PEACE – More than a word
As Northern Ireland prepares to mark 25 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, Joe Coulter reflects on his experiences and understandings of growing up in a largely peaceful society
The following is a reflexive and personal account of the importance of peace in my life growing up in Northern Ireland. I want to share my appreciation and understanding of peace and how this has shaped the formative stages of my life as we now, in 2023, mark twenty-five years of The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland.
On May 1st 1963, my father was born into what would soon be known as a troubled Northern Ireland. Completely unaware of what was impending, my grandmother, cradling her newborn son, watched on her mono colour television the coverage of President John F. Kennedy’s first visit to Ireland on the last four days of June 1963. Twenty-eight years later, the last four days of June were also about to become memorable for my father as he himself was set to become a parent for the first time. I was born on June 30th 1991 into what would soon be known as a peaceful Northern Ireland.
One of my earliest memories as a child was, as a four-year-old, walking between my mother and grandfather to a peace march in Armagh City. It was the winter of 1995 and I vividly remember the feeling of the cold air hitting my face as I was wrapped up in my winter clothes while we walked alongside a large crowd of people. At the time, I was unaware of the significance of such events. In 1998, another event, ‘A Gathering for Peace’, again took place in Armagh City, where President Clinton gave a public address to the people of Northern Ireland. This was a monumental occasion, marking the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, which had been achieved earlier that year. During his address, President Clinton made reference to the magnificent cathedrals of the two main religious traditions which dominate the landscape and stand in harmony on opposite hills and, using a metaphor from a poem by John Donne, he said ‘when the bells of Armagh toll…. they ring out to people everywhere in the world who long for peace and freedom and dignity. That is your gift’. I was also present at this event, this time as a seven-year-old, with my grandfather. The massive backdrop behind President Clinton was an enlarged segment of a photograph taken at the peace march that I had been to three years earlier in 1995. On this backdrop, my young face could be clearly seen with the word ‘PEACE’ etched across it. This was one of the photographs used for the media coverage of the Presidential visit and I remember for a short time becoming famous among my school friends and teachers because of it. The word peace had become indelible both on a photograph, and in my mind, and became a meaningful part of my formative years growing up in Northern Ireland. A number of years later I was able to obtain a copy of the original 1998 photograph (see above) and today it sits proudly on my desk.
Talking to my father about our two different journeys being born twenty-eight years apart, he reflects on the abnormally normal way of life in Northern Ireland, characterised by searches entering shops, public venues and the nightly news stories of violence on the television. In essence, he talked about living a life in fear. Growing up in a more peaceful Northern Ireland is, by contrast, all that I have known. I studied at the first integrated school in Northern Ireland and, during my time there, I realised what mattered most were our individual and group friendships, irrespective of different religious or cultural backgrounds. It felt that, as young people, we were on a path of peace and did not want to ever return to the fear that the generations before endured. At times along the way, it has been a tentative journey, but now as we recognize the 25th year of the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, I will forever feel indebted to those who worked tirelessly to make sure that my generation could live in a more peaceful Northern Ireland.
The word peace has, therefore, a special significance for me; it is truly more than a word. The lettering was etched on my young face in 1998 and is a word I am wedded to. It has become part of who I am, an identity forged and shaped by the good-willed intentions of people who hoped for something better. I can live a normal life, free from those everyday fears that previous generations were burdened with. Today, I am reassured about the future while also acutely aware of our society’s transition from conflict to peace. Northern Ireland’s peace process has had a positive impact not only on my life but also on the lives of people around the world. Indeed, it has become a model for conflict resolution in other countries. I am living a life of peace for which I am eternally grateful but I will never take for granted.
I want to conclude by reflecting on the words of President Clinton from ‘A Gathering for Peace’, referred to earlier:
“Here there have been difficulties, as elsewhere, but the historic streets of this old town remind us of a fundamental fact about your community: Armagh literally encircles its many traditions in a single community. That is what Northern Ireland must do if you want the future of peace and prosperity that belongs to the children in this crowd tonight.”
The featured image by Kevin Lamarque has been used courtesy of an Alamy license.