HOME. Although I’ve lived off and on in Scotland for the best part of 40 years now, that word still makes me think of a council house in Coleraine in County Londonderry. Three bedrooms, two sisters, Radio 1, Spacehoppers and football on the green. An eternal 1970s of the mind.

Like WB Yeats, “I am of Ireland.” But the northern bit. I am Northern Irish or so I consider myself even though I’m not sure what I mean by that particularly. In my head the term triggers a reel of fuzzy images: family, friends, the Giant’s Causeway, Mary Peters, Georgie Best, Gerry Armstrong scoring against Spain, the Undertones, Dana, Kenneth Branagh in the days he still had an Ulster accent, Barry McGuigan and Tayto crisps (the ones from Tandragee not the ones from County Meath)

Of course, even by saying I’m Northern Irish rather than Irish I’m declaring that I’m of plantation stock (though the mention of County Londonderry probably gave the game away first), even if these days I’m more of a liberal, lefty, sometime SNP voter.

I grew up in a solidly Unionist town (even though there’s a statue of a Celtic player in the Diamond; Bertie Peacock, who went on to manage Northern Ireland). As a kid back in the 1970s I’d go on the odd Orange march in the summer, until the appeal of comic books and pop music proved more compelling. Childhood for me was Doctor Who, Top of the Pops and Match of the Day.

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But, of course, that is not the whole story. To be Northern Irish is also to know that any “I love the 70s-spacehoppers-and-Radio-1” nostalgia is only viable up to a point.

Northern Ireland is 100 on Monday. A century old. It’s not so very long, really. My grandparents were born before the country was. It’s a reminder of how contingent political structures can be, no matter what Tory MPs might tell you.

HeraldScotland: An anti-Home Rule protest in Coleraine in 1912An anti-Home Rule protest in Coleraine in 1912

It is unlikely to be a happy birthday. The recent riots prompted by loyalist anger over the Northern Ireland Protocol are a reminder of how prone the province is to lurch into spasms of violence.

But then it was ever thus. On May 3, 1921 Northern Ireland was established as a separate entity. In June, George V travelled to Belfast for the state opening of parliament. The next day the IRA blew up a train carrying the King’s infantry, killing four men and 80 horses.

Northern Ireland was birthed in blood. Between the summer of 1920 and the summer of 1922, some 557 people died in violent clashes in the north, the majority Catholics. That bloody beginning set the tone for much of what followed for most of the next 100 years.

The six counties – not the nine of Ulster because the Unionists wanted to ensure a built-in majority of Protestants; a move that also ensured there was a substantial minority of Catholics at odds with the state they had been forced to be part of – saw violence meted out from both sides, a tit-for-tat pattern that would be repeated during the Troubles. That the nascent state survived at all may owe a little to the outbreak of the civil war in the Republic, drawing away IRA attention and guns.

Even so, the state’s existence always had a measure of fragility about it. In 1940, with the Second World War raging, Winston Churchill proposed a declaration in favour of the reunification of Ireland in return for British use of treaty ports only for the then Taoiseach Eamon de Valera to reject the offer.

In the 1950s, the IRA started a bombing campaign in Northern Ireland that lasted into the start of the 1960s. But it was when civil rights marches that began in 1968 (prompted by discrimination against Catholics in employment and housing) were met with baton charges by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, that Northern Ireland tipped towards violence. The Troubles, as they became known, were about to begin.

HeraldScotland: John Hume at Free Derry Corner in the Bogside neighbourhood of Derry/LondonderryJohn Hume at Free Derry Corner in the Bogside neighbourhood of Derry/Londonderry

I was five in 1968. My childhood and teens were lived out against the white noise of the Troubles. I didn’t live in Belfast or Derry or on the border. There were no barricades at the end of our road. We lived out a normal childhood of playing in the streets. No petrol bombs were involved.

But my dad, a bricklayer by trade, had been a soldier and he eventually joined the part-time Ulster Defence Regiment. Every morning I’d see him take a cursory look under the car for bombs. On patrol in June 1982 a 500lb landmine exploded as his vehicle passed. Thankfully, no one was killed.

But so many were. More than 3,500. Catholics and Protestants, policemen and paramilitaries, soldiers, prison officers and civilians. Nightclubbers going dancing, Mothers out for a day’s shopping in Belfast city centre, kids playing in the streets. Collateral damage.

Bloody Sunday, Bloody Friday, Loughlinisland, La Mon, Ballykelly, Greysteel, Enniskillen, Omagh, Warrenpoint. A litany of names that are bywords for atrocities.

Coleraine was largely untouched. But now and again the Troubles would make themselves known. On June 12, 1973, a month before my 10th birthday, two car bombs were set off in Coleraine, killing six people and injuring 33. Almost two decades later – long after I’d left – another bomb destroyed the town centre.

You could live a normal life in parts of Northern Ireland even at the worst times. But fear was always present.

I left for university in Scotland in September 1982. When fellow students asked me questions about Northern Ireland, I had nothing to say. What was there to say? It was a horror show.

The story of those years is the story of political failure by all sides. Now and again the words of the grieving cut through, as when Gordon Wilson spoke about holding the hand of his dying daughter Marie in the rubble of the Enniskillen bombing on November 8, 1987, during the annual wreath-laying at the war memorial. But the killing continued.

HeraldScotland: Last month's riotsLast month's riots

In 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down and eastern Europe felt the winds of change, Northern Ireland stuck rigidly, doggedly to its course. In it for the duration, you could say.

And then a chink of light arrived in the 1990s. First there was an IRA ceasefire in 1994 after talks between Sinn Fein and the SDLP’s leader John Hume (the man, who, more than any other, was the architect of the peace, however imperfect, we’ve had for the last generation). It lasted 17 months while talks between Dublin, London and Belfast continued. Then, citing the refusal to allow Sinn Fein into the talks, the IRA detonated a huge bomb in London’s Docklands on February 9, 1996.

Still, peace talks continued and eventually led to the Good Friday Agreement, or the Belfast Agreement, signed on April 10, 1998, a watershed moment in a country sick of and exhausted by violence. Or so you’d think. Less than three months after its signing the Omagh bombing killed 29 people.

Across the North Channel the moment I remember best from that time was U2’s Bono raising aloft the arms of John Hume and UUP leader David Trimble at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast during the Concert for Yes ahead of the referendum on the Belfast Agreement.


“Two men who have taken a leap of faith out of the past and into the future,” Bono declared.

Looking on from a distance it felt like something was shifting. A few days later 71 per cent voted in the referendum in favour of the agreement.

A decade later, on July 3, 2008 the Swedish furniture giant IKEA opened its first store in Northern Ireland. Two of the first people through the door were the Reverend Ian Paisley, then Northern Ireland’s First Minister, and Sinn Fein’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. They were pictured sitting together on an IKEA sofa laughing. “Here they were now, leaders of once militant republicanism and truculent loyalism, pacified and domesticated, endorsing a determinedly apolitical and nakedly consumerist brand identity,” academics Greg McLaughlin and Stephen Baker wrote in their 2010 book The Propaganda of Peace.

I remember the cognitive dissonance of that image roiling in my head. How was it possible after what had been happening in Northern Ireland – much of it prompted by these two men – over the previous four decades? And if it was possible, why had it taken so long?


In the subsequent years Northern Ireland changed. Belfast took on the look of a modern European city. An increase in tourism was one of the peace benefits. More recently the success of Game of Thrones, which was partly filmed in Northern Ireland, has boosted that further. And why not. It’s a beautiful place, full of friendly people.

But the Stormont executive has always been an unstable, fractious political entity and in some ways for all the good it did, the Good Friday Agreement cemented the orange and green divisions in Northern Ireland at a political level.

Into the 21st century there have been suspensions, there have been arguments over policing and Orange marches and paramilitary commemorations and signs in the Irish language. Still, for more than 20 years people in Northern Ireland were able to live without the threat of car bombs and assassinations (not that riots or shootings have ever completely disappeared).

In those years, a new generation emerged, many of them looking beyond the orange or the green for their politics. A new generation perhaps best represented by the journalist Lyra McKee who was shot and killed by the New IRA in 2019 in Derry. McKee was a journalist and an LGBT activist in a country that was socially and politically conservative.

HeraldScotland: Lyra McKeeLyra McKee

“The Ceasefire Babies was what they called us,” McKee wrote of her generation in 2016. “Those too young to remember the worst of the terror because we were either in nappies or just out of them when the Provisional IRA ceasefire was called… We were the Good Friday agreement generation, destined to never witness the horrors of war but to reap the spoils of peace. The spoils just never seemed to reach us.”

And that’s the ongoing problem. The truth is that the financial crash in 2008 and the subsequent years of austerity ensured that for many nothing changed in the poorest areas of Northern Ireland and as a result the paramilitaries retained their grip.

John Hume once famously said “you can’t eat a flag,” and it’s true. But you can wrap yourself up in it and kid yourself on that you feel warm.

As we close in on the centenary the politics of place in Northern Ireland remain turbulent. As I write this the DUP, currently the largest Unionist party (although support is slipping),has just seen the resignation of leader Arlene Foster and looking as if it’s about to lurch even further to the right.

In the last 100 years unionism has never quite learned the lesson that it can’t trust Conservative politicians. Again and again, it has been betrayed by Tories more interested in their own political situation than that of unionism.

But then unionism is not, on the whole, good at learning lessons. It remains rigid, unbending while the world changes around it. Given that the DUP was born out of evangelical Christianity, that’s not really surprising. (Indeed, Foster’s abstention on a gay conversion therapy vote may have had a bearing on her resignation.)

But it means unionists claim a desire to be part of the United Kingdom and yet are unwilling to take onboard how far the rest of the UK has moved away from its fundamentalist outlook.

And now comes Brexit. Northern Ireland voted against leaving the EU the EU IN 2016, but loyalists are now angry that because of the Northern Ireland Protocol (signed off by Boris Johnson after he promised that there would be no sea border), their position as part of the UK is under threat. That’s more projection than reality. But fear is all violence needs sometimes.

Johnson’s Westminster government has been keen to talk up the possibilities of the Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland. And maybe there is something in that.

Joe O’Neill, chief executive of Belfast Harbour, has recently stated that “Northern Ireland now has a unique proposition in terms of capability and capacity to serve both marketplaces with a minimal administrative burden.”

Whether Northern Irish politicians wedded to the orange or the green are able to lift their heads and see that remains to be seen.


But life goes on in the province. Couples marry – even same-sex couples marry now; Robyn Peoples and Sharni Edwards, were the first when they tied the knot in February last year – babies are born. When the Covid restrictions lift, people will flock to the north coast, to Portrush and Portstewart, my childhood playgrounds, at the first sign of good weather.

I was seven when Northern Ireland celebrated its 50th birthday, against a background of terrorist violence and the imminent arrival of internment. Now, as the country celebrates its centenary, there is (rather overheated) talk of reunification polls.

Northern Ireland has existed in a state somewhere between dream and nightmare for much of the last century. A dream of normality constantly overshadowed by the reality of its violent politics.

The past is alive in Northern Ireland. It’s there on gable walls in the shape of William of Orange or Free Derry. The future is the prize though. One day that might be remembered.