the Irish for attacking the army in the first place? An example of this blame game is the case of Brian Stewart. He was 13-years-old when he was shot in the head by a rubber bullet and he died six days later. The British army claimed they had been stopping a riot, but local residents claimed that there was no rioting during the time Brian was shot. Ever since Brian’s mother has been trying to punish the British government for breaching the human rights convention by using rubber bullets as riot control weapons. Unfortunately, like with many cases in Northern Ireland, most victims, including Brian, are soon forgotten by all except their immediate families because there are new deaths every day. (Cairns 1987)
It took until 2010 for the British government to finally recognize its crimes. This was done during the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, which took twelve years to finish. The following map was used in the Sunday Times to help readers understand the events of Bloody Sunday during the trials that later followed. (Mullan 1997)
On the morning of Sunday, January 30, 1972, 10,000 people gathered in Derry for a civil rights march. However, they found their originally intended path blocked by British military barricades, so they devised a new route. Many took the new route towards Free Derry, which was the ethnic neighborhood of the Catholics within the city of Derry, but some continued on towards the military barricades. Locals threw stones at the police, who then fired back with a water cannon. Once the rioters began to disperse, the military police received orders to arrest as many rioters as possible. In the next few minutes, the conflicts between Northern Ireland and Britain came into full blast. British troops opened fire on the dispersing crowd, killing 13 men and injuring 13 others. The thematic map in Figure 1 above shows that the rioters were dispersing, but the British troops followed them and gunned them down, leaving 13 dead, eight of whom were under the age of 20, and still considered children to the community. The British army maintained that they had been under attack, but the people of Derry knew that it was murder. The British government declared a tribunal, but the first trial placed blame on the victims, saying they had been carrying bombs and guns. However, the people of Derry did not let the matter rest and in 1998 another trial was held, lasting 12 years, but the 2010 report laid the blame upon the British military and exonerated the Irish victims.
The people of Derry now remember the terrible events of Bloody Sunday by painting their walls with images of the day or messages of hope for the world to heal, as shown in Figure 2. They also have a large sign in their town center explaining the events of Free Derry’s tragic history. The people of Northern Ireland will never forget the things they went through during the conflicts because it is too much of a part of their history.
However, even once the peace treaty was technically passed in 1998, there were still problems with public disorder and rioting between the Protestant and Catholic peoples. Young people were often prominent in these because they had grown up believing that the violence they had seen was normal. They saw rioting against others as a legitimate way of working out issues because they had grown up watching adults fighting the British police forces. During the early years of the peace process, young people were encouraged to join the adults in the streets and recreational rioting became a normal occurrence. Youths became a nuisance and were soon the most problematic of the Northern Ireland people. The community activists, who were there to ease tensions between the Protestants and Catholics often found themselves being youth aides to the rebellious youths instead. (Jarmon 2011) The population composition had once been focused on Protestants vs. Catholics, but was gradually turning to youths vs. adults.
The out-of-control youths of Northern Ireland were used to the conflicts because they not only affected their family lives but also their education. In the 1970s, when the bombings of Northern Ireland were at their peak, people found that the military would respond to any bomb threat, even when one was not actually there. Soon, every public building, including schools had evacuation plans in place for just such a threat. Once children discovered this, they figured they had found a new way to get out of exams. All they had to do was dial the school’s number and threaten to have a bomb placed inside. This would happen sometimes multiple times a day, but fortunately, these tactics have died down in most of Northern Ireland. (Cairns 1987)
Now the only problem facing the Northern Ireland education system is between the Protestants and the Catholics. Officially, there are two educational systems, the controlled sector, and the voluntary sector, but everyone there knows that this is really the separation of Protestants from Catholics. The controlled sector is financed and controlled completely by the Northern Ireland government, whereas the voluntary sector is partially financed from taxpayer funds while 15 percent must be found from other funds. In reality, the controlled sector is 100 percent Protestant, while the voluntary sector is Catholic. (Cairns 1987) This works mostly because of the gated communities built during the conflicts creating residential segregation among the Catholics and Protestants. In order to protect themselves from each other, the Catholics and Protestants living on different sides of the cities would build walls between their communities that would be locked or guarded at all times. Thus, the need for each section to have their own activity spaces, including stores, schools, and other necessities of life. Now, the gates are no longer locked, but the Protestants and Catholics still live on their separate sides of the walls within their different neighborhoods.
Much like the people of Derry, the Protestants and Catholics decided that some good should come from their tragic pasts. Even though the walls and gates are no longer guarded, they still stand tall throughout much of Northern Ireland. The people now use the walls for political messages or for messages of hope, so that the world and their people will learn from the many tragedies it faces, such as shown in Figure 3.
The Northern Ireland conflicts lead to many problems for the education and childhoods of its youth, but since the end of the violence, Northern Ireland has learned from its terrible past. Things still are not perfect, since the peace treaties never actually addressed the real underlying problems between Catholics and Protestants within Northern Ireland, but at least now the people of Northern Ireland are learning to use their political voices, instead of their violent hands. My conclusion is that as Northern Ireland continues to learn from the past, it will create a brighter future for their youth and generations to come. While there are still differences between the Catholics and Protestants, they have learned to live in peace and use correct political channels when needed. Hopefully, today’s youth will see these changes in combination with the memorials of the past and grow up in a much different world than when the conflicts were in full blast.
Bloody Sunday. In History. Retrieved June 16, 2016, from BBC.
Cairns, E. (1987). Caught in crossfire: Children and the Northern Ireland conflict (pp. 23-119). Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
Fouberg, E. et al. Human Geography: people, place, and culture, 10th Edition, Wiley, 2012.
Jarman, N. (2011). Community-based restorative justice in Northern Ireland. In J. S. Hoffman, L. Knox, & R. Cohen (Eds.), Beyond Suppression (pp. 103-113). Denver, CO: Praeger.
Massacre at Derry. In CAIN. Retrieved June 16, 2016, from CAIN.
Mullan, D. (1997). Bloody Sunday massacre in Northern Ireland: The eyewitness accounts (pp. 277-279). Niwot, CO: Roberts Rinehart Publishers.