Flags and fences

If I close my eyes and think back I can easily remember the dull throb of helicopters in the sky above our house in Lisburn when I was a child. I feel sad knowing that after many years of radio silence they’re back over Belfast tonight.

After Christmas 2012 my Dad was driving me to the airport to come back to Edinburgh. We were talking about the recent trouble in Belfast and my Dad was offering the very typical shoulder shrug attitude of ‘normal’ people who just want to get on with their lives. And a funny thing occurred to me.

Approaching the airport is a very long stretch of hard shoulder – the only bit of verge along the road to Aldergrove. Cars were parked in the layby with their lights dimmed, waiting for the text to say the plane had landed and they could start the car-park fare stopwatch. I had what I wouldn’t exactly call a flashback – but I saw a tableau in my memory.

“Did we used to get stopped here when I was wee?” I asked Dad out of the blue. Dad paused for a moment before nodding and saying ‘Aye’ but not elaborating.

“Why?” I pressed?

Dad confirmed my memory – it was an army checkpoint, one of many dotted about the Wee Country in the 1980s and early 90s. We regularly travelled that road to get out of the country and make for the hills of Donegal (over the border) when the summer heat brought out the worst in our fellow countrymen and women.

We used to be waved into the layby and a soldier with a big gun slung across his chest would motion for us to join the queue. It wasn’t a random stop and search, everyone had to go through the checkpoint – housed in a big corrugated iron shed structure that stretched across the road.

I remember sitting behind my mum in the back seat and watching my Dad wind down the window of our white Ford Orion (or was it the blue Escort?) and seeing the soldier lean in through the window asking questions. We usually had to open the boot. The whole thing took no more than a few minutes.

I remember the casual way the soldier held his big gun. Not nonchalant, nor threatening – a careful place in between where everyone was safe as long as no one did anything silly.

“Were there border checkpoints too?” I asked Dad, thinking about the number of times we crossed that border, on our way to peace and quiet, part of a tide of similar escapees.

“Not where we crossed [a B-road near Pettigo] – it was a bit risky keeping soldiers all along the border” said Dad darkly.

As a young child it seemed normal to me to have to do this – after all, I’d no parallel universe to compare it to, where you just drove about unbothered.

Now, aged 29 and after almost ten years living in Edinburgh I see it differently. I feel for my parents, especially my Dad who grew up in Belfast in pre-Troubles peacetime. They had to drive and drive to get free of things like helicopters, car searches, handbag searches, roadblocks, joyriders, bombscares and of course the other threat of violence and death that on the surface never seemed to trouble them.

By the time I was old enough to think about anything like that it was pretty much dead in the water. The Good Friday Agreement came along when I was 15 and I remember thinking my history teacher was a bit of a sap back in 1998 as she warbled about the significance of the referendum and the peace process. When the Omagh bomb went off I was numb to it – my relatives in Scotland were appalled and I saw my Mum cry, but to be blunt, for me it was reduced to the everyday, humdrum reality of life in a messed up country. When I think back now the tears seem nearer than ever.

I went on to enjoy five more years of life in Northern Ireland with only sporadic disruption. Bombscares were still common but actual explosions much less so. And we got through a few years of Marching season without any bother, or so it seemed when I was in the middle of it all. I wonder how it looked to people who’d moved away and adapted to life outside the bubble.

Now, from my ivory tower in Edinburgh I feel more strongly about what’s happening back home than I ever did when I was just trying to have a life over there. Friends with young babies were caught in roadblocks and my Mum got held up (delayed, not held up like THAT) while Christmas shopping and our local Church back home got vandalised… it’s really getting to me.

Why? Because I’ve lived a life outside Northern Ireland and I’ve enjoyed the freedom I never knew I was missing, and I want that for my friends and family back in the Wee Country.

At school in Carrickfergus I studied the Poet Robert Frost’s work, and a line from his poem ‘Mending Wall’ has always resonated with me: “Good fences make good neighbours”. Good fences make good neighbours. We need to set our boundaries, and tend to them to maintain good relations.

This clashes with my natural dislike of the barriers, peace walls, interfaces and blockades – the type of fences we see all the time in Northern Ireland – even keeping our children apart so that they know nothing of the ‘other lot’.

Maybe it’s not time to get rid of all the fences we’ve built around ourselves, but perhaps we need to make better ones. The type you could lean on for a chat with your neighbour; not too low so their kids’ football ends up in your fishpond, but not so high that you can’t have a bit of banter on a BBQ day. Maybe? Just a thought.

I don’t want to talk about the flag because it’s obviously not just the flag thats causing everyone such alarm. It’s fear. And fear breeds fear. It won’t be long before the fear spreads and things change again, unless some very clear and positive leadership kicks in Back Home.

I hope I never have to stop my car and have a great big gun poked in my face, or in the face of my (perhaps one day) little daughter.


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