I was born in Northern Ireland in November 1970. Of all the times at which I could have chosen to be born in Northern Ireland (which of course there weren’t any), November 1970 was probably just about one of the worst. Northern Ireland in 1970 wasn’t a happy place.
My dad was a mature student at Queen’s University in Belfast. My mum I guess tolerated that. And I appeared.
I don’t remember anything about Belfast in the 1970s because within a few years mum and dad returned to the mainland, to live in that cultural Mecca of Watford. A dull commuter town on the outskirts of London that didn’t have troops patrolling the streets or deep rooted sectarian loyalties. But I was always aware that I had been born in Northern Ireland, and Northern Ireland wasn’t a great place to have come from in the South East of England in the 1970s and 80s.
Both of my parents had one English and one Irish parent. My mum’s mother was a Catholic from Tipperary. My dad’s dad was Protestant from Armagh. Grandad Len was from Tottenham, Gran’s family from Finsbury. Sectarianism didn’t make much sense to me. Not even Spurs/Arsenal. I was a Watford fan because we had Graham Taylor.
As a kid I went back to Northern Ireland a couple of times to see my great aunt Sadie. I don’t remember much, just damp, soda bread and soldiers. Throughout my childhood I remember the constant vague threat of bombs in London.
In 1982, Northern Ireland were great at the World Cup. Gerry Armstrong and Pat Rice were Watford players. I couldn’t have been happier.
In my teens I wanted to be Irish. Looking back I guess I wanted a somewhere to call my place of birth. But a few Pogues albums wasn’t the same as national identity.
In 1994 I cheered as Ray Houghton scored against Italy, whilst I was rammed in at the Finsbury Park Tavern, drenched in Guinness. It’s only latterly I’ve realised it’s not the norm to support both North and South
Throughout all of this there was something slightly dangerous about saying that you were born in Belfast when in the rest of the UK. I wouldn’t ever say that I’ve experienced racism, but I have maybe had the slightest inkling of what that might feel like.
And then the Good Friday Agreement happened. And some years on power sharing became a thing in Ulster. Until recently it didn’t, all because of some scandal involving wood chips.
I’ve been to Belfast a few times in the past few years. It makes no sense to me. I was born there, but am not “from” there. But I know that in London today to be someone born in Belfast makes no difference. There’s no spin. It’s just a place. But that’s not always been the case.
It used to be the place that bombers came from. It used to be a place that you wouldn’t go. Today it’s merely a place that most people don’t go because the weather’s a bit crap.
That for me is what 20 years of peace means. That I don’t need to be afraid of telling people about where I was born. It’s just a place.
I’m lucky. My family is lucky. Aunt Sadie once had a bomb in her shop, but she just calmly took it out, put it in the middle of the road, and called the police. Many families weren’t nearly so lucky.
20 years of peace feels vulnerable today, for many reasons. I hope it weathers these storms.